Surviving the Day After an All-Nighter
What works and what doesn't after you've been up all night.
Take a Nap
The antidote to sleeplessness is sleep, says Rosekind, who led a fatigue management program for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In a study led by Rosekind, pilots on transpacific flights who napped for an average of 26 minutes had 34% fewer performance lapses and were half as likely to show signs of physiologic sleepiness.
Even a nap as short as 10 minutes can benefit you, as your brain quickly moves into slow-wave sleep, Dinges says. If you sleep longer than about 40 or 45 minutes, you may feel groggy when you wake up. This is called sleep inertia, and happens when you wake from a deep sleep. Once you shake off that feeling, you’ll benefit from the nap and feel sharper than you would have without it, Dinges says.
Drink Coffee or Another Caffeinated Beverage
Be strategic with your coffee or energy drink and you’ll get an extended boost in alertness. Most people need about 100 milligrams (mg) to 200 mg of caffeine, depending on their body weight, Rosekind says. (Coffee has about 100 mg of caffeine in a 5-ounce cup, though the content varies based on the strength of the brew.) Over-the-counter caffeine pills also are available in 100 mg or 200 mg doses.
It takes about 15 to 30 minutes for you to feel the effect of the caffeine, and the benefit will last for three to four hours, Rosekind says. “If you plan strategically to use the caffeine every few hours, you can keep yourself at a pretty good level of performance,” he says.
The best strategy: Have your caffeine and lie down for a 30-minute nap. You’ll wake up feeling refreshed, he says.
One caveat: When you finally stop drinking your caffeinated beverage, expect a crash. “The caffeine masks the sleepiness, [but] the sleepiness just keeps building up,” Rosekind says.
Turn Up the Light
Your body clock is attuned to the cycle of darkness and light, so bright light has an alerting effect.
“As people get more and more tired, they often find bright light unpleasant and they’ll deliberately turn the light off,” says Dinges. Instead, you should turn lights on and even step out into the sunshine, Drummond says.
Move Your Body
Taking a brisk walk or working out gets your blood moving. Exercise also boosts your brain power. “If you move your body, there’s automatic feedback from your muscles that goes to the central mechanism of the brain to improve alertness,” says Sharon Keenan, PhD, founder and director of the School of Sleep Medicine of the Stanford University Center for Excellence for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Sleep Disorders.
Even changing your activity or being engaged in a conversation can improve alertness, Rosekind says. But as soon as you stop the activity or conversation, you’re likely to feel sleepy again, he says.