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How to Conquer Those Dreaded All-Nighters

"Just 10 more pages," you tell yourself, as you hopelessly fight the powerful force that is dragging your eyelids down to the ground. It's no use -- anatomy just isn't too riveting at 1:30 a.m. Within six minutes flat, your mind is off to a more restful place.

One of the biggest battles you, as a soon-to-be college coed, must learn to conquer is the dreaded all-nighter. And, while 80 percent of the adult population turns to caffeine regularly for a quick fix, we all know it is definitely not the best way to treat your body. In fact, too much caffeine can result in poor performance. Nobody wants that!

The good news is there are healthier ways to keep your mind and body going strong into the wee hours of the morn. Here are some tips from experts and students on the best ways to prepare for a super study marathon.

"Which foods will zap my energy, and which ones will keep me alert?"

Everybody associates foods high in carbohydrates (like breads and pasta) with energy, but what they really do is prepare your body to exert energy. This means that only exercise makes the carbs in your body start your wheels turning.

According to Dr. Nathan Shier, an Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, professor of nutrition science, consuming high-carb foods releases high levels of a hormone called serotonin into the brain. Too much serotonin makes you lethargic. Translation? Stay away from high-carb meals before and while studying or you'll spend your "all-nighter" asleep on top of your keyboard.

On the other hand, research finds that protein-rich foods do a good job of increasing your metabolism. Foods like meats, cheeses, and eggs are good to eat when you need energy for an all-nighter. "I drink protein drinks when I study," says Lisa Burle, a senior at the University of Memphis, Memphis, TN. Besides proteins, says Shier, fruits are super study snacks because they have glucose (sugar) in them, which stimulates the central nervous system (CNS). "[When I study,] I eat all kinds of fruits, like apples, grapes, and bananas," says Nikki Pike, a senior at Olympic College, Bremerton, WA. "They give me energy."

Keep in mind that while some sugar will wake you up, too much will shorten your attention span and make you overactive. You may be awake, but your chemistry exam will be the last thing on your mind. Eventually, it can zonk you out!

"Does when and how much I eat affect my alertness?"

According to Dr. William Brechue, a professor of kinesiology at Indiana University, eating smaller meals more frequently helps, especially at night. "When you eat large quantities of food, your body gets sluggish."

This is because when you eat, says Shier, all of your body's energy goes into digestion, meaning it's not there to help you concentrate on homework. As a result, you're left in a daze, not concentrating, and pretty much wishing you were asleep instead of sitting in an uncomfortable chair with bright, fluorescent lights showing your tired eyes no mercy. Not exactly the perfect situation for an all-nighter.

"Should I slap myself in the face to keep from dozing off?"

Absolutely! Any kind of movement your body makes has the effect of waking up your central nervous system; this is the best way to keep yourself awake -- better than any food.

Want to know a few less painful ways to wake up your central nervous system? According to Brechue, taking breaks during study marathons is essential for keeping your body and mind alert. Stimulating the central nervous system gets your blood pumping; it makes your creative juices flow. "Short walks, yoga exercises, even just stretching can wake up your CNS and increase your metabolic rate," he says.

Students agree. Some even find that just having a short conversation with a roommate helps clear the murkiness from their cerebrums. "For breaks, I take short walks, or just move around a little bit," says Pike.

An interesting tip Brechue points out is that the act of eating is a great central nervous system alerter. This is because it involves movement -- yet another great reason to eat a small dinner and leave snacking for study time.

According to Shier, your study environment can also have a lot to do with how well you are concentrating. A room conducive to studying, he says, will have bright lighting and a slightly cooler than normal temperature (this will keep you from becoming too comfortable).

There are some personal preferences, too. Some people can concentrate and stay awake better with background noise than others.

Finally, the importance of sleep cannot be overstressed. Without sleep, none of these pointers are going to work for you. As Shier puts it, "It's probably wise to do most of your studying when you know you're most alert."

"What about caffeine?!"

Okay, we aren't kidding ourselves here. Everybody knows that caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in America -- a favorite for waking up our incessantly tired human bodies. Well, there's good news and bad news for you.

Surprisingly, drinking a cup of coffee a day can have some beneficial effects on both your motor and mental performance. The bad news is that too much caffeine (more than three cups a day) can cause insomnia and poor performance. It can make you jittery and unable to concentrate, and can eventually drag you down if you overuse it.

One final tip from Shier on caffeine consumption is to not drink coffee all the time if you want to use it to keep you awake. Save it for those special occasions, and it will do its job better.

The best way to stay alert when you're cramming is to keep yourself motivated, although this is much easier said than done. As we said, since anatomy just isn't too riveting at 1:30 a.m., you may have to talk yourself into getting through the night.

Take this tip from Greg Mooney, an Indiana University senior: "My motivation lies in not wanting to fail. That usually scares me into staying awake."

Of course, you probably know that the best way to handle an all-nighter is to do everything in your power to avoid it completely. When that fails, embrace a healthy diet -- it may even make you into a study powerhouse.