Whether it was to cram for an exam or meet a tight deadline at work, everyone has pulled an all-nighter (or two) at some point in their life. At times like these, reaching for a strong kopi or a caffeine-filled energy drink to stay awake seems the natural thing to do.
But are there other ways to survive an all-nighter apart from consuming caffeine? And what are negative effects of having too much of it? Dr Toh Song Tar from the Sleep Disorders Unit at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth group, offers a wake-up call for those overly reliant on this stimulant.
“Although caffeine is useful for restoring alertness and reducing fatigue, overconsumption can lead to unwanted side effects, such as restlessness, irritability, nervousness, insomnia, headaches and palpitations,” he says.
Dr Toh weighs in on the effectiveness of caffeine-free, alternative methods that people can consider using to stay awake.
Natural ways to stay awake
1. Exercising and stretching
Exercising and stretching promote blood circulation which in turn helps you stay awake. Exercise also causes your body to produce more adrenalin and raises core body temperature.
Dr Toh explains, “At night time, the core body temperature slightly drops, setting the stage for a good night’s sleep. Exercise is a great way to ward off fatigue as it counteracts this natural drop in body temperature. Take a brisk 10-min walk or go for a short run, it’ll definitely help you stay awake if you don’t overdo it.”
Studies have shown that massaging certain acupressure points can help increase alertness. This includes applying pressure to the:
- Top of the head
- Back of the neck on both sides
- Back of the hands in between the thumb and index finger
- Area just below the knees
- Sole of the feet, at the centre
3. Exposing yourself to bright light
A body’s internal clock takes cues from environmental and social factors, including sunlight and bright light. Hence, it’s possible to “fool” the body into staying awake even when it is tired. This manipulation of light forms the basis of light therapy, designed to aid shift workers and business travellers cope with working at odd hours and jetlag.
“As dim lighting aggravates fatigue, brightening the light intensity at your work space will help you stay awake. But do remember to give your eyes a break periodically from reading or staring at the computer screen to avoid excessive eye strain,” Dr Toh says.
4. Lowering the temperature
Generally speaking, a slightly cooler temperature is conducive to sleep. However, dropping the room temperature until it becomes chilled should help keeping you awake. If you’ve ever attended a conference in a freezing cold room, chances are the speaker wanted you to stay awake and alert, especially after lunch.
Studies suggest that the act of chewing can help prevent sleepiness, improve cognitive performance and attention, says Dr Toh. The exact mechanism is not known but postulated to be related to an increase in blood flow to the brain. Unfortunately this boost in alertness cannot be sustained for a long time if a person is sleep deprived.
6. Use of aromatherapy
Although aromatherapy is generally used to induce relaxation and aid sleep, a strong smell – good or bad – can be an effective way to make you more alert instantly. Scents traditionally used to help one stay awake include rosemary, lime and peppermint. Whether aromatherapy is effective or not as a stimulant will depend on the individual.
In terms of forsaking sleep to prepare for exams, Dr Toh has this advice for students, “Rather than pull an all-nighter, students should try to go to the examination hall well rested and refreshed.”
He adds, “Sleep is important to allow students to consolidate their memory and recover from the rigours of the previous day. Being sleep deprived is not good for performance, which is why top performers in most professions make sure they are well rested before an important event.”