Here’s the thing about sleep: You can consistently follow sleep hygiene best practices and still wake up feeling terrible. Maybe your dog heard something outside and woke you up overnight with his barking. Or perhaps you just couldn’t quiet your racing mind fast enough to get a full eight hours.
If, despite your best efforts, you’re having trouble sleeping, take a deep breath.
“Tip number one is don't panic,” says Dr. W. Chris Winter, author of “The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It," and neurologist and sleep specialist. “Having a bad night of sleep every now and then is part of the human condition. If somebody said ‘I'm 50 years old. I've never had a bad night in my life. I always get the perfect eight hours.’ I would consider the fact that they might be a robot. There's no human that ever said that.”
So congratulations, you’re totally normal! Of course, knowing that doesn’t exactly make approaching the day any easier. For that, you have to turn to some tried-and-true strategies.
How to Recover From a Bad Night’s Sleep
Having a happy and productive day after a bad night’s sleep is possible. Here’s how to make it happen.
1. Stick to Your Typical Sleep Schedule
Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is important because when we go to bed and wake up at around the same time every day, our bodies learn this schedule, increasing our chances of getting a good night’s sleep.
“You're essentially having a conversation with your brain,” says Dr. Winter. “And the conversation is, ‘Look, we're going to go to bed at 11 p.m. and wake up a 6 a.m. That’s seven hours. Use it or don’t."
However, there are exceptions. For instance, if you were traveling or haven't had a good week sleep-wise, it can be OK to deviate from your schedule and hit the hay earlier.
“I would prefer you go to bed early and keep waking up at the same time,” Dr. Winter says. “Trying to create a consistent wake-up time is really helpful to your sleep. If you can't do it, it's all right. Sometimes getting up at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday and getting up at noon on Saturday and Sunday can create ‘social jetlag.’ But if that's what you've got available to you to make up for the loss, it’s OK with me.”
2. Push Through the Day
If there’s any “positive” side of getting a poor night’s sleep, it’s that your body should naturally make it easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep the following night.
“When people are sleep deprived, they may fall asleep easier,” says Dr. Winter.
So, as challenging as it can be to function on little sleep, try to go about your typical day’s activities as best you can.
3. Take a Short Nap
If you’re really tired after a bad night’s sleep, a nap can help you recover. But the ideal length depends on how significantly your sleep suffered. If you experienced a brief interruption — such as your baby or child waking you up in the night — aim for a short nap.
“Keep it to 30 minutes or less, and try to do it earlier in the day so it's not interfering as much with your upcoming night,” Dr. Winter points out. “Taking a three-hour nap the next day to make up for it usually just makes it harder for you to sleep the following night, and then things can kind of go forward from there."
That said, if you lost an entire night of sleep, taking a three-hour nap might help you make up for the drastic loss.
4. Have Some Caffeine
Drinking caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, or soda can help you perk up.
“Caffeine is wakefulness-promoting — it can sort of prop you up,” says Dr. Winter. “If the thought is, ‘Look, I had a rough night. It happens. I’ve got a lot to do today, so I'm going to have an extra cup of coffee today just to make it through the day, go to bed early, and move on from the situation,’ I think those things are perfectly fine.”
5. Move Your Body
If you’re feeling sluggish, putting your body in motion can help you feel energized.
“Most people find if they get up, move around, take a little dog for a walk, or exercise, that tends to stimulate wakefulness,” Dr. Winter points out. Just try to do it in the morning or early afternoon.
“It may not be the best idea for you to exercise right before you go to bed because you're trying to be sleepy at that time,” says Dr. Winter. But if you must, stick to gentle movements like stretching or yoga.
6. Avoid Sleep Aids
In this situation, taking melatonin — a natural hormone that rises a few hours before bedtime to help make you sleepy — isn’t something Dr. Winter advises.
“If something prevented you from getting sleep, it seems to me like it shouldn't really be necessary to take a sleep aid,” he says.
After having a bad night’s sleep, your body’s natural desire to sleep should be enough to help you get good quality shut-eye the following night.
7. Soak in Some Sunshine
Taking a quick stroll outside — or just sitting in the sunlight —can help make you feel more awake and energized.
“Light tends to create a suppression of melatonin in your brain,” says Dr. Winter. “So going outside where it's really bright and getting out of your office, which can be dim, tends to suppress that melatonin secretion and create more wakefulness.” According to Dr. Winter, it reminds your brain: “Hey, it’s still daytime.”
8. Stay Positive
Having a more positive attitude about a rough night’s sleep can help you get through the next day.
“When you start looking at research, what it shows is the way we interpret the night tends to impact our functioning a lot more than the actual night itself,” says Dr. Winter. “If I got only three or four hours of sleep, I’m going to make it through the next day just fine.” According to Dr. Winter, although getting inadequate sleep isn’t healthy and isn’t something we should choose, keeping a positive attitude can help give you the confidence to know, “I’m better than a bad night’s sleep.” And that can carry you through the day.
Instead of focusing on how terrible your sleep was, Dr. Winter recommends objectively paying attention to your day. You might be surprised at how well you can function on little sleep.
What to Do if Sleep Loss Becomes a Recurring Issue
A single bad night’s night is not usually something to worry about. But if you’ve been struggling with poor sleep for a while, it’s best to seek professional help.
"I would talk to a specialist earlier than later,” says Dr. Winter. “Most people that I see have been dealing with their problem for years before they seek treatment.”
And that’s a shame, according to Dr. Winter, because it never hurts to talk to somebody.
“Especially if you're feeling frustrated and the things you're doing to remedy the problem aren’t working or your primary care doctor is giving you pill after pill trying to sedate you through the night — I think we can do better than that,” he says.
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