8 Tips for How To Recover From Lack of Sleep Fast, From Experts

Photo: Getty Images/ Maria Korneeva
The only thing worse than a restless night without sleep is the day after. Between the grogginess, the temptation to get that extra-strong coffee order, the desperate Googling of “how to recover from a lack of sleep fast” while birds are fully chirping outside, and just the general sluggishness that comes with little to no shut-eye and insomnia, it’s downright miserable.

“Lack of sleep is like being drunk,” explains sleep specialist and physician Bijoy E. John, MD, founder of Sleep Fix Academy. “If you are awake for more than 17 hours your cognition is similar to a person with blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%, or the level considered drunk for most countries,” Dr. John explains. It makes sense considering just how disorienting it can feel to try and go about your day while running on no sleep. “You are in a mental fog, often in a bad mood, and you are at risk of committing errors,” adds Dr. John.

“If you are awake for more than 17 hours, your cognition is similar to a person with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%, or the level considered drunk for most countries.”—Bijoy John, MD, sleep specialist, physician, and founder of Sleep Fix Academy

Not to mention, “a single sleepless night can disrupt your body’s balance, impairing cognitive functions, emotional stability, and immune response, highlighting just how crucial adequate sleep is for our overall health,” says licensed mental health counselor Natalie Rosado, LMHC, founder and owner of Tampa Counseling Place. But once the night is over, what can you do? We spoke to a handful of sleep experts to get the scoop on exactly what hacks they have for how to recover from a lack of sleep fast.


Experts In This Article

What does a sleepless night do to your body?

Besides being pretty uncomfortable, a lack of sleep for one night can also cause some problems down the line, which is why healthy sleeping habits can be so important. “In the short term, it impairs cognitive functions such as attention, concentration, and memory,” says Rosado.

When it comes to long term sleep difficulties, Rosado explains that “chronic sleep deprivation raises the risk of cardiovascular issues like hypertension and heart disease, and disrupts metabolic processes, potentially leading to weight gain and increased risk of type 2 diabetes.”

How long does it take to recover from a lack of sleep?

As for precisely how long it takes to recover from sleep deprivation, the answer depends on what led to your sleepless night in the first place, and also your mental approach to the situation. First, it’s important to note that how you recover from sleep deprivation after one single sleepless night differs from how you might handle the effects of chronic insomnia. If you’re not clocking the recommended seven to eight hours of shut-eye each night for several nights in a row, you’ll accumulate sleep debt that then needs to be repaid in full (which may be possible to do by catching up on the weekend).

By contrast, a single sleepless night may not actually be worth, well, losing sleep over. “A critical ingredient to consider is control,” says sleep psychologist Joshua Tal, PhD. “Did you decide to stay up all night, or did you want to sleep but couldn’t manage to do so? The timelines for how long it takes to recover from sleep deprivation in these two scenarios are different.”

Typically, when a person feels in control of their sleep and can be at peace with the decision that they made to stay awake all night, they may feel tired the next day, but will also be more apt to fall asleep easily at their usual time that night, and effectively recover from the sleep loss within one to two days of reverting to that normal schedule, says Dr. Tal.

On the flip side, someone who tried to sleep but tossed and turned all night instead tends to have a different recovery timeline and experience. “The lack of control over sleep causes you to worry, and the more you worry about sleep, the more likely it is to evade you the next night, too,” says Dr. Tal. So, if the anxious cloud hovering over your sleep causes you to delay your bedtime the next night and for a few consecutive nights after that, too, then you start to shift into the territory of circadian-rhythm issues, adds Dr. Tal, making it tougher to realign your internal clock toward a healthy sleep schedule.

How to recover from lack of sleep fast

As for how to catch up on sleep and specifically, how to recover from lack of sleep fast, consider the following tips from the experts.

1. Get some bright outside light

“Exposure to natural light, especially in the morning, can help regulate your body’s internal clock and improve your mood and alertness,” says Rosado. If you can’t go outside for a walk, she suggests spending time near a window where you can still soak up plenty of sunlight.

When it comes to how to recover from lack of sleep fast, getting a few minutes of bright light can do wonders for your body and your mind, so it’s well worth a try—especially if you’re up already, which, unfortch: you probably are.

2. Try to fit in some light exercise

When you’re super groggy and feel like you’re already underwater, it can be tough to imagine making time for exercise, but doing so can actually boost alertness and mood, as psychotherapist Kristie Tse, MA, LMHC, founder at Uncover Mental Health Counseling explains. “Even simple activities like stretching or a brisk walk can help by increasing endorphin levels,” Tse says, adding that doing so can help revitalize both your body and mind.

Other options Tse recommends include yoga (even a quick Youtube routine can work here!) or a short walk around the neighborhood. Sure, your mind might be searching for quick ways on how to recover from lack of sleep fast, but treating your body and mind to light movement is not only a good way to make yourself feel better short term, but is also a healthy habit in the long run.

3. Let yourself sleep in on the weekend

“Start sleeping for longer over the weekend, say 10 hours, and begin to sleep for longer on other nights as well.” Tse says, adding that this approach can help gradually increase your sleep duration on other nights. “This helps to reset your body’s internal clock and supports overall recovery,” she explains. While hustle culture is great and all, letting your body catch up on some much-needed sleep—especially if you had a restless night—is totally worth it.

4. Eat a large breakfast and stay hydrated

Tse also recommends eating a large, healthy, balanced breakfast. “A meal rich in proteins, whole grains, and fruits can provide the necessary energy and nutrients to help you feel more alert and focused throughout the day,” she says, adding that foods like eggs, oatmeal, and berries are great for a quick, yet nutritious breakfast. By prioritizing brekky, you can also help to stabilize your blood sugar levels and improve concentration. “This small adjustment can mitigate the exhaustion and allow you to function more effectively until you can catch up on rest,” she adds.

“It’s crucial to start the day with a nutritious breakfast,” agrees neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, founder of Comprehend the Mind. “Focus on foods that provide sustained energy, such as whole grains, fruits, and protein,” Dr. Hafeez says, adding that you’ll also want to make sure you’re drinking enough water. This will help combat fatigue and keep you alert, she says.

5. Utilize aromatherapy

Just as there are certain scents for sleep, it makes sense that there are scents for wakefulness. Another smart trick for how to recover from lack of sleep fast is to utilize these scents in essential oils or other fragrances. “Aromatherapy can be a surprisingly effective way to enhance alertness and mood after a sleepless night,” says Rosado. Go for scents like peppermint, eucalyptus, and citrus as these can stimulate your senses and provide an instant-pick-me-up, Rosado adds. “You can use these oils in a diffuser, as a room spray, or even dab a small amount on your wrists or temples for a quick boost,” she adds.

6. Change the narrative around sleep.

It’s good to prioritize sleep, but be wary of over-prioritizing it or putting it on a pedestal. “I always tell my patients not to turn sleep into an unrequited love,” says Dr. Tal. “The more you chase sleep and let it balloon into something that you desperately want but can’t have, the more you’ll effectively scare it away.”

Instead, make the active mental decision to be okay with a fitful or sleep-free night every now and then, and view each night as another positive opportunity to get the sleep you need. (Again, this is a different situation from chronic or comorbid insomnia, both of which should be treated with support from a medical professional.)

7. Take a power nap the next afternoon.

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering “How long should an adult nap” (usually right before setting an alarm for something on the longer side of that), you’re not alone. But the science actually leans towards the fact that shorter naps are better for you.

“Up to half an hour between the hours of 1 and 3 p.m. should be the maximum length of time for a nap; however, any longer than that, and you could dip into deeper stages of sleep, which can use up some of what we call your sleep drive, which is the natural drive you feel to sleep at night,” says Dr. Tal. By contrast, a brief 30-minute nap can help you combat fatigue and even boost your mood without interfering with your ability to fall asleep later on.

8. Let your body self-correct the next night

Returning to your usual sleep pattern the night after a bout of sleeplessness will help preserve your circadian rhythm (which is your internal 24-hour clock that causes you to get sleepy around the same time each night and wake up around the same time each morning). If you feel extra-tired in the evening following your sleep-free night, you can go to bed a bit sooner, but Dr. Tal recommends not adjusting your usual bedtime more than an hour .

“Sleep is self-correcting, so whenever you miss out on some of those deeper stages of sleep, your body can over-correct by giving you a higher prevalence of that high-quality sleep over the course of the following few nights, even if you’re sleeping the same total amount of time as usual.” Which is all to say, when you fall short on sleep for a single night, don’t sweat it: You can, quite literally, rest assured that your body will have it handled in (almost) no time.

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