Even sleep experts deal with an occasional bad night of sleep. Just ask Shelby Harris, PsyD, author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia, who's a mom in her 40s with a busy career.
"I'm not immune to a poor night's sleep. I've been known to get sucked into binge-watching The Great British Bake Off even when I know I should go to bed," she says. "Consistency over perfection is my motto."
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What's important is that you can bounce back from it, stay efficient during the day and reset for a better night's sleep the next night. Here's how sleep docs do it — and how you can, too:
1. ‘Water First, Then Coffee’
Rather than reaching for the pot of coffee, fill up your water bottle first. Harris sips a glass of cold lemon water first thing in the morning. "The water helps to wake my system up, especially the cold temperature and lemon," she says. "It's refreshing."
But don't worry, coffee is still on the menu. If you're a java drinker, sip your coffee after rehydrating with the water. "Coffee helps to give me more of a mental edge, and I find that it helps when I haven't gotten enough sleep one night," Harris explains.
However, she warns, don't use it as a sleep substitute. In other words, you shouldn't stay up and think that you can just down a lot of coffee the next day to stay alert.
2. ‘Get Your Butt Out of Bed’
For Rebecca Robbins, PhD, a sleep scientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, sleep is a consequence of what we do over the course of the day. The first step for good sleep at night: Get up on time in the morning.
"It's tempting that when your alarm goes off, you want to hit the snooze. That's wrong. The sleep you get after an alarm is poor quality," she tells LIVESTRONG.com.
What's more, you want to shuffle out of bed at the normal time. As Robbins explains, there's a process called the homeostatic drive for sleep. "That means that over the course of the day, sleepiness builds like a clock. Each additional hour awake adds to that overall sense of sleepiness. Start that clock ticking," she says.
"Sleeping in" can throw off your circadian rhythm and make it harder to fall asleep the next night.
After a bad night of sleep, it's easy to catastrophize and think you'll be a wreck all day and won't be able to get anything done. And while you might not be on top of your game per usual, "data shows that one bad night isn't the end of the world," Seema Khosla, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and director of the North Dakota Center for Sleep in Fargo, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Still, acknowledge that you might not be able to attend to everything on your list. "I know I don't function as well when I'm tired, so then I prioritize what needs to be done. If it is something really important, I'll leave that for another day when I'm sharper," Dr. Khosla says.
4. ‘Seek Out Lots of Light’
One of the things you want to do to stop sleepiness after a poor night of zzzs? Get blue light exposure. Natural sunlight contains blue light.
"Getting this light into your eyeballs is one of the best ways to kickstart the awake phase of your circadian rhythm," Robbins says.
If you work outside your house, you can get this by simply walking outside to your car or public transportation. If you WFH, go take your dog (or yourself) out for a morning walk. (Consider that your commute time.)
If you can't get outside, then Robbins recommends cracking open a window at the very least to let in fresh air and sunlight.
5. ‘Schedule Some Light Exercise’
If you're truly tired, then now might not be the time for a HIIT workout or one where you're lifting heavy weights, as these may not be safe if you're not alert. But it still pays to move your body.
"I make sure to exercise, but lightly. I'll do a walk on the treadmill or easy yoga, but I do something to move, even if it wasn't my planned hard run or weight-lifting session," Harris says.
Besides, exercise has been shown to be good for sleep: Physical activity can improve sleep quality in people with insomnia, concluded a July 2018 meta-analysis in PeerJ.
6. ‘Find Time for a Cat Nap’
Good night or bad, you probably notice that your energy levels, alertness and focus dip after lunch. That's not the time to reach for more coffee, which can make it harder to fall asleep later.
"The best strategy is to repay some of your sleep debt, and that's with a five- to 20-minute nap," Robbins says.
Set your alarm clock and lay in a comfortable place. If you can't sleep or won't fall asleep right away, that's totally fine. "Any sleep you can get will be better than none," she says.
Even closing your eyes and resting can help you feel more awake and ready to jump into the afternoon than if you simply tried to push through it. Plus, with this short power nap, you won't wake up groggy.
One caveat, though: Make sure to schedule your nap before 3 p.m. Any later and you may have trouble falling asleep that night.
7. 'Make Healthy Food Choices'
When you're tired, you're pulled more toward unhealthy food choices — such as higher-sugar foods — which your body naturally gravitates to for a little pick-me-up.
"Keep an eye on your appetite," Robbins says. "Research shows that it's more difficult to figure out when you're full [when you're tired]. Overeating will impact your sleep because your body will have to work on digesting that food overnight," she explains.
Be aware of sleep's impact on your appetite and food choices throughout the day, but especially at dinner. Planning a healthy, light dinner — we're talking half your plate of veggies, some lean protein, complex carbs and a bit of healthy fat — will encourage restful sleep.
And give yourself time to digest before going to bed. Eating within an hour of bedtime has been found to decrease sleep quality, notes a September 2016 review in Advances in Nutrition.
8. 'Plan Out the Next Night'
Think about what went wrong last night, such as being on your phone before sleep or trying to fit in work before bed or waking up early to fit more in (all things Dr. Khosla says she's done, so you're not alone).
If possible, the next night, start your wind-down routine earlier, she advises. "No one is a perfect sleeper. Sometimes I just need to treat myself like I would treat any of my patients and extend myself a little grace. All of this allows me to reset," Dr. Khosla says.
Her tried-and-true tips? Limit caffeine after lunch, avoid sunlight late in the day and put your phone away earlier so you can tuck in and get the rest you need.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.