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When Kevin Morgan stays up late, he uses a tried and tested strategy to survive.
His work area is well lit, he often eats a sandwich in the middle of the night and takes a 90-minute nap before going to work. It also ensures that there is enough ground coffee available.
The nightmare of a sleep scientist? Not quite. Ask the scientist.
Is it possible to function well with little sleep?
Morgan is a professor of psychology and director of the Sleep Research Clinical Unit at the University of Loughborough, in the United Kingdom.
Although sleep scientists do not advocate working through the night, the professor says there are some advantages.
“During the night there are less distractions,” he says. “You can control your environment.”
Advisable or not, sleepless nights are part of life for many of us.
A study conducted in 2008 by researchers at the University of St Lawrence in New York found that 60% of the students surveyed stayed up all night at least once since entering school.
The practice is not limited to students who burn tabs for exams. It is common among professors, executives and people whose work demands unconventional schedules.
Asleep on the dinner plate
Paul Haswell, a partner of the international law firm Pinsent Masons of Hong Kong, is not a fan of sleepless nights, although they are sometimes unavoidable.
“I do not think that neither my team nor I will be more effective if we do not get enough sleep,” he says.
In addition, staying awake all night can also wreak havoc on personal life, as he discovered during a dinner after having spent the night awake, when he was a beginner lawyer.
“I was absolutely exhausted, but I did not dare to cancel the appointment as I had planned months ago,” he says. “I ended up falling asleep during the entrance.” I woke up with my head on the table and a waiter explained that my companion had left in disgust.
“I never saw the lady in question again!”
Consequences for the organism
Scientific research maintains that bad sleep habits are harmful to our health and well-being.
The study by the University of St Lawrence found that graduations obtained by students who had never stayed up late were 7% higher than those of students who used to stay up all night.
People who sleep less than six hours a night are more likely to develop impaired fasting glucose (a condition that precedes diabetes 2), according to a paper by researchers at the University of New York in Buffalo in 2009.
And a sleepless night can lead to short-term euphoria and diminished decision-making capacity, according to scientists at the University of California, Berkeley and the Harvard Medical School (2011).
However, many of us continue working all night. What can we do to maintain productivity during the early morning and work the next day? These are some tips from the experts.
Professor Charles Czeisler, a specialist at Harvard Medical School, advises taking a nap if you already know you will not go to bed that night.
“If we take a mid-afternoon nap, the decrease in performance that normally occurs as we continue to work will be much less,” says Czeisler.
“Try to ‘save a little sleep’ and sleep the necessary amount of hours most nights,” adds Morgan. “Do not allow unnecessary sleep debts to accumulate throughout your life and this will be helpful when you occasionally have to work at night.”
“Protein keeps us alert,” advises Paula Mee, dietitian, nutrition consultant and broadcaster in Dublin.
“The night before you stay awake, enjoy a protein-rich meal, for example, a chicken breast or a salmon chop.Too many carbohydrates can cause drowsiness.”
“We do not need another full meal during the night, our bodies have reservations for events like these,” Mee says. “But in the middle of the night, you could eat a protein-rich snack, maybe some nuts and seeds, to stay alert.”
Work in an environment with good lighting
“Light is a wakefulness signal for our biological clock and tells us it’s time to be awake and active,” says Dr. Joëlle Adrien, a neurobiologist and director of research at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in France.
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 to stay awake, it relaxes us, so I should avoid it if I want to work all night.”
Plan your nightly tasks
Our cognitive ability will decrease as we work through the night, leaving us less able to perform tasks that require information processing, says Morgan.
“Divide tasks into two categories: cognitive, which require reasoning and data processing, and other tasks that are more routine, such as formatting a job,” he says.
“First, do the cognitive tasks, you want your data to be correct, the most 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 one-hour intervals throughout the night.
Our body temperature drops to its lowest level around 03:00 and 04:00. “You do not want the cold to distract you,” says Morgan.
“So make sure the ambient temperature is nice, I always have a coat on hand.”
Take a nap the next morning
“Once you have finished your task, say around 08:00, send the email and then go to bed for 90 or 100 minutes, which is enough time to allow us to have a complete sleep cycle,” says the specialist.
“This should be enough to keep it running all day, but not to drive, so never drive the day after getting upset.”
And go to bed early that night, he adds: “You should be able to resume your normal routine quite easily.”
Just say no …
“Tell your boss that it’s not reasonable to work all night,” advises Adrien when you have to stay up all night unexpectedly.
“Lack of sleep has a very strong impact on your health, of course, you may have to be a diplomat and say good, just this time, but not again, just tell your boss not to.”