You’d the subject of losing night’s sleep would merit one word: yawn! After all, you don’t need anyone to tell you how lousy you feel the day after you’ve been kept awake by a sick child, the rush to meet a deadline, or anxiety about an upcoming event.
Yet the topic turns out to be the subject of hot research. Organizations including the U.S. Army, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the U.S. Department of Transportation have a serious interest in what effects even a few lost hours of sleep have on soldiers, astronauts, airline pilots, truck drivers, doctors, and shift workers. Happily, their studies have done more than just catalog the ill effects of sleep deprivation; they’ve also yielded scientifically sound strategies for overcoming them–no matter what your occupation or reason for being bleary-eyed.
Worrying about how little shut-eye you got will only make you feel more stressed. Even if your day’s plans include a road race or tennis match, sleepiness should have little impact on your physical capabilities, says Thomas J. Balkin, Ph.D., chief of the department of neurobiology and behavior at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, in Washington, DC.
Your mental functioning, however, may suffer. Undersleeping by just two hours can have a negative impact on your ability to concentrate, solve problems, and think creatively, according to numerous studies. The remedy is to be especially careful when performing critical tasks, whether you’re measuring out medicine to give to your child or doing complicated calculations for a report at work. Doublecheck all your efforts.
Seek the bright lights
Raise the blinds; draw back the curtains; turn on all the lamps. “Direct, bright light appears to be physiologically stimulating,” says David F. Neri, Ph.D., research psychologist and director of the fatigue countermeasures program at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA. “It appears to activate and energize your body.”
And your mind, too, research suggests. In a study of college students, for example, researchers found that seriously sleep-deprived women who were exposed to bright lighting tested higher in degree of alertness, reaction time, and math-task ability than a similarly exhausted group kept in dim lighting conditions. Although the mechanism behind this isn’t fully understood, many experts suspect that bright light somehow suppresses the brain’s production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleepiness.
Keep on your toes
Taking a brisk walk or climbing stairs activates your brain and stimulates your muscles, giving you a lift that lasts for up to an hour. But don’t overdo it: If you engage in more activity than you’re accustomed to, you’ll just become more fired.
If you need to stay alert at the office, avoid sitting passively for long periods–“a surefire recipe for dropping off,” says Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D., president and chief scientist of Alertness Solutions in Cupertino, CA. Get up from your chair and stretch in place as often as you can, he suggests. “Even writing or chewing gum may help a drowsy person stay awake.”
Be a social animal
Even better, use the day to make phone calls or to catch up on projects with coworkers. In a study of pilots at the NASA Ames Research Center, crew members who took hourly seven-minute breaks to walk around and talk with others reported a marked improvement in alertness for up to 25 minutes afterward. But you can’t just be a passive listener, nodding “uh-huh” or “yes” at appropriate intervals. “You have to be actively involved in the conversation for it to help you stay awake,” says Neri.
Eat the light stuff
It was long thought that a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet was a sure route to drowsiness, but two recent studies found that a high-carb, low-fat diet was just as bad. Now researchers believe it’s not what you eat but how much you eat that counts. “After a full meal, your blood flow decreases to your brain and increases to your stomach to aid the digestive process. That makes you sleepier, especially an hour and a half after the meal,” explains Rosekind. To avoid a digestive-system override, eat small portions of light snacks–crackers, pretzels, carrots, apples, a hard-boiled egg, low-fat yogurt–at frequent intervals throughout the day.
In addition, steer clear of high-sugar foods. Sweets will give you a short-term energy boost, but your blood-sugar levels will then rapidly plummet, causing your energy to crash.
Breathe in vigor
In an experiment conducted at the Institute for Circadian Physiology in Cambridge, MA, subjects who were exposed to concentrated whiffs of peppermint every ten minutes (the scent was infused into the room’s ventilation ducts) performed better on attention tasks and simulated-driving tests than those who weren’t exposed to the aroma. Although it’s not yet known what “dose” of peppermint provides the optimal alerting effect, inhaling the scent of peppermint extract a few times an hour, especially when you feel your energy flagging, may well give you the jolt you need. (The extract is available at health-food stores.)
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Although the positive effects of drinking liquids haven’t been formally studied, it’s well-known that even low-level dehydration can make you feel tired. That’s why most experts recommend sipping cold, fresh water as an effective stay-awake tactic. If nothing else, staying well hydrated will keep you running to the bathroom–trips that in and of themselves will get you out of your chair and perk you up.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist–or sleep expert–to know that you feel snappier in brisk air than you do when it’s hot and humid. So cranking up your AC or running a fan is an obvious way to stave off drowsiness. Keep in mind, though, that the old trick of blasting cool air onto your face while driving wakes you up only temporarily; it can give you the few minutes you need to pull off the road or get to a motel, but won’t reliably keep you going much longer, according to a recent study.
Stimulate yourself with sound
Be it loud rock or glass-shattering opera, dramatic music is a good way to rouse yourself, at least for a short stint. If you can’t turn on the radio, try opening your windows; the sound of honking horns, construction, or barking dogs can help you stay alert. Also, avoid the white noise of Muzak or machinery hum; these have an especially lulling effect.
Getting back on track
You got through your day, but how do you recover so that you won’t have to resort to stay-awake tactics again tomorrow? Surprisingly, you don’t need to get to bed that much earlier or even sleep that much longer. “When you’re recovering from sleep loss, you do so by sleeping deeper, not necessarily longer,” explains Rosekind. “Even if you’ve lost several nights of good sleep, you still need only about two nights of your normal amount of sleep, at your usual sleep time, to feel restored.”
A few caveats: If you want to be sure to fall asleep easily, avoid caffeine for at least four hours prior to bedtime. Also, skip the nightcap, because alcohol tends to fragment your sleep cycles, leaving you less rested. And eat only a moderate amount of food–enough so you’re not going to bed hungry, but not so much that it’ll interfere with sound sleep.