The buzzing alarm jerks you from what feels like was only a few minutes of sleep.
You groggily turn it off while forcing yourself to get out of bed. You’re pretty sure some souls are getting released from purgatory after the night of shoddy sleep you’ve had–and now you have to somehow get through another demanding day of work and family commitments.
Has this ever been you?
Whether it's nursing babies, kids with bad dreams, dogs that need to go pee at 2:00 AM, spouses that snore, or your own overactive mind keeping you awake, we’re all prone to getting less-than-optimal sleep sometimes. Or even oftentimes, depending on the ages and stages that your family is in.
Most of us know how critically important good sleep is to our mood and cognitive function, and new research is constantly emerging to show us how sleep impacts just about every facet of our health, even having a preventative role in heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease (just to name a few).
While I firmly believe that you should do everything within your power to get a good night’s sleep, (you can find 40 simple things you can do to get better sleep here), the fact remains that there are a lot of things that are just outside of your control.
So what do you do on the days when you’ve had a night of terrible, no good, rotten, very bad sleep? Should you just ride out the day as a cranky, bleary mess and hope for better luck the next night? Do you admit defeat on a day that’s just starting? What if you’re in a season of life when most of your nights are interrupted by children and the demands of parenting mean that you can’t just “phone it in” for the day?
As a parent of small children myself–who seem to have a schedule worked out amongst themselves as to who is going to wake my husband and me up throughout the night–I’ve had to devise a few strategies myself to help with my own fragmented sleep.
Here are some tactics that I have found useful, and that I hope will help you the next time you experience a night of terrible sleep:
1. Get early morning sunlight
As soon as you can, get outside to soak up some sunshine. Exposure to full-spectrum sunlight in the morning will cause your body to produce serotonin, which will improve your mood (while also helping to ensure you get better sleep that night).
Even if it’s rainy or in winter, outdoor light will still produce lux levels of 1000 or more–that’s brighter than any inside light. That bright light will not only help you feel more alert and energized due to its effect on your circadian rhythm, but the serotonin burst will also help you be more even keel with your family and co-workers on a day when let’s face it, your mood can use all the help it can get!
2. Use caffeine strategically
I’m not suggesting that you down copious amounts of coffee–but caffeine has been shown to improve physical performance and to enhance cognitive function–both of which will help you to perform better after a night of poor sleep.
The trick is to not ingest so much caffeine that you’re feeling jittery or anxious and to stop drinking caffeine early enough in the day so that you’ll be able to fall asleep quickly at night. You’ll have to determine your own “cut-off” limits for both amount and time, but some general rules of thumb are less than 300 milligrams of caffeine total and no more caffeine after about 2:00 PM. However this is highly variable and if you’re pregnant or nursing, or more sensitive to caffeine, you may want to have less.
I recommend drinking coffee in the morning and then green tea at mid-morning and after lunch. Green tea contains an amino acid known as L-theanine that helps to slow the body’s absorption of caffeine and give you a more calm, alert energy without the jitters or the crash that can sometimes accompany coffee.
3. Do a smart workout
You may have planned a hard training session or a 5 mile run for yourself, but you have to use your energy wisely on the day after a night of bad sleep. If you decide to do an intense HIIT workout, you may find that you’re dragging even more throughout the rest of the day.
On the other hand, you won’t be doing yourself any favors if you choose to be sedentary. That’s because the right amount of physical activity will help you to have more energy and improve your memory, attention, ability to learn, and mood (all things you could use more of when you’ve been sleeping poorly!)
The best thing you can do is a light workout (outside if possible, to soak in the sun) that will get your heart rate up a little bit, but that won’t leave you feeling totally spent afterward. This could be a quick 15-minute walk, a few bodyweight exercises, or a short bike ride.
As an added bonus, you could break up this exercise throughout the day and give your brain and body a quick boost whenever you feel yourself starting to fade.
4. Eat well
The last thing you’re going to want to do is to eat healthy food after a poor night’s sleep. That’s because sleep deprivation affects how your brain perceives food and messes with your hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin. You’re going to crave sugar and refined carbs, partly because of the quick energy boost they provide and partly because your brain perceives them as more rewarding when you’re sleep-deprived.
Step away from the bag of cookies. I repeat, step away.
Not only will those kinds of foods cause you to have a major crash later (which has been known to result in adult tantrums…) but you’re not doing yourself any favors in the long run either since refined carbs are linked to diabetes, heart disease, and even dementia.
The good news is that there are healthy foods that have been shown to actually reduce the severity of chronic fatigue. These foods include vegetables, fruits, seafood, nuts, and seeds. Additionally, some foods have even been shown to boost cognitive performance due to their high tyrosine content. Foods high in tyrosine are eggs, meat, tofu, milk, and whole grains.
I recommend having healthy snacks and easy-to-prepare meals on hand (freezer meals can be a life-saver here) because you’re not going to feel like cooking. Your out-of-control ghrelin is going to make you want to eat something right away, so now is not the time to engage in a complicated cooking endeavor. Instead, grab a handful of nuts, whip up a smoothie, make some scrambled spinach eggs, and thaw a healthy meal from the freezer.
You probably know that your body needs water to function well, but did you know that being even mildly dehydrated can make you feel tired, depress your mood, and make it harder to concentrate? All of which is exasperated by your poor sleep!
One of the reasons why dehydration tanks your energy is because it impacts the flow of oxygen to the brain and causes your heart to work harder to pump oxygen to your organs.
Since you may be drinking more caffeine than usual on days after a sleepless night, you’ll want to be even more intentional about drinking enough water since caffeine is a diuretic and can cause dehydration.
I recommend keeping a glass of water near you or a water bottle with you at all times and sipping from it between tasks and activities. You can always drink flavored sparkling water or use a sugar-free water enhancer if you just don’t like the taste of plain water.
6. Power nap
If you have the chance, take a short power nap. Research shows that a nap lasting between 10-20 minutes helps people feel less sleepy, improves memory, and helps regulate their emotions.
If you have little kids that you can’t leave alone, you may be able to lie down with them to rest briefly. Just be sure to not sleep for too long since naps lasting longer than 30 minutes (and less than 90) tend to make people feel groggy.
You may feel like you don’t actually fall asleep during a short power nap, but the chance to lie down and doze for a few minutes can be a game-changer on days when you just haven’t gotten enough sleep.
7. Take a 5-minute mindfulness break
You don’t actually need to have a full nap to reap some of the benefits. One way to mimic a power nap is to take a mindfulness break.
To do it, just set a 5-minute timer and sit comfortably. Take a few deep breaths and then just scan through your 5 senses, noticing what is the most obvious thing you can detect and then what is the faintest. For instance, what is the loudest sound you hear? What is the quietest? What is the strongest smell you notice? What is the most subtle? When you’ve scanned through all your senses, pull back your attention and try to take in all of your senses at the same time.
This is a super simple practice, but getting out of your own head and paying attention to your body is a powerful way to bust stress in the moment and to give you a little energy boost.
8. Pick work that makes sense for the day
Today might not be the day to tackle an extremely ambitious project that requires your peak performance. That being said, you probably don’t want to have a completely unproductive day.
While you may not be able to choose every aspect of the work that you have to do on a certain day (especially if you’re an employee) you may have some leeway in choosing tasks to focus on.
As much as you can, choose to tackle the least energy-intensive or cognitively demanding tasks today. This may be cleaning out your email inbox, pairing socks, or clearing paper clutter, depending on your particular job.
Above all, try to accept that you probably won’t be firing on all cylinders today and it’s perfectly okay to pitch yourself a slow ball every now and again.
9. Pray for extra energy
Jesus tells us to ask and we shall receive. But how many of us take him at his word on this? We’re also told that our Father knows what we need before we ask. So do we really need to ask? The answer is a resounding yes!
Pray with expectant faith for the energy you need to accomplish the tasks of your vocation well. After all, God has called you to this state of life and this particular circumstance and he isn’t going to leave you hanging in your need.
Up to this point, all of my advice in this article has been about natural ways to function better after a night of poor sleep, but as Catholics, we know that there is also a supernatural reality. Tap into that power and boldly ask for exactly what you need. You may be surprised at how well Christ’s strength works in your weakness!
10. Choose your thoughts carefully
Oftentimes when we’re extremely tired, we amplify the impact of a night of bad sleep by repeating to ourselves the thought “I’m so tired” (or something similar). But where do those kinds of thoughts lead? Do you feel more energized? No. You likely feel even more exhausted (and a little sorry for yourself).
It’s important to recognize that your thoughts impact your emotions, which impact your behaviors, which impact your outcomes. If you want to limit the damage that a poor night’s sleep has on your life, it's a good idea to choose thoughts that are going to lead to more energy and positive emotion.
You’ll have to experiment with thoughts that most resonate with you, but you may try something along the lines of, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” or “God is giving me all the energy I need to do what needs to be done today.”
11. Thank God for everything that you are able to do
It's easy to complain about all the things we aren’t able to do or about how rotten our sleep has been. But focusing on gratitude will shift your entire experience. Instead of letting yourself get bogged down in resentment for your circumstances, thanking God for everything that you are able to accomplish will help you celebrate little wins and give your brain a spritz of dopamine while also drawing you closer to your loving Father.
This can be very simple, such a quick acknowledgment that you were able to clean up a toddler mess without freaking out or that you were able to effectively run a meeting with your team. Whatever it is that you accomplish after a night of bad sleep, acknowledge it and thank God for giving you the energy or mental acuity that you needed at that moment.
So there you have it, a quick “survival guide” for the day after a terrible night’s sleep.
I sincerely hope that these simple strategies will help you make the most of each and every day of your life—even the sleep-deprived ones!