The Fastest Way to Make Up for a Lack of Sleep

Photo: ThinkstockBy Corrie Pikul

Here we are again: bleary-eyed and foggy-brained. We've heard the experts repeatedly warn against getting less than seven to eight hours of quality sleep a night, but you know what? Those experts don't have any advice for dealing with a crying baby, a raucous neighbor, a seriously aching back or a demanding boss who enforces impossible deadlines. Instead, they remind us how hard it is to make up for sleep deficits. If you went to bed late for five nights in a row, says Clete A. Kushida, MD, PhD, medical director of Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, it will take another five nights (and then some!) of turning in a little earlier to feel fully rested. But we don't have a week. We need to wake up now.

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Kushida suggests that a well-orchestrated catnap can be the best solution. "A brief rest will probably keep you going for the rest of the workday," Kushida says. Research has shown that just a few minutes of shut-eye will improve alertness, performance and mood, and a short afternoon nap can make up for the loss of one hour of nighttime sleep. Napping is a bit of an art, though. Here are some rules for making that snooze a success:

Try not to nap after dark.

This can trick the body clock into thinking we're down for the night, making it harder to shake off the sleepiness when we wake up. This is somewhat challenging in the short days of December, especially for those who in are a place like Seattle, where the sunset can come as early as 4:18 p.m.

Power up your power nap.

Try drinking your post-lunch espresso immediately before you're scheduled to nap. Studies by sleep researchers in England found that combining these two energy-boosting strategies was more effective at reviving sleep-deprived drivers than either on its own. The researchers believe that the nap helps clear the brain of the sleep-inducing compound adenosine and gives the coffee just enough time to kick in.

Don't overindulge.

As most of us know from experience, 10 to 20 minutes hits the sweet spot. Kushida explains that anything longer can put us into the deeper stages of REM sleep--that's when we wake up with a bad case of "sleep inertia," the clinical term for that groggy, where-am-I? sense that makes us feel even worse than we did before we closed our eyes. Unfortunately, Kushida adds, the more tired you are, the faster you'll slide into REM, so the severely sleep-deprived (from multiple late nights) might want to limit naps to just 10 sweet minutes.

Give in to an early bedtime.

On those nights when we can barely keep our eyes open, Kushida gives us permission to go to bed an hour or so earlier. Yes, a consistent bedtime is important to feeling well-rested, but Kushida says a consistent wakeup time is just as crucial. So tuck in early if you must, but don't even think of touching that snooze button.

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