Whether you had a long night of drinking or have a new baby who has yet to learn the fine art of sleeping, you might need a few tips on how to stay awake after a rough night. When you feel tired, we all know you can pound an energy drink or splash cold water on your face for a pick-me-up… or just cut out the middleman and splash your face with an ice-cold energy drink.
But there are better ways to give yourself an energy boost than relying on cans of caffeine. I consulted doctors, sleep experts, and health professionals to find the best and healthiest ways to stay alert after a night or two of sleep deprivation.
Find Your Light
When you find yourself dozing off during the day, your circadian rhythm might be out of whack. Typically, our bodies use sunlight as a cue to wake up and darkness as a cue to sleep. But working night shifts or having a varied sleep schedule can mess up your body’s internal rhythm.
Luckily, it’s easy to get your rhythm back on track. Just go into the light! I mean, don’t go into the light like Carol Anne, but get yourself out of the darkness. “Expose yourself to bright light, ideally sunlight,” says Tzvi Doron, D.O. “This sends a message to your brain that it’s ‘awake time’ by shutting off melatonin production.”
Sleep science coach Chris Brantner adds, “The more you can expose yourself to sunlight, the more awake you’ll feel. Also, you’ll have a better chance of resetting your sleep/wake cycle and getting a better night’s sleep the following night.” The burst of sunshine helps rebalance your circadian rhythms (and can help you avoid developing a sleep disorder in the future).
According to Doron, it would be great to get 30 minutes of sunshine every day, but you really only need a few moments in the light to get energy-boosting effects. So take a five-minute walk outside, soak up the sun, enjoy the fresh air, and you’ll get back to your day feeling refreshed.
But remember to avoid exposing yourself to light (especially blue light, like from your computer screen) closer to bedtime—it’ll keep you from falling asleep when you want to.
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Work It Out
One of the easiest ways to stay alert when you’re feeling tired is to exercise. Now, I fully admit that when I’m insanely tired, the last thing I would ever want to do is exercise. In fact, if someone told me to get up and do a couple of jumping jacks when I was feeling fatigued, I’d only be able to muster the energy to jump up and punch them in the face.
But when you really need to stay awake, a little bit of exercise is your best option. Richard Honaker, M.D., says you don’t need to bust out a whole routine at the gym, you just need to get your heart rate up. When your heart starts pumping, it forces the body to wake up.
Again, I know how hard it can be to do any form of exercise when you’re imagining that your keyboard is a fluffy pillow. But when you start feeling super tired, just stand up and do 10 squats. Even that little bit of exercise is enough to get your blood moving and keep you awake and alert. Then repeat the exercise whenever you start to drift off. You’ll power through a sleepy day and get a great butt workout all in one!
But avoid exercise in the evening if you want to go to bed at a reasonable hour—it can keep you up after you want to go to bed.
Chug! Chug! Chug!
If you want to learn how to stay awake, you need to start drinking. No, this isn’t an excuse to fill your coffee mug with bourbon. But if you’re lethargic, you’ve got to drink more water.
“Drink water like it’s your job,” says Neal Shipley, M.D., an emergency medicine specialist—a.k.a. no stranger to pulling all-nighters. “Make a point to take a five-minute break every hour during your day to get up and take a walk to fill your water bottle. Staying hydrated will keep you healthier and more alert.”
This advice works in two ways. One, getting up to get water is a form of exercise. That little walk to the water cooler wakes your body up and keeps you from an unwanted desk nap. Two, staying hydrated allows your body to function more effectively, so you get an extra energy boost right there. Of course, drinking water doesn’t actually alter your body’s intrinsic ability to stay awake, but dehydration can result in fatigue, so staying hydrated can definitely help.
Keep Away From Carbs
This may not be a huge surprise, but eating a ton of carbs will not improve your energy levels. Yes, I wish that eating a huge bowl of fettuccine Alfredo would give me Popeye-like strength to power through my day, but sadly, it just doesn’t work that way.
But here’s the tricky part—our bodies crave carbs when we’re tired. Junk food is seen as more rewarding to a fatigued brain. Because your tired body wants quick energy, you’ll start to crave doughnuts like a cop on a stakeout. But although that doughnut helps you stay awake for a little while, that energy won’t last.
Hormuz Nicolwala, M.D., a third-year resident at WVU Children’s Hospital, gives his expert tips on how to snack to stay awake. “Eating carbs during a night shift will only make you more sleepy due to the high release of insulin following intake of a high-carbohydrate meal,” Nicolwala says. He recommends eating yogurt, jerky, or other protein-filled foods to give you the nutrients you need to make it through the shift. If you pay attention to your carbs, you won’t have to worry about a blood sugar crash tanking your energy.
Use Strategic Caffeine
Studies have shown that drinking caffeine late in the day can screw up your sleep habits for the rest of the night, so caffeine is not always the best option. But hey, sometimes you just need to stay awake, and if you use caffeine right, it can work.
To keep your energy levels high, don’t slam down a triple shot espresso. It’s better to ingest small doses of caffeine throughout the day, according to a study performed by researchers at Harvard Medical School. The study found that one large dose of caffeine didn’t help wakefulness throughout the day. Instead, the study gave participants the equivalent of two ounces of caffeine every hour, and this steady dose helped participants score higher on cognitive tests and avoid accidental naps.
Now, this was a very small study where men were forced to stay up for 42 hours at a time, so their sleepy circumstance was a little more extreme than usual. And though the participants on caffeine performed better than those without, the caffeinated patients felt more sleepy than their decaf cohorts.
Still, a little bit of caffeine through the day can be helpful—especially when you’re dealing with working night shifts or all night study sessions.
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Weirder Ways to Stay Awake
The suggestions in this section are definitely curious and may work, but we definitely don’t want to imply that there’s a ton (or, uh, any) scientific evidence backing them up…
Put Peppermint on Your Face
Holistic health coach Hannah Alderete recommends putting a dab of peppermint oil on your temples for a little boost. “The peppermint is a stimulant and will both cool your body down and rev your attention back up,” Alderete says.
Switch Up Your Toothpaste
Since peppermint is such a good neural stimulant, reserve your minty toothpaste for the morning says Mark Burhenne, D.D.S. But peppermint paste “harms the brain’s winding-down process at night.” So, before bed, switch to a non-mint toothpaste. This helps tell your brain that it’s time to sleep, and you won’t have mint keeping you up at night.
Watch Your Meds
Beware of antihistamines and Benadryl (diphenhydramine) when you’re feeling groggy, Honaker says. Both drugs can make fatigue worse, or they could be causing your sleepiness in the first place!
Shut Your Mouth
Burhenne has an unusual recommendation for a good night’s sleep—tape your mouth shut. Seriously. Literally, put tape over your mouth. This isn’t some pseudo 50 Shades stuff, it’s meant to help you breathe during the night. Taping your mouth forces you to breathe through your nose, which Burhenne insists increases the body’s supply of nitric oxide, which helps reduce blood pressure and improves memory and sleep quality—so getting more might help.
Now, there aren’t many studies to back up the claims of mouth taping, and if you have a nasal anomaly or a medical condition that makes you rely more on mouth breathing, taping your mouth shut definitely isn’t recommended. But Burhenne and others say they have had many clients claim their sleeping improved through taping, so it may be worth talking to your doctor about.
None of these tips will replace a full night’s sleep. But a little sunshine, exercise, and protein really can help you power through even your sleepiest days.
Amber Petty is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. If you like easy crafts and Simpsons gifs, check out her blog, Half-Assed Crafts.