Imagine this scenario: You’re on vacation, enjoying long, activity-packed days. So, you abandon your typical sleep schedule in favor of staying up late to have more fun. After all, vacation only comes around once a year.
Of course, that probably also leaves you sleeping late into the morning, taking advantage of the rare opportunity to catch a longer snooze.
But as your vacation draws to a close, you might start thinking about getting back to your typical sleep schedule — something you need to do fast, before you have to show up bright and early for work.
If you’re trying to fix your sleep pattern as quickly as possible, you might even wonder if it’s possible to do this in a single 24-hour period.
Some people think so. In fact, you can probably find plenty of stories online about people staying up all night and being so tired the next day they fall asleep practically as soon as they get into bed.
Science, however, suggests an all-nighter isn’t the best way to reset your sleep schedule.
Keep reading to get the details on why this may prove less than ideal. You’ll also find some alternate options for getting back on track to get the sleep you need.
Not sure exactly how your sleep cycle even works? Here’s a basic rundown.
Your sleep-wake cycle is driven by two factors:
- Sleep drive. The longer you remain awake, the more powerful your urge to sleep becomes. Illness or strenuous activity can also boost your sleep drive.
- Circadian clock. This is your body’s internal schedule, which repeats on loop every 24 hours. It controls the internal rhythms of your biological functions, like hormone levels, digestion, and body temperature.
Typically the sleep drive and circadian clock line up, causing you to wake in the morning and go to bed at night. But they do sometimes clash.
Say you take a short nap around 6 p.m. You may have a very weak sleep drive at 10 p.m. since only a few hours have passed since you last slept. As a result, you might have difficulty falling asleep, even though that’s your usual bedtime.
The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is your body’s biological clock, the conductor that sets your circadian rhythms. This collection of
When dawn comes, the light travels through your eyelids and up the optic nerve to your SCN. Then the SCN instructs your brain to release cortisol, which peaks minutes before you wake up. You may know cortisol as the “stress” hormone, but it has other roles in your body, including helping you stay alert.
Unless you have a particularly stressful day, your cortisol levels should gradually drop and level out after sundown. When darkness comes, your SCN then tells your pineal gland to release melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. This hormone peaks around
Come morning, your melatonin levels will drop, and cortisol will rise in its place.
If you separated the SCN from the brain and isolated it in a petri dish, it would likely maintain the same schedule for as long as you kept the cells alive.
But when connected to your tissue, the SCN can shift your circadian rhythms based on messages it gets from the rest of your body.
Things that can disrupt circadian rhythms
Any of the following might affect your internal clock:
- substances like alcohol, caffeine, and certain prescription medications
- electronics, particularly brightly lit screens before bedtime
- an inconsistent schedule, which could happen when you try to catch up on lost sleep over the weekend
- jet lag, which can happen when you travel across two or more time zones
- geographic location, or living in an area that has very short or very long days
- mental health conditions, including depression and bipolar disorder
- working the night shift and sleeping during the day
If your circadian rhythm becomes extremely disrupted, you might develop a circadian rhythm sleep disorder.
These conditions can make it hard to fall asleep and leave you consistently fatigued during the day. Over time, these sleep disorders can affect your memory, physical health, and overall function.
So, how can staying up all night fix your internal clock?
Well, remember the sleep drive. The more hours you’ve spent awake, the more your body seeks sleep.
The idea, then, is this: By staying up all night, you’ll boost your sleep drive very high. You may spend the next day tired, but your heightened sleep drive will let you fall asleep at a time you otherwise couldn’t — your regular bedtime.
As convenient as this idea might seem, little evidence beyond personal anecdotes supports it.
In other words, refusing sleep for a whole night could backfire.
If you pull an all-nighter, you may crash at 9 p.m. the next evening, just like you hoped. But instead of updating your circadian rhythms, your brain may treat your early bedtime as a fluke caused by sleep deprivation. When dawn comes, you may have a harder time waking up than if you had gotten a full night of rest on your old schedule.
Pulling an all-nighter probably won’t affect your long-term health, but it can make the following day unpleasant.
- Increased stress. If you don’t sleep, your cortisol levels may remain at their higher “daytime” levels, which can leave you feeling more stressed.
- Headaches. Higher cortisol can constrict your blood vessels. When nearby nerves recognize this, they may let out pain signals to alert you to the problem, contributing to head pain and muscle tension.
- Impaired memory. Your brain needs sleep to consolidate memories from your waking life. Without sleep, those memories can’t be stored properly.
- Slower or “fuzzier” thinking. Higher cortisol levels and inflammation can disrupt typical neuron activity, leaving you feeling drowsy, foggy, and sluggish.
Sleep deprivation can impair your driving
If you’ve stayed up all night, you’ll typically want to avoid driving. Sleep deprivation can slow your reaction times, sap your attention span, and make it harder to spot road hazards.
According to the National Safety Council, going more than 20 hours without sleep can impair your driving as much as a BAC level of 0.08.
In other words, driving after an all-nighter poses a similar risk to driving under the influence of alcohol.
Long-term sleep deprivation
Your circadian clock doesn’t just control sleep and waking. It also helps regulate your immune system, hormone levels, and metabolism. Disruptions to your sleep-wake cycle can throw the other biological processes off, too.
Long-term sleep deprivation can have wide-ranging effects on your body. It can contribute to:
- Type 2 diabetes. Sleep deprivation can affect how your body processes glucose and reduce your insulin sensitivity.
- Unintentional weight gain. Sleep deprivation can boost ghrelin, your appetite hormone, and lower leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full. It can also increase insulin production after a meal, making your body more likely to store calories as fat.
- Dyslipidemia. Changes in hormonal levels can affect the levels of “bad” cholesterol in your blood.
- Hypertension. Increased activity in your sympathetic nervous system can raise your blood pressure.
- Cancer. If you don’t sleep, your body may produce less melatonin. Along with helping you sleep, melatonin can repair DNA and help restrict the growth of cancerous tumors.
If you want to shift your sleep-wake cycle, you have plenty of options that don’t involve sacrificing sleep. The specific strategies you use can depend on which direction you want to shift.
Advancing your sleep-wake cycle means falling asleep earlier and waking up earlier. To advance your sleep-wake cycle, you can:
- Darken your bedroom at night. About
2 hoursbefore you want to go to bed, dim the lights in your room and avoid electronic screens. If you can’t avoid bright light, wearing sunglasses can give your brain the illusion of darkness.
- Take a melatonin supplement at night. Our bodies make melatonin, but you can also take it as a supplement to help you sleep. Melatonin levels peak
1 hourafter you take the supplement. Just keep in mind it’s always best to check with a healthcare professional before trying new supplements.
- Lighten your bedroom in the morning: Within
1 hour of waking, expose yourself to some bright light by opening your windows. Still dark out? Try switching on lights or sitting in front of a light box.
- Exercise in the morning. Working out in the morning can advance your cycle by over
half an hour.
Delaying your sleep-wake cycle, on the other hand, means falling asleep later and waking up later. To delay your sleep-wake cycle, you can:
- Keep the lights on at night. Bright light and electronic screens can help you stay awake for longer.
- Exercise at night. Unless you’re a serious night owl, exercising at night tends to push your cycle back roughly
30 minutes. (More nocturnal folks may find evening workouts advance their cycle instead.)
- Take caffeine at night. If you need to stay up late, a cup of coffee or tea can make you feel less tired.
- Block daylight from your bedroom in the morning. If you want to sleep in, consider investing in some blackout curtains to cover the windows. An eye mask can also help.
While these lifestyle changes can often make a difference, they can’t replace professional treatment.
Advancing your cycle tends to be more difficult than delaying it, since people often adjust more quickly to staying up late than to waking up early.
The further you want to shift your sleep-wake cycle, the longer the change will likely take.
According to 2018 research on jet lag, your body can:
- advance your cycle 1 time zone per day
- delay your cycle 1.5 time zones per day
If you traveled three time zones east, for example, it would take you three days to adjust. But if you traveled three time zones west, it would only take you two days.
But here’s the good news: Those timeframes are based on no treatment whatsoever. Trying any of the strategies mentioned above may speed up the process.
If you want to change your circadian rhythms, staying up all night may not offer the most ideal solution. Pulling an all-nighter will likely just make you sleepy.
Instead, you can try to fix your sleep schedule by following sleep hygiene practices like keeping your bedroom dark.
Although lifestyle changes may not fix your sleep-wake cycle in exactly 24 hours, you can likely pull it off in a few days. You can also check in with your healthcare team for more advice and helpful strategies.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.