Why Burning the Candle at Both Ends Is Bad for You

We’ve all been through the late night-early morning combo where we run on caffeine and fumes the next day. 

Maybe you stayed up late partying (I mean, studying) at college or were a shoulder to cry on for your best friend. Or perhaps you went on those first few dates with someone you really clicked with and ended up talking into the wee hours of the night. 

Regardless of the scenario, if you follow these late-night activities up by waking up early the next morning to go to class or work, you may be in trouble. 

In fact, new research shows there are some potential negative long-term effects of burning the candle at both ends. Below, we delve into the science and then offer solutions for how to counteract the adverse fallout.  

person awake late at night

Burning the candle at both ends: what the sleep science says 

According to a recent review article published in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, staying up late and then getting up early can have negative consequences for your health. 

After surveying past studies of sleep-deprived mice, the researchers found that when the animals were kept awake for just a couple of hours more than usual each day, two key parts of the brain were notably affected: the locus coeruleus, which manages feelings of alertness and arousal, and the hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory formation and learning. 

These regions, which, in humans, are central to sustaining conscious experience, slowed down the animals’ production of antioxidants, which protect neurons from unstable molecules that are constantly produced by functioning cells, like exhaust fumes. 

When antioxidant levels are low, these molecules can build up and attack the brain from inside, breaking down proteins, fats, and DNA. 

Why is this important? Well, over the past couple of decades, animal research on sleep deprivation has become more nuanced, precise, and, possibly, applicable to humans.

Why you can’t just “catch up” on sleep

It used to be thought that if you skipped out on sleep, you could catch up on the weekends and be perfectly fine. So no big deal if you stayed up late and then got up super early in the morning, right? Not so. 

“Now, it’s becoming clearer that this is not the case, and a weekend doesn’t seem like enough time for complete recovery,” says Zachary Zamore, one of the review authors and an incoming medical student at Johns Hopkins University. 

However, Zamore notes that we still don’t exactly know when complete recovery in humans takes place, or if recovery happens at all.  

The mental and emotional long-term effects of burning the candle at both ends

*If* recovery even occurs? Whelp! But what are we talking about here? How can lack of sleep affect our mental or emotional status in the long term?

“We know that sleep loss can push individuals with bipolar disorder into mania,” says Zamore. “We know that chronic sleep loss worsens mood, worsens temperament, and decreases general interest in people and activities.”  

The physical long-term effects of burning the candle at both ends

“We don’t really know the long-term physical effects,” notes Zamore. “However, for shift workers, who presumably experience sleep restriction and disruption, we know that there are higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers like breast cancer and colon cancer.”

Pavel Ufimtsev, co-founder and certified sleep science coach at SleepMattress.co, agrees about the known repercussions. 

“Staying up late and getting up early each day can lead to a lot of health implications after several weeks and months,” says Ufimtsev. “Sleeping for fewer hours during the night or experiencing frequent interruptions is just as harmful to the body as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and alcohol consumption.” 

And the latest research bears this out. It shows shorter sleep cycles can increase the risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, and heart attacks, resulting in early death in many people.

What’s more, studies show that sleeping less than six hours each night can even increase the risk of dying from heart disease by 48%, Ufimtsev adds.

How long can you go with less sleep?

How long can someone burn the candle at both ends before these long-term effects kick in? Months, years? This is something researchers aren’t quite sure of in humans just yet. 

“However, in mice models, as little as three days of sleep restriction leads to neuron loss that doesn’t seem to recover in an area of the brain known as the locus coeruleus, which is important in promoting wakefulness and supplying your brain with norepinephrine, a neuromodulator important for learning and memory,” says Zamore.  

What can you do to counteract the long-term effects of burning the candle at both ends?

Setting a sleep schedule and staying active are the most effective ways to tackle the long-term effects linked to poor sleep quality,” Ufimtsev says. “Sleeping at least seven to eight hours each night can also reverse some side effects. In addition, catching up on sleep will reverse short-term damage and can increase energy levels.”

Plus, the typical aspects of wellness are also strategies for countering the long-term effects of sleep loss. These include regular exercise, a diet full of whole, healthy foods, and plans to mitigate stress in your life, explains Zamore.

The bottom line: Zamore and other sleep researchers aren’t saying you can’t stay out late and have fun the night before class or work. They’re just making you more aware of the potential side effects down the ride that may come back to bite you. 

Luckily, there are steps you can take to ensure you get adequate sleep (most nights, anyway). 

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About Ronni Robinson

Ronni is a member of the Sandwich Generation; she's the tired lunch meat layered between two children and aging parents. She is an eating disorder recovery coach, a 3-time Ironman finisher, and is a certified spin instructor. Her first book, Out of the Pantry: A Disordered Eating Journey, can be found on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can find more of her professional writing and coaching info on her website (https://www.ronnirobinson.com/)