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Matthew J. Edlund M.D.
Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

How To Overcome a Bad Night's Sleep

One bad night need not ruin the next day.

That Bad Night

That Bad Night

The holidays are exciting - and sleep depriving. Gaze in a mirror and you probably don't see a perfect sleeper. In Gallup polls, perhaps 5% of the population says they sleep well every night.

Yet lots of people have bad nights, with perhaps one third of Americans complaining of insomnia that goes on and on and on.

But many people don't have prolonged insomnia - just periods where they sleep badly, for one night or a few. They often feel lousy the next day - and worry insomnia might get worse.

So here's a few techniques to help overcome a bad night's sleep:

A. Learn to catnap. The American "lie down and die" method of sleeping, where we go to bed, conk out immediately, and awake thoroughly refreshed is procedure enjoyed by very few. If you look at past diaries and other historical evidence, human sleep appears naturally triphasic. It's normal for us to wake at night and nap in the afternoon.

Naps are among the most natural acts in the world.

So try this: Find a comfortable place to lie down. It can be a sofa, a floor where you can place a futon, or just a carpeted space (if it's during work, clearly talk first with your boss; many folks find that brief naps will improve their productivity.) Get a pillow, or if that's not possible, wadded up, soft clothing before you stretch out. Cover your eyes with a night mask, or if unavailable, a washcloth. The night mask's blanketing of light often aids sleep.

Next, use some kind of timer - whether from a cell phone, a watch, a computer or just a plain old kitchen timer. For most people, short naps of 15 to 20 minutes work best to refresh. Let naps go too long and you may get sleep inertia - the grogginess that comes with deeper phases of sleep. Long naps often also can impair body clocks.

B. On awakening, try to get some light - preferably sunlight - to alert you and get you going. Try physically moving as quickly as possible after waking into morning light - the brighter the better. The benefits include: 1. More alertness 2. Better mood 3. A new reset of biological clocks by morning light, which should make it easier to wake up earlier on subsequent days. Outside sunlight, if available, is best.

After a bad night people often feel lethargic. One of the best ways to overcome day time torpor is scheduled physical activity:

C. Find a time during the late morning or early afternoon where you can do 5- 10 minutes of what for you is relatively intense exercise. This can be a brisk walk to lunch; going up and down the stairs at work; walking fast or even running over to a park or a business meeting. Sweating may not be best for office appearance, and make up smudging can be a problem. However, if the activity is short such undesired results may be finessed, and will leave many with a nice glow around the skin.

If your job chains you to a desk, explain you have to use the facilities. Find a far away bathroom and move there and back quickly, using stairs if available.

Alternating mental and physical activity usually improves alertness. A bad night of sleep often makes people want to watch TV or videos, but try and resist - at least move around first.

D. Sip cold tea or coffee in the morning. Energy drinks may be popular, but lack the anti-oxidants and other useful chemicals found in tea and coffee. Tea and coffee can lower rates of diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and other illnesses we don't need.

How much tea or coffee to drink? Studies of medical interns, like those done by James Wyatt, recommend an ounce every hour until early afternoon. Later doses may decrease night-time sleep.

The Next Night

Most of us can overcome brief sleep deficits (long term ones is a whole other story.) Every night's sleep is an opportunity for regeneration. So if you slept poorly the night before, look forward to your recovery the next night.

And please, don't go to bed earlier - unless you must. You don't want to impair the biological clocks that help you sleep. Make sure to rest before sleep - put out your clothes for the next day; floss or brush your teeth; turn off your cellphone, unless it's used as an alarm; and rest your mind before sleep with active, calming rest techniques like yoga or paradoxical relaxation.

There are many ways to adapt to a bad night's sleep. It's even better to use ones that help you regenerate your body every day of your life.

About the Author
Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Matthew Edlund, M.D., researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health. He is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.

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