The Healthy Girls' Guide To Pulling An All-Nighter

Pointers for all-nighter wakefulness and effectiveness.
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Publish date:
September 23, 2014
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health, wellness, hydration, healthy eating, college week, all-nighter, sleep deprivation, studying

As a masterful procrastinator, I’m all too familiar with one of the inevitable byproducts: The all-nighter. In college, I couldn’t bring myself to study unless I felt the mild sense of panic and adrenaline that came with the realization that a final exam was 24 hours away. I’d hit the Dr. Pepper hard, plow through Bagel Bites and gummy bears (hard to fall asleep with all that chewing!), and wind up feeling jittery, unfocused, and sweaty. By some miracle, I always made it to the test and did pretty well, but this routine undoubtedly did a number on my health over time.

Pretty much everything about pulling an all-nighter is a big eff-you to your body. Depriving yourself of sleep makes it incredibly hard for your brain to concentrate, think creatively, or form memories you’ll need to call upon later (i.e., all those facts and figures you crammed in there overnight). As if the stress of an upcoming exam isn’t enough, your body’s lack of sleep causes the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, making you feel even more fried. All-nighters are a smackdown on your body’s immune cells too, so you’re more susceptible to getting sick the following few days.

There’s really no way to make pulling an all-nighter a healthy choice (duh). So plan ahead, space out your study sessions, and get some sleep!

For those instances when an all-nighter is unavoidable, I have a few recommendations. Stick to these and you’ll find it easier to stay awake, work more efficiently, and not feel like death the next day.

1. Water and yerba mate will serve you better than coffee and Red Bull

Hydration is HUGE for staying alert and productive, so my number one recommendation is drink lots of cold water. Aim for at least two giant glasses of ice water an hour. Dehydration makes you feel groggy and leads to pounding headaches and overeating (thirst is often mistaken for hunger). Bonus: drinking tons of water forces you to get up and go to the bathroom often. It’s hard to nod off when you have to pee.

It seems counterintuitive to lay off caffeine when you want to stay up all night, but this is a case where more is NOT better. After the temporary buzz wears off, strong cups of coffee, caffeinated sodas, and energy drinks ultimately lead to an ugly energy crash. You’ll feel more tired than you did before the big dose of caffeine. Total backfire. Energy drinks come with the added concerns of heart palpitations, body tremors, and increased blood pressure.

Instead, I recommend sipping a low-caffeine tea, along with your glass of cold water. Slow and steady caffeine intake is better for long-term energy and alertness, unlike the shaky, wired feeling that comes with guzzling a strong pot of coffee or a Red Bull. Try green tea or yerba mate, a South American tea-like drink that’s slightly more caffeinated. Guayaki is the mostly widely available brand.

And if you drink caffeinated drinks daily (meaning the low-dose stuff may not be as noticeable for you), try Runa organic teas, which are made from guayusa, naturally caffeinated Amazonian tree leaves. Sounds fancy, but a box of 16 tea bags is the same price as just two venti iced coffees from Starbucks. Bonus: green tea, yerba mate, and guayusa all have an impressive antioxidant content!

2. Snack on protein and cold, crunchy foods

Since sustained energy is the name of the game, your number-one nemesis is processed sugar- and carb-filled food. Pizza, potatoes, pretzels, cookies, candy, rice, chips, and most crackers are high on the glycemic index, meaning they’ll quickly raise your blood sugar and just as quickly send it (and you) crashing down. Carbs also prompt the release of sleep-inducing serotonin…the ol’ “carb coma.”

Focus on protein-packed foods for sustained energy, and the naturally occurring sugar found in whole fruit for a little boost. Think hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt, smoked salmon, grilled chicken, nuts, and seeds. (I like pistachios and sunflower seeds--shelling them is a good low-key activity to keep you from nodding off.) Low-carb fruits like berries, oranges, clementines, and apples are great all-nighter sidekicks, too.

Rather than eat meals, nibble throughout the night. Your body uses a lot of energy during the digestion process, so eating light means you’ll feel less sloth-like and have more energy to put towards concentrating on your mountain of work.

Also key to not passing out on your desk: no warming comfort food. Forget about soup, ramen, or any dish that feels cozy. Cold and crunchy is best. Frozen grapes, celery with nut butter, and jicama sticks with some salted, mashed avocado (my personal fave!) will do you right.

3. Crank down your A/C and take five-minute exercise breaks

Your body responds to warm environments the same way it does to warming, carb-laden foods: yay, naptime!

Keep the A/C as low as you can stand it, and turn on every light. When you start to feel so drowsy you can barely hold up your head, splash some cold water on your face or take a quick, cold shower. Chilly temperatures constrict your blood vessels, forcing you to breathe deeper and take in more oxygen. You’ll feel sharper and refreshed, maybe enough to sail through the rest of the night and early morning.

Finally, take breaks! Brief breaks make you more productive. A couple times an hour--or as soon as you feel yourself getting too groggy to function--get up and dance like a fool, do jumping jacks, or whatever physical activity you like for five minutes. A quick bout of exercise not only gets your heartbeat up, keeps the blood flowing, and clears your mind, it makes it easier to focus and retain information when you get back to studying.

Do my fellow procrastinators out there have any all-nighter success stories or tips to share?