Sleep Resources

How to Recover After a Sleepless Night

No sleep last night? Here are 10 pro tips to help you make it through the day.

By Andrea Pisani Babich

Some people just know they’re not going to get their recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep. New parents, college students, and people who struggle with insomnia are just some of the populations who struggle to sleep well consistently. Fortunately, there are strategies designed for each of these groups to confront their unique sleep challenges.

But what about when the rest of us have an occasional sleepless night? Too bad you can’t just roll over when your alarm futilely tries to wake you and try to sleep until you catch up. If you’re like most people, you have daily responsibilities that oblige you to drag your worn-out body out of bed. You stumble zombie-like through your morning routine dreading the long hours of wakefulness to come and counting down the minutes until you can crash into bed again.

Time to fire up a huge pot of coffee that will power you through the day? Not so fast, Sleepy Head. There are better ways to survive the day after a sleepless night, and they don’t involve a steady caffeine drip.

You’re in this for the long haul — a full workday — so everything you do, eat, drink, look at, listen to, and breathe has to support your tired body and mind. Here are 10 healthy ways you can keep your energy level up no matter how little sleep you got last night.

How to Make It through the Day after a Sleepless Night

1. Turn toward the light.

Greet the day with as much natural sunlight as you can. Step outside, go for a short walk, or simply open your window treatments to help your brain get the message that it’s time to wake up. Leave your sunglasses at home. I know you want to hide those bags under your eyes, not to mention, limit the glare, but allowing your eyes to soak in the natural light is another signal to your brain that it’s time to power up. The exposure to light triggers a dramatic drop in the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep and typically reaches low levels in the morning. Helping along that natural process will help you feel like you can face the day without the benefit of a good night’s sleep.

2. Take a contrast shower.

Jumping into a cold shower is just about the last thing you feel like doing right after dragging your tired butt out of bed but hear me out. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the morning after a sleepless night is most definitely a desperate time. You can actually help your body wake up by alternating between hot and cold water in the shower.

Here’s how it works:

Switch from hot to cold water after one minute and switch back to hot after one minute of standing under the cold water. The hot water dilates the blood vessels allowing it to rush out to your extremities. The cold water constricts your blood vessels and forces the blood to your core vital organs. Repeating the cycle three to five times promotes increased circulation of your blood, giving you energy and increased alertness. Wrapping up your shower with a blast of cold water will send you on your way ready to take on the day.

3. Limit your caffeine.

That’s right. Instead of that double shot you’ve been craving since you stumbled out of bed, opt for a cup of green tea. Green tea contains less than half as much caffeine as coffee, which, ironically, makes it a better choice than your normal cup of joe. Too much caffeine can over-stimulate your already fatigued body, making you feel even more tired and exhausted when you crash off the caffeine high. Plus, green tea packs a healthy punch of antioxidants that prevent cell damage and polyphenols that fight inflammation and cancer. If you are accustomed to a higher dose of caffeine in the morning, have a second cup of green tea at lunchtime (but no later than 3:00 pm) to ward off a caffeine withdrawal headache.

4. Eat healthy.

Eat breakfast within an hour of waking. Start your day with a healthy mix of complex and simple carbohydrates found in whole grains, honey, fruits, and vegetables. Healthy fats like those found in nuts are also an excellent addition to your power breakfast or mid-morning snack. These will provide you with the energy you need to stay awake and productive through your day. Add some protein like eggs or smoked salmon to give you the endurance to stay focused and alert until your next meal.

Avoid sugar. Even though it will give you a quick spike in energy, you will soon crash — as soon as 30 minutes — and crash hard. Keep your meals small, frequent (try for five small meals), and healthy for the whole day. Even though you just want to chow down on a heaping bowl of macaroni and cheese and finish with a blueberry muffin topped with cinnamon sugar crumbles, you’ll be setting yourself up for a major crash that will tax your already depleted body.

Other high-energy foods to include throughout your day are:

  • Edamame
  • Melons
  • Fish
  • Quinoa
  • Dark chocolate
  • Pumpkin seeds
5. Don’t skip your morning workout.

Tempting as it may be to use your sleepless night as an excuse to skip the gym, ditching your workout will deprive you of another opportunity to get your heart pumping, your muscles loosened, and your brain engaged and alert. Do decrease the intensity of your sweat sesh to prevent overworking your fatigued body and making you more tired. Light weights, gentle cardio, and even stretching will keep you on your exercise game without overtaxing you.

6. Stay hydrated.

Drink water frequently throughout the day. Drinking water will not necessarily wake you up, but lack of water will increase your fatigue, crankiness, and mental fog. Drinking ice water will not only keep you hydrated but also make you feel refreshed and more alert.

7. To nap or not to nap, that is the question.

To nap — that is the answer, but only if you do it the right way. Daniel H. Pink, bestselling author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, outlines the five steps to taking the perfect nap, or what he calls a “nappuccino.”

  1. Take note of your afternoon slump. If it occurs around the same time most days, that’s your optimal nap time (usually seven hours after waking).
  2. Create a cool, quiet, dark sanctuary for sleeping.
  3. Chug a cup of coffee. Really. Trust me; it’s science. Cool it off quickly with ice if you need to.
  4. Set an alarm for 25 minutes. Seems like not long enough, right? But here’s the magic of the nappuccino: 25 minutes is just long enough to take the edge off your fatigue without leaving you with the grogginess of sleep inertia that can result from a longer nap. And, it just so happens that caffeine takes about 25 minutes to kick in, so you’ll awaken just as you feel the energizing effects of your coffee. See? Science. Boom!
  5. Repeat at the same time every day. According to Pink, regular nappers get more out of their naps than occasional nappers.
8. Try binaural beats therapy.

Listening to binaural beats in your earbuds can help you achieve a variety of altered mental states including heightened alertness and concentration after a sleepless night. When the right and left ear hear two tones at slightly different sound frequencies, they perceive a new, single tone whose frequency is the difference between the two. Your brainwave activity will strive to synchronize with the frequency of the new tone, and after about 15 to 30 minutes, your brain will be marching to the new beat. When the frequency of that tone is around 14 hertz (Hz), your brain may become more alert and you may notice improved concentration.

Not every soundtrack works for everybody, but a quick search of YouTube will turn up dozens of tracks, some of which will help keep you upright and productive after an all-nighter.

9. Let aromatherapy help you stay awake.

Breathing in certain essential oils can feel like a nap in every breath. There are lots of ways to get your essential oil fix and feel energized without caffeine, sugar, or nicotine. Dilute a few drops of oil in a diffuser and let the sweet scent of energy fill the air. If you don’t have a diffuser, add one or two drops onto a tissue. Or dab a small drop of oil on your wrist to have a handy refresher all day long.

The best essential oils to combat fatigue are:

  • Lemon
  • Orange
  • Rosemary
  • Basil
  • Juniper
  • Peppermint
  • Pine
10. Catch up on your sleep.

Even one night of restless sleep can derail your entire week. You will be thinking about sleep all day long. But you might not know that you may need more than your usual amount of sleep over multiple nights to pay back your sleep debt. Plan to add one or two extra hours of sleep to each night for about a week after pulling an all-nighter. If the weekend is coming, you can add three to four extra sleep hours to speed up the repayment process. Not only will your weekend catch-up make you feel better, but at least one study suggests you can undo the physical damage done by losing sleep during the week.

Final thoughts

There’s no limit to what a positive attitude can help you accomplish, and pushing your sleep-deprived body and mind through a day full of adult responsibilities is no exception. The important thing to remember is that you will make it through this day, and you can make up your lost sleep. Break your day into small segments and power through each one with a “divide and conquer” mentality. Do what you can to arrange your workload so that you can tackle your most challenging tasks in the morning and save simpler work for later in the day. Before you know it, you’ll be home and in recovery mode. Until then, let’s go!


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