How to Feel Alert when You Haven't Slept

Photo: ThinkstockBy Corrie Pikul

7 a.m. Get up when your alarm goes off.

"The worst mistake I see my sleep-deprived insomnia patients make is staying in bed in the morning to try to reach the magic eight hours," says Chad Ruoff, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University Sleep Center. Sleeping later than normal throws your body off schedule and will make it harder to fall asleep tonight, perpetuating the problem. No matter how tempting it feels to huddle under the blankets, your body won't react well to a snooze-in--and neither will your boss.

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7:10 a.m. Go out on the balcony, the deck or the porch.

"Natural light calibrates your body's clock for the rest of the day," says Michael A. Grandner, PhD, a research associate at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania. Bright natural sunshine is the strongest and therefore the best, but it's not always easy to find. Bring the sun indoors by turning on all of your lamps, and consider getting a light box that has a couple hundred lux for the dark days of winter, or if you need to consistently get up before the sun.


7:30 a.m. Sip coffee--or sniff it.

Caffeine temporarily interferes with the chemical signals of sleepiness, so we feel more alert, explains Allison T. Siebern, PhD, a sleep specialist at Stanford Sleep Medicine Center and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science. Not a coffee drinker? Simply breathe in the scent of your spouse's, roommate's or cube-mate's brew. Just the aroma of coffee beans can alter the activity of genes in the brain to reduce the stress of sleep deprivation, found Korean researchers working with exhausted rodents.


7:45 a.m. Rehydrate and refuel.

Most of us wake up dehydrated, which adds to our feelings of fatigue--yet few of us remember to drink a glass of water upon rising. Another habit that will make you feel more alert and boost your cognitive performance is eating breakfast within an hour or so of waking (it works for school kids; it will work for you, too). Any kind of early meal will help, but steel-cut oatmeal is one of your best bets, thanks to complex carbs, which give a slow, steady dose of energy (add raisins--i.e., simple sugar--for the quick surge).


10 a.m. Consider another cup of coffee.

Java junkies can handle about 400 mg of caffeine per day (the equivalent of the amount in a Starbucks venti). Just beware of getting more than 500 mg, which, like sleep deprivation, can lead to nervousness and irritability. Also try to drink your last cup before late afternoon so as not to throw off tonight's sleep.


Noon. Make up for one hour of sleep in 30 minutes or less.

You've been feeling pretty good all morning, but now you're ready to pass out. Research has shown that a short afternoon nap can make up for the loss of one hour of nighttime sleep and can improve alertness, performance and mood, says Clete A. Kushida, medical director of the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center. (Here's how to do it right.)


12:30 p.m. Cancel your lunch reservations.

Today is not the day for a heavy sit-down lunch at a restaurant (you'd be better off eating something like this). And if you ordered a light salad, eat it at your desk so you can make time later to...


3 p.m. Take a walk.

Late afternoon is an energy quagmire for most people, says Grandner, even those who got enough quality shut-eye the night before. When you feel the effects of your nap wearing off, drag yourself outside. Experiments conducted by psychologist Robert Thayer, PhD, at California State University have found that a brisk 10-minute walk can boost energy--more than a candy bar, and often for up to two hours. If you're able to work out during the workday, now's the time: Research with rodents suggests that afternoon exercise can have a beneficial effect on the circadian rhythms of humans.


4 p.m. Breathe like a seething cartoon villain.

Oh, no: Afternoon meeting (sitting quietly + 4 p.m. - a good night's sleep = zzzzz)! Before heading to the conference room, find a private area where you can do some noisy power breathing. The Bellows Breath involves inhaling and exhaling quickly and evenly through your nose, and yogis like Tara Stiles as well as spiritual leaders like Deepak Chopra swear it will make you feel as invigorated as if you just finished a workout.


5:30 p.m. Get a ride.

You're not in the home stretch yet...because you haven't made it safely home. This time of day is dangerous for the sleep-deprived, says Rafael Pelayo, MD, sleep specialist at the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science. Pelayo and other experts we spoke to warned that there aren't any real tricks to keep you awake while driving--especially when you're traversing roads so familiar that your mind can easily shut down. What's more, Pelayo says, most people don't realize how exhausted they are at this time of day, and in the lab they'll swear they were awake even when their eyes were closed. Consider hitching a ride home with a spouse or a friend or take public transportation--especially if your sleepless night is one of a series and not just a blue-moon occurrence.


8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Relax.

Good news, says Pelayo: We all get a second wind about two hours before our usual bedtime. So you shouldn't need to do anything special to stay awake during this time.


10:30 p.m. Go to bed a half-hour earlier than usual.

This will give you just enough of a boost to be energized and ready for tomorrow.

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