Factors that drive the body’s circadian rhythm (or 24-hour internal clock)—from eating and exercise to light exposure—influence the quality of your sleep and the quality of your wakefulness alike. That is, not all wakeful states are the same, and it’s possible to engage in activities and behaviors that can help you feel more energized, despite a fitful or sleepless night, says clinical psychologist Li Åslund, PhD, sleep expert at sleep-tracking app Sleep Cycle.
“If you feel sluggish and want to feel energetic and cheerful, start by acting energetic and cheerful.” —Gretchen Rubin, happiness expert
That same malleability applies to your mood, too. It can be tempting to resign yourself to the fact that waking up grumpy will ruin the day, but in fact, that very thought process might be what keeps you in the funk. “We often think that we act because of the way we feel, but to a very great degree, we feel because of the way we act,” says happiness expert and author Gretchen Rubin, host of the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast and founder of the Happier app. “So, if you feel sluggish and want to feel energetic and cheerful, start by acting energetic and cheerful: Put on a smile, energize your voice, pick up your pace, sing out loud.”
Of course, all of that might be easier said than done—particularly if tiredness or lethargy is getting in the way of really everything. Below, experts share steps you can take to move your body into go-mode and feel more awake after a night of poor sleep.
13 expert tips for feeling awake, energized, and even happy when you're running on little sleep
1. Get some bright light exposure first thing
Light is one of the single biggest factors signaling the brain to be awake, and that’s all the more important when you’re trying to beat back an impending wave of tiredness from a crappy night of sleep. “Starting the day with bright light, especially in the first hour upon awakening, can help our biological clock reset and essentially charge its battery to keep us going during the day,” says behavioral sleep expert Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS, RN, sleep science advisor for Aeroflow Sleep. “You can simply turn on the lights and open the blinds or use a light-therapy box or sunrise alarm clock.”
Even better, though, would be to step out into the sunlight. “Not only will the sunlight help turn off the melatonin faucet in your head, but also, the fresh air will help wake you up,” says clinical psychologist Michael Breus, PhD, sleep advisor for Oura. Add in some movement by way of a morning walk, and you’ll also boost your appetite for a filling, energizing breakfast (more on that below).
2. Make it a point to hydrate
The act of sleeping is dehydrating by nature, says Dr. Breus. You’re not replenishing your body’s water reservoir during the full length of time that you’re snoozing—and throughout the night, its natural restorative processes are chugging along on overdrive. That alone makes the case for a glass of water first-thing on any day. But if you’re feeling particularly sluggish, consider it all the more necessary.
3. Move your body
Any type of exercise, whether indoors or out, is a helpful jumpstart for the body clock, says Dr. Weiss. And if movement is something you legitimately enjoy, you’ll boost your mood and your energy levels at once, says Rubin. That’s because exercise releases a whole cascade of feel-good neurotransmitters, starting with serotonin and norepinephrine, and continuing with endorphins (if you have enough time to work out for about an hour).
If you wake up feeling too sleepy to get your body really going, you can also try stretching or a short yoga flow to gently boost circulation. And if the lethargy creeps up later in the day? Try moving your body again, even for just a minute or so, every 60 minutes, says Dr. Breus.
4. Hop into a cold shower
The jolt of cold water can bring you right to your senses. If you can bear it, Åslund suggests a cold-water shower (or, just a cold-water face wash) for instant wakefulness when you desperately need it.
5. Eat a well-rounded breakfast
Skipping breakfast will leave you missing important nutrients that could be tough to make up throughout the day. But perhaps even more imminently, it leaves you running on no fuel, which is not what you want when you’re already trying to figure out how to feel awake with little or no sleep. So, it's essential to eat something—and ideally a breakfast rich in fiber and protein, like avocado toast with an egg or oatmeal.
Not to mention, the act of eating breakfast has a powerful impact on the circadian rhythm. “Food intake is a signal to the internal body clock that it’s daytime, and in turn, that it’s time for you to start your day, too,” says Åslund. As your digestive system whirs to life in response to your meal, so will you.
6. Have a late-morning coffee
Operating on little sleep might mean that you need a caffeine boost to function—which is totally okay. But resist the urge to make it the first thing you do; it’s best to wait until the natural spike in cortisol that follows waking up starts to taper off, and then replenish it with your coffee around 9:30 a.m. or later.
And yes, you can go back for more if you feel the need for a boost later in the day. “Just be mindful that the safe recommendation is 400mg daily,” says Dr. Weiss. “You can split this amount into four to five caffeinated drinks, no later than 3 p.m., because it can take four to six hours to digest caffeine.”
7. Cross one simple thing off your to-do list early in the day
Feeling productive can offer a quick burst of can-do energy, which might be just the thing you need to motivate yourself for the day ahead.
“If you can get yourself to do something that’s been on your list—maybe it’s going through the mail on the counter or taking out the recycling—first thing in the morning, it’ll bring an energy release and some momentum,” says Rubin. It’s a bit like, ‘If I did that, well then, I can do the next thing and the thing after that.’ “When something’s off your plate early, you just feel lighter,” Rubin says.
8. Do a small favor for someone
It’s cliché, but true: Making someone else feel good is a quick way to feel better yourself (and potentially even help you live longer). So, if it’s a grumpy attitude that’s threatening to torpedo your day, muster up the strength to do one good deed, says Rubin. “It could be as simple as making that email introduction for a friend or sending your neighbor the name of your plumber, or even just texting a friend that you’re thinking of them,” she says. The benefit is a double whammy: Not only do you feel good for doing good, but also you’re taking a moment to connect with another human, which tends to spark a mood boost, too.
9. Use distanced self-talk to self-motivate
Speaking to yourself in the third person can turn you into your own motivational coach, says Rubin. It could be something as simple as, "Hey, [insert your name here], get it together. You didn’t get a great night’s sleep, but you usually do, so this isn’t a big deal," or whatever words you think will help you avoid wallowing in the bad-sleep gloom.
10. Avoid as much refined sugar as you can
In terms of long-term health, eating processed sugar isn’t great for a lot of reasons—namely its ability to increase internal inflammation and accelerate cellular aging. But when you’re trying to feel awake after a night of fitful sleep, the immediate effect of sugar is extra-damning.
On the one hand, you’re likely to want sugar more than you usually might. “Poor sleep impairs the regulation of hormones leptin and ghrelin and consequently increases the feeling of hunger and craving for processed foods,” says Dr. Weiss. But when you're in that physical state, you may want to consider avoiding the temptation because of its tendency to offer a quick burst of energy followed by an even worse crash, says Dr. Breus. That puts you in a position of feeling even less energetic than you did initially—which starts the vicious cycle over again.
Instead, focus on eating light and frequent low-sugar meals to keep your blood sugar and energy levels steady throughout the day, says Åslund.
11. Take a power nap
That 2 or 3 p.m. afternoon slump is even more real after a night of poor sleep. And giving into it by conking out on the couch for a quick 20 to 30 minutes could be just the thing you need to cope with some of that sleep debt. Just make sure your nap doesn't stretch any longer than that, so you don’t risk dipping into a deeper stage of sleep from which it’ll be all the harder to wake back up.
12. Cut yourself some slack
It’s easy to let the simple fact that you had a bad night’s sleep send you into a worry spiral. After all, sleep is so important that many of us end up concerned about not getting enough of it and the consequences that may have on our performance and health, says Åslund. “But the occasional bad night is normal and happens to all of us,” she says. “If your daytime tiredness is not the result of a sleep disorder that might need treatment [meaning it isn’t chronic], giving yourself a break and lowering the expectations you might have for your performance the next day might be the best thing you can do.” Adopting that mindset will also make it easier to keep any stress over sleep from, paradoxically, making it harder to fall asleep the following night, too.
13. Set up a simple reward for yourself
The knowledge of a reward in your future might be enough to keep you humming along well, even on barely any sleep at all. “I often suggest having a list of healthy ‘treats,’ so that you can set them up as rewards for whenever you know you're going to need a bit of a recharge,” says Rubin. “These might include doing a short puzzle, playing with your dog, watching a scene from your favorite movie, lighting a candle, or anything else that you know will shift your mood in a positive direction.”
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