When Kevin Morgan stays up late, he uses a tried and tested strategy to survive.
His work area is well lit, he often comes in for a snack in the middle of the night, and takes a 90-minute nap before going to work. It also makes sure that there is enough ground coffee available.
A sleep scientist’s nightmare? Not quite. Ask the scientist.
Is it possible to function well on little sleep?
Morgan is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Clinical Sleep Research Unit at Loughborough University, UK.
Although sleep scientists don’t advocate working through the night, the professor says there are some advantages.
«At night there are fewer distractions,» he says. «You can control your environment.»
Advisable or not, sleepless nights are a part of life for many of us.
A 2008 study by researchers at St Lawrence University in New York found that 60% of students surveyed had stayed up all night at least once since they started school.
The practice is not limited to students burning eyelashes for exams. It is common among professors, executives, and people whose work demands unconventional hours.
Asleep on the dinner plate
Paul Haswell, a partner at Hong Kong international law firm Pinsent Masons, is not a fan of sleepless nights, even though they are sometimes unavoidable.
«I don’t think I or my team will be more effective if we don’t get enough sleep,» he says.
In addition, staying up all night can also wreak havoc in one’s personal life, as discovered over dinner after an all-nighter as a beginning lawyer.
«I was absolutely exhausted, but I couldn’t bring myself to cancel the appointment as I had planned months before myself,» he says. «I ended up falling asleep during the entrance. I woke up with my head on the table and a waiter explained to me that my partner had left upset.
«I never saw the lady in question again!»
Consequences for the organism
Scientific research maintains that poor sleep habits are harmful to our health and well-being.
The St Lawrence University study found that the graduations obtained by students who had never stayed up were 7% higher than those of students who stayed up all night.
People who sleep less than six hours a night are more likely to develop impaired fasting glucose (a condition that precedes type 2 diabetes), according to work by researchers at New York University at Buffalo in 2009.
And a sleepless night can lead to short-term euphoria and decreased decision-making ability, according to scientists at the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Medical School (2011).
Yet many of us continue to work through the night. What can we do to stay productive through the wee hours of the morning and up and running the next day? Here are some tips from the experts.
Professor Charles Czeisler, a specialist at Harvard Medical School, advises taking a nap if you already know you won’t be going to bed that night.
«If we take a nap in the middle of the afternoon, the drop in performance that normally occurs as we continue to work will be much less,» Czeisler says.
«Try to ‘save some sleep’ and get the necessary hours of sleep most nights,» adds Morgan. «Don’t allow unnecessary sleep debt to accumulate throughout your life and this will help you when you occasionally have to work nights.»
«Protein keeps us alert,» advises Paula Mee, a Dublin-based dietitian, nutrition consultant and broadcaster.
«The night before staying up, enjoy a protein-rich meal, such as a chicken breast or salmon cutlet. Too many carbohydrates can make us drowsy.»
«There’s no need for another full meal overnight, our bodies have reserves for events like these,» Mee says. «But in the middle of the night, you could have a high-protein snack, maybe some nuts and seeds, to keep you alert.»
Work in an environment with good lighting
«Light is a wakefulness signal for our biological clock, telling us it’s time to be awake and active,» says Dr. Joëlle Adrien, a neurobiologist and director of research at France’s national institute for Health and Medical Research.
But make sure the lighting is the right color.
«Research shows that bluish light, like a blue LED light, will keep you more awake,» says Adrien. «Yellow light is not good for stabilizing awake. It relaxes us, so you should avoid it if you want to work all night.»
Plan your night tasks
Our cognitive ability will decline as we work through the night, leaving us less able to perform tasks that require information processing, Morgan notes.
«Break tasks into two categories: cognitive, which require reasoning and data processing, and tasks that are more routine, like formatting a paper,» he says.
«First, do the cognitive tasks. You want your data to be correct. The more routine and less refined tasks should be done later, such as formatting a document,» he adds.
Caffeine reduces the effects of adenosine, a chemical produced by humans that makes us feel tired.
«Drink caffeine strategically,» says Czeisler, who advises drinking a cup of coffee at hourly intervals throughout the night.
Our body temperature drops to its lowest level around 03:00 and 04:00. «You won’t be distracted by the cold,» says Morgan.
«So make sure the room temperature is comfortable. I always have a coat handy.»
Take a nap the next morning
«Once you’re done with your homework, say around 8:00, send the email and then go to bed for 90 to 100 minutes, which is long enough to allow us to have a full sleep cycle,» says Dr. specialist.
«This should be enough to keep you going all day, but not for driving, so never drive the day after you’ve stayed up.»
And go to bed early that night, he adds: «You should be able to get back to your normal routine pretty easily.»
Just say no…..
«Tell your boss it’s unreasonable to work all night,» advises Adrien when unexpectedly staying up all night.
«Lack of sleep has a very strong impact on your health. Of course, you may have to be diplomatic and say fine, just this once, but not again. Just tell your boss no.»