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How To Stay Awake After an All-Nighter, According to Science

You’re about to pull an all-nighter and still need to have energy the next day — here’s how to optimize your all-nighter and manage the day after.
Published
2022-09-01
Updated
21 MINS
Woman sitting at desk at night reading her tablet with cup in hand ready to pull an all-nighter

Sleep experts do not recommend staying awake all night. After all, who wants to feel drowsy, irritable, and have difficulty concentrating the next day?

But we also understand that sometimes all-nighters are unavoidable. For instance, rushing for an urgent work deadline or caring for a sick child into the wee hours. Under such circumstances, you’ll want to or need to stay awake the next day and maybe even perform well, but how?

While the number one goal after staying up all night should be to begin paying down sleep debt, incidentally and perhaps counterintuitively, the best way to do this is by staying awake the next day (with one exception, as we'll go on to explain). Fortunately, there are science-backed ways to make staying awake after an all-nighter easier and even boost your energy for that make-or-break sales presentation or important family obligation.

Ahead, we share what you should do before, during, and after an all-nighter for that much-needed dose of wakefulness.

What Happens When You Pull an All-Nighter?

We’ll look at what happens when you stay up all night and awake the following day using the Two Laws of Sleep. If you’re new to this theory, it’s based on the two-process model of sleep, the dominant scientific theory that explains how sleep “works” and was first established by sleep scientist Alexander Borbély in the 1980s.

The Two Laws are:

  • Sleep debt (part of sleep homeostasis, more commonly known as sleep drive), and
  • Circadian rhythm (the internal body clock) 

So, what happens to your sleep debt and body clock when you pull an all-nighter, then stay awake the next day?

Sleep Debt 

If you stay awake all night as well as the following day (or approximately 36 hours — the so-called second phase of sleep deprivation), your sleep debt (the amount of sleep you’ve missed relative to your sleep need, measured across 14 days) will be well in excess of the 5-hour threshold at which you're more or less functioning optimally. This will especially be the case if you carried sleep debt into the all-nighter. (The math: if you started your all-nighter with say 3 hours of sleep debt and missed your regular 8 hours of sleep, you’re now bogged down by 11 hours of sleep debt that you’ll need to pay back.)

But how does sleep debt make itself known physiologically? One way is through adenosine, a sleep-inducing chemical.

During wakefulness, adenosine accumulates in your brain to build up sleep pressure, which is released during sleep. Not meeting your sleep need means your brain doesn’t go through the full adenosine purge. (How much sleep do you need? Learn more here.)

Excess adenosine in your system equals sleep debt. Unsurprisingly, you feel way groggier than usual the morning after your all-nighter. Not to mention struggle with low energy levels (although there are ways to make the best of this, as you’ll see later).

Sleep debt also does a number on your cognitive functions. As sleep expert Matthew Walker explains in Why We Sleep, “the recycle rate of a human being” is about 16 hours, after which “the brain begins to fail.” Sleep resets this recycle rate; staying up throughout the night disrupts it.

Clinical research indicates that going 24 hours without sleep can result in impairments to your cognitive function equivalent to a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.10%. That’s higher than the legal limit in every US state! Study of 36 hours of wakefulness reveals reduced attention spans, slow reaction times, and increased occurrence of microsleeps — brief, involuntary episodes of unconsciousness. Sleep deprivation can also mimic the symptoms of a concussion, a 2020 study warned.

Not only is your brain functioning sub-optimally, but the act of learning, through the mechanisms of memory formation and recall, happens during sleep, especially rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Researchers explained that adult-born neurons in the brain help consolidate memories when you dream during REM sleep. Going into an exam, for example, after an all-nighter means you’re not only self-sabotaging your cognition from the start (you’re “drunk”), but you likely didn’t learn anything either from all that extra time awake.

The cognitive effects of sleep deprivation also make the process of learning itself harder. Per an article in the Journal of Sleep Medicine Reviews, researchers found that sleep debt affected memory, computational speed, oral fluency and flexibility, and abstract thinking. This is bad news if you’re headed into a work training or a day of classes after an all-nighter. 

To complicate matters, the effects of sleep deprivation easily stack up over time. Acute sleep debt can turn into chronic sleep deprivation, which, in addition to compromised cognitive function, comes with a heightened risk of chronic health issues like Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and even cancer. This is one of many reasons why it’s important not to attempt more than one all-nighter in a row (and otherwise prioritize low sleep debt). 

Can you die from not sleeping? We look at the research. 

Circadian Rhythm 

So, 36 hours without sleep means you’ve now got a significant amount of sleep debt to pay back, but how does an all-nighter impact your circadian rhythm and next-day energy? 

To recap: your circadian rhythm is the roughly 24-hour body clock that regulates everything from your energy levels to your hunger hormones. In the morning, when your brain senses daylight, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (a group of neurons in your brain’s hypothalamus) or “master clock” releases cortisol, norepinephrine, and serotonin — hormones that help you feel more alert and awake. Later, under conditions of dim light, your brain’s pineal gland produces the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin to ease you into sleep. 

When your circadian rhythm is running smoothly — the product of consistent sleep and wake times and sufficient nightly sleep — you can expect a predictable series of energy peaks and dips throughout the day: 

  • Morning sleep inertia: Feeling groggy when you wake up is completely normal. We call it your Grogginess Zone in the RISE app.
  • Morning Peak: This is the first of your two daily energy peaks.
  • Afternoon Dip: Often referred to as a “food coma,” post-lunch tiredness occurs in the early to late afternoon, no matter if you’ve eaten or not.
  • Evening Peak: This is the second and last energy peak of the day.
  • Evening Wind-down: The 1-2 hours before your target bedtime should be a window of relaxation to prime you for sleep.
  • Melatonin Window: This is the period in which your rate of melatonin production peaks. It’s the best time to go to bed to meet your sleep need.

Circadian misalignment throws this delicate and predictable pattern off course. And it doesn’t take 36 hours of staying awake, either. Even a slightly (one or two hour) later bedtime and rise time, common for many of us on the weekend, is enough to incite social jetlag – a form of circadian misalignment that affects some 87% of us.  

Social jetlag sounds benign, but its symptoms are anything but:

  • More intense morning sleep inertia
  • Increased daytime sleepiness
  • Increased sleep latency (taking longer to fall asleep; making the quest to pay back sleep debt even harder)
  • More difficulty concentrating on the tasks at hand
  • Poorer mood, such as increased irritability and depression

Social jetlag has particularly negative consequences for students. Research shows affected students are more likely to have unsatisfactory academic performance and reduced emotional well-being. Study also points to more defiant attitudes, violence, substance use, and truancy.

But, social jetlag doesn’t just negatively impact your performance, grades, energy, and emotions for the day. It's also a chronic condition that sets the foundation for more severe health problems. A 2018 medical review shares social jetlag puts you at a greater risk of:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Metabolic syndrome, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure
  • Weight gain and a higher body mass index (BMI), which is an indicator of obesity
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Sleep disorders, like sleep apnea

Sleep Debt and Circadian Rhythm Come Together

While sleep debt and circadian rhythm operate independently of each other, both of them influence your sleep schedule and overall energy potential. This is true during periods of normal nightly sleep as well as after an all-nighter.

For starters, sleep debt, courtesy of staying up all night, reduces how much energy you feel to begin with. The extra fatigue will also dampen your energy peaks and augment your energy dips throughout the day. Robbed of the necessary cues your circadian rhythm needs to operate smoothly (predictable exposure to light chief among them), you’ll experience all of the hallmarks of social jetlag, including increased daytime sleepiness, a worse mood, and even digestive issues, as the peripheral clocks in your gut, liver, and pancreas get knocked sizeably off course from a night without sleep.  

As you can see, an all-nighter makes you drag your feet through life the next day, figuratively and literally.

Is It Possible To Stay Awake After an All-Nighter?

Sometimes life throws us a curveball, and we have no choice but to end up burning the midnight oil, then stay awake for the following day. Perhaps you often work the night shifts and have the occasional social or family obligation to attend to during the day. Or maybe your teething baby is the reason behind your sleepless nights when you have to gear up for nine hours of work (or more) the next day. This makes you worry, “Is it possible to stay awake after an all-nighter?”

Fret not, as we have a plan for you to make the most of your day after staying up all night. From paying back sleep debt to practicing good sleep hygiene protocols that won’t sabotage the following night’s sleep, staying up will likely be difficult, but we’ll share ways to bounce back as quickly as possible. What you do before and during an all-nighter influences your success rate in staying awake the next day, as you’ll see in the next few sections.

What Can I Do Before an All-Nighter To Help Me Stay Awake the Next Day?

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
To plan ahead for your all-nighter, use the RISE app to track your running sleep debt, and make sure it’s less than five hours to minimize the amount of debt you’ll carry — and have to pay back — after staying up all night.

In the night(s) leading up to your all-nighter, make it a priority to keep your sleep debt below five hours — the lesser, the better. If you’re currently saddled with sleep debt, tweak your routine over the next few nights to go to bed earlier, nap during your Afternoon Dip (which you can view on the RISE app), and sleep in up to an hour from your usual wake time.

For those who have sleep problems, like insomnia or sleep apnea, that are preventing you from meeting your sleep need, talk to a licensed healthcare professional about your options. Work with your doctor to tackle any underlying medical problems like sleep disorders to boost your chances of a good night’s sleep (or several) before the all-nighter.

These simple lifestyle changes (and medical treatments where necessary) can help you get enough sleep and pay down sleep debt if you have any, to begin with, and keep it minimally low in the run-up to your all-nighter. By going into your all-nighter with minimal to no sleep debt, you’ll have less debt to pay off. Most importantly, you’ll also increase the odds of staying awake (or even being productive) during the night and the next day. 

What Can I Do During an All-Nighter To Help Me Stay Awake the Next Day?

All-nighters can take a toll on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. But there are science-backed tips you can follow during the night to maintain your energy as much as possible the next day and get back into a good sleep schedule the next night.

They include:

  • Bright light exposure: Scientific evidence shows short periods of medium-intensity light exposure boost alertness levels at night. Meanwhile, high-intensity lighting improves sleep patterns by shifting the internal clock in shift workers. More research also highlights that bright light exposure has the same alerting effect as caffeine when it comes to staying awake. We recommend “task lighting,” or light that is focused only on your work area, rather than overhead lighting. This small adjustment avoids eye strain, which may help you feel more alert.
  • Type of lighting: The kind of lighting you work in also matters. For alertness, both red and blue wavelengths will give you a boost, although blue light may disrupt future melatonin production (making it more difficult to fall asleep later) and increase cortisol synthesis (a stress hormone). For the best chance at recovery after an all-nighter, try to filter out blue light and work in warmer, red light.
  • Mindful nighttime eating habits: Try not to eat — or at least, be careful about what you do eat. Eating outside of your regular schedule can exacerbate circadian misalignment. If you find you need to eat, avoid sugary, high-carb foods that are more likely to lead to spikes and crashes in energy over the night and day.

How Can I Stay Awake After an All-Nighter?

After your all-nighter, you’ll likely feel dead on your feet and ready to drop into bed, much less stay awake for the next 12 hours or so. Here’s the thing: it’s entirely possible to stay awake after an all-nighter — and recommended, for the sake of getting back in circadian alignment as quickly as possible — provided you’ve followed the tips in the previous sections and taken notes on the following ones.

1. Prioritize Paying Down Sleep Debt

After an all-nighter, your no. 1 priority should be to pay back sleep debt, if you want to start feeling and functioning at your best as quickly as possible. This means sleeping more than your baseline biological sleep need for as long as is needed to pay back the debt. (If you’re wondering whether or not you can catch up on sleep, the science says yes*.)

For instance, if your sleep need is nine hours, and you’ve accumulated sleep debt of that magnitude, make sure your sleep schedule for the next few nights accounts for your sleep need with enough room to pay down sleep debt. So, you may aim for a nightly sleep schedule of 10 hours over the next ~nine nights (or use naps to help pay down debt — more on this soon .

That being said, you’re likely tempted to crash and to even sleep much if not all of the next day after an all-nighter. This urge will likely be very strong — remember, staying awake all night hikes up your sleep pressure! But instead, your next-days’ sleep should be strategic.  

Go to bed early, take advantage of afternoon naps (ideally within your Afternoon Dip, which you can view on your Energy Schedule in RISE), and sleep in for up to an hour from your usual wake time. We’ll talk more about these in the later sections.

2. Work With, Not Against Your Natural Rhythms

RISE app screenshot showing how to schedule particular activities
The “Find time on my calendar” feature on your Energy Schedule in RISE shows the best timings to do a particular activity, be it high-stakes tasks like a work meeting or passive ones like household chores.

No matter if you have sleep debt or not, your circadian rhythm marches on, day in and day out without fail. In the case of an all-nighter, your energy dips will feel worse, and your energy peaks are now muted. That said, you can still make the most of them.

Here’s how:

  • Prioritize challenging work, like that sales presentation you stayed up finalizing, during your energy peaks. The RISE app shows the exact timing of your Morning and Evening Peaks on your Energy Schedule. You can even sync RISE with your work calendar to factor in existing obligations and help you schedule anything new, all while taking your circadian rhythm’s energy schedule into account.
  • Relegate mundane tasks, like admin work and chores, to your dips. Just as your internal clock will cycle through your energy peaks even if you skipped a night of sleep, your dips can feel even more intense. Plan for these dips, take it easy, and…
  • Consider leveraging your ultradian rhythms. These shorter cycles refresh between 90 and 120 minutes, with similar peaks and dips. Use the feeling of a dip as a cue to take a break. Stand up, walk away from your workspace, practice some deep breathing, or even catch some quick sunshine outside. More ways to stay awake here.

3. Take a Nap Within Your Afternoon Dip

Paradoxically, one of the best ways to “stay awake” after an all-nighter is to take a nap during your Afternoon Dip. Not only will well-timed naps help you begin paying back sleep debt, but sleep research also suggests that a power nap of just ten minutes can boost cognitive performance, energy levels, and even memory.

Keep your naps under 90 minutes, though. The longer you nap, the more likely you’ll encounter sleep inertia. Because you already have racked up sleep debt from your all-nighter, you might experience some sleep inertia even after a short nap of 10-20 minutes. So too, anything over 90 minutes runs the risk of depleting too much of that sleep pressure we mentioned earlier, making it even more difficult to get to sleep later that night.

You can find some tips for determining the best nap length here.

4. Time Your Light Exposure Strategically

RISE app screenshot showing when to get and avoid bright light
The “Bright light control” habit tells you when to get blue light and when to avoid it to get back to circadian alignment after an all-nighter.

On top of the tiredness, you’re also battling poor emotional health, as you feel more irritable and less empathetic. Well-timed light exposure, particularly, bright, natural sunlight, can help boost your mood and wakefulness levels. In short: strategic use of light is good for you — and the people around you. Here’s how to take advantage of its considerable effects:

  • Get outside for some fresh air and natural sunlight for at least 10 minutes around the time you would usually wake up. Bright light triggers melanopsin, the eye’s blue light sensor, which tells the pineal gland in your brain to stop producing melatonin. At the same time, your body activates cortisol synthesis, the alertness-boosting hormone that helps you feel awake and ready to start the day. Getting light exposure as early in the day as possible helps reset your internal clock, which will help you work toward your goal of falling asleep earlier to meet your sleep need and pay down sleep debt that night.
  • Position your workspace by a window to take advantage of natural light throughout the day. It is even better if this space has a high ceiling, which can give you a better chance of getting sufficient light, as natural light can diffuse more deeply from a window to the inside space. Plus, research shows that bright light exposure from the late afternoon to early evening can aid with sleep rather than disrupt it, which gives you another reason to enjoy the sunset by your window, or ideally, outside.
  • For an extra energy boost, consider pairing time outdoors with some exercise to get your blood flowing. The only time you should avoid working out is in the few hours before bed.
  • Minimize or avoid bright light exposure later in the day as it can interfere with your body’s melatonin-producing capabilities, making it harder to drift off to sleep by your target bedtime.

As you can see, you want bright light early in the day and to avoid it from the evening on. Add the “Bright light control” habit to your Energy Schedule in RISE for in-app reminders on when to get blue light and when to avoid it. Pair it with the “Block All Blue Light” habit that tells you when to wear blue-light blocking glasses to give you the best chance of getting enough shut-eye. (Find out the type of blue-light blocking glasses you should choose here.)

Other Things To Consider

RISE app screenshot tells you when to cut off caffeine intake
The “Limit Caffeine” habit tells you when to cut off your caffeine intake based on your unique chronobiology, so you don’t end up delaying your next bedtime and accumulating even more sleep debt after your all-nighter.
  • Research shows that, while a cup of coffee or an energy drink does help with overall performance while sleep-deprived, it has little to no impact on your own subjective experience of drowsiness or fatigue after a period of extended wakefulness — in this case, staying awake for 40 hours (one full 24-hour day + another normal 16-hour day). That said, caffeine stays in your body for up to twelve hours. So, it’s crucial to cut off your caffeine intake at the right time to avoid delaying your bedtime that night and creating even more sleep debt. Use the “Limit Caffeine” habit in RISE to help you with that.
  • Try alternating between standing and sitting as you work the next day. Scientific evidence suggests this small change can help with productivity.
  • Set up your workspace to look straight ahead or even up above the natural level, rather than down, as is likely for a desk or laptop. As Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., summarizes, “When looking down toward the ground, neurons related to calm and sleepiness are activated. Looking up does the opposite.” Configuring your workspace this way might take a little effort, but “it’s worth it for the benefits to your mind and work.”
  • Do not drive. As we’ve mentioned, going 24 hours without sleep means you’re as cognitively impaired as someone with a BAC of 0.10%. Even if you feel like you’ve caught a “second wind,” driving while sleep deprived puts you and others at significant risk.

Stay Awake After an All-Nighter With RISE

Staying awake after an all-nighter can feel like a Herculean task. But there are active steps you can take to make it easier on yourself, boost your next day performance, and help you pay back sleep debt as soon as possible.

To recap, keep your sleep debt low before the all-nighter (preferably below five hours). Then, follow the science-backed recommendations on what to do during and after the all-nighter — remember, good sleep hygiene tied to your circadian rhythm is key. (Check out our step-by-step Sleep Guide for more tips.)

Yes, it can be a little overwhelming to remember what to do — and not do — at the right times to stay awake after an all-nighter and pay down sleep debt afterward. That’s where the 20+ science-backed sleep habits in the RISE app come in handy. Tailored to your unique chronobiology, RISE delivers in-app reminders to help you stay awake after an all-nighter and get back to your best as quickly as possible. 

Keep your energy high, always:

Summary FAQs

Should I stay awake after an all-nighter?

Counterintuitively, yes, although we recommend napping during your natural mid-day energy dip to help pay back sleep debt and boost your next-day energy levels. Also, consider going to bed earlier that night (ideally within your Melatonin Window) and sleeping in up to an hour from your usual wake time to pay down your sleep debt as much as you can.

How long should I sleep after an all-nighter?

Aim to go to bed about an hour earlier and sleep in up to an hour later the next day to start paying back debt without incurring too much circadian misalignment. Anything longer than that and you’ll make it harder to get back to a normal sleep schedule.

How do I stay awake after an all-nighter?

To stay awake after an all-nighter, start with minimal to no sleep debt before the actual event. Also, practice good sleep hygiene, leverage your circadian rhythm, and pay back sleep debt with a nap during your Afternoon Dip.

Are 4 hours of sleep better than none?

If those are the choices, then yes. However, meeting your genetically determined sleep need and paying down sleep debt in the following nights are still the best ways to feel and function your best after an all-nighter.

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