When you’ve had very little sleep and now have to face the day bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, what’s the best way to cope?

First, it’s important to recognise that sleepless nights (even if they don’t happen often) do affect our health and wellbeing.

Research suggests that after just one night of not sleeping, blood tests can detect changes in more than 100 proteins in the blood, including ones that have an effect on blood sugar, immune function, and metabolism. Over time, these types of biochemical changes are ones that can elevate your risk for health issues such as diabetes, weight gain, and even cancer.

Other research suggests missing an entire night of sleep can alter RNA fragments in your blood in ways that indicate lower cognitive functioning; and still more research finds drivers are at higher risk of accidents after a night of insufficient sleep.

And you probably know from experience that not getting a good night’s sleep can wear on mood, alertness, your ability to focus, and even judgement and agility.

The unpredictability of life pretty much guarantees you’re not going to sleep perfectly every night of your life (and you certainly shouldn’t beat yourself up when it happens). But avoiding poor sleep if and when you can is far more ideal than trying to undo the consequences the next day.

“There’s something called sleep debt, and unfortunately it accumulates over time,” explains Zeeshan Khan, DO, a pulmonologist who is medical director of the Deborah Institute of Sleep Medicine at Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, New Jersey.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes sleep debt as the amount of sleep you need at night minus the amount that you actually get, and each hour you lose adds to the total debt. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep per night, according to the CDC.

People try to make up for sleep debt by snoozing more the next night or on the weekend, but there’s really no way to make up for it in the short term, says David Gozal, MD, a paediatric pulmonologist who is chair of Child Health at the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia who has studied childhood sleep problems and the link between sleep disorders and other chronic health problems.

“The recovery from that night is not going to take place on the next night. It takes a few nights before you actually recover,” Dr. Gozal says …or perhaps longer.

A randomised controlled study published in March 2019 in Current Biology required participants to cut back sleep by five hours during the week and then make up the difference over the weekend. The following week, on average, those in the study still had a disrupted sleep schedule, plus they took in more calories during the evening, gained weight, and had lower blood insulin sensitivity — a sign of a disruption in metabolic function.

So, if you did sleep poorly last night, what’s the best way to get through the day and get back to a healthy sleep schedule? Here’s what you should know.

1. Prioritize Getting Back to Your Sleep Schedule the Next Night

As mentioned, you can’t really make up your sleep debt. The best way to recover after a sleepless night is to not let it become two (or more) nights of disrupted sleep. Aim to go to sleep at the same time you usually do the night after not sleeping well, and get back to a regular, consistent sleep schedule as soon as possible.

And if you’re going to sleep in on the weekend, the best way to do it is to gradually cut back on your time in bed each day so you’re back to your normal schedule by the top of the week, says Sanjeev V. Kothare, MD, co-director of the paediatric sleep program and director of paediatric neurology at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Lake Success, New York.

“Let’s say you wake up at 7 in the morning on weekdays. On Saturday morning you’re going to wake up at 9am. On Sunday morning you’ll wake up at 8am, and then Monday morning you’re waking up again at 7am.” Even two days of not waking up on time can disrupt your normal sleep schedule going forward, he says.

2. Avoid Napping the Next Day

After a night of not enough sleep, you’re probably going to feel tired and have the urge to nap the next day, Dr. Kothare says. But it’s better to skip the midday slumber if you can. Even if you feel sleepy or a little out of sorts, you’re better off waiting until bed time (or maybe slightly earlier) and getting a good sleep overnight to get yourself back to your regular sleep schedule, he says. “If you nap, you’re going to have the same problem the next night [of sleeping restlessly].”

Kamyra Harding, a 54-year-old Atlanta-based freelance writer and content manager for Your Teen Media, usually tries to power through and not fall asleep early after a night of poor sleep, something that Kothare and other experts say is ideal if you can pull it off. “No matter what happens during the day, that evening I try to stay awake until my usual bedtime, and then sleep hard. If I retire early, I’ll likely wake early and begin a problematic sleep cycle,” she says.

Keeping to a consistent sleep schedule means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, every day, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). It’s best not to vary that by more than 30 minutes on either side of your regular time, says Dr. Khan.

3. If You Have to Rest, Make It a Power Nap

If you do find yourself struggling to concentrate and keep your eyes open, and you have the opportunity to do so, try a mini-nap or a power nap. “It might be a good strategy to at least recharge your battery a little bit,” Gozal says – but you’re not really sleeping deeply or long enough to interfere with night time sleep (as long as you don’t do it later in the afternoon, evening, or too close to bedtime).

Kothare says 20 minutes is the sweet spot for a nap and suggests setting an alarm for it.

“Twenty minutes gives you enough [light stage] sleep to rejuvenate you, but it doesn’t allow you to go into deep-stage sleep.” Waking up in the middle of deep sleep will leave you groggy, he explains.

Or make it a coffee nap – which means you drink coffee, and take a power nap. “The caffeine starts working after about half an hour,” Kothare explains. So it’s alerting effects hit you when you wake up from the nap. A well-cited 1997 study published in Psychophysiology found that people who took a 15-minute nap after drinking 200 milligrams of caffeine (about two cups of coffee, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) committed less than one-tenth of the errors in a driving simulator than people who received a placebo treatment. They also had fewer errors than those who drank caffeine alone.

4. Know When to Cut Off Caffeine Though

Remember, the goal is to get to bed on time the next day. “If you want to use caffeine during the day to get you through the day, that’s reasonable,” says Khan. But be careful about how much and when you’re consuming it. Caffeine is most effective within the first hour or so of drinking it, but its alerting effects do continue for up to 10 hours after you consume it, according to Cleveland Clinic. “I usually say early afternoon is a pretty good cutoff,” Khan says.

5. Avoid Drowsy Driving

Sleep deprivation increases the odds of crashing in a motor vehicle, as well as other accidents. If you’re sleep deprived, let someone else do the driving for you – whether that means depending on a friend, catching a rideshare, taking public transport, or even just pulling over off of the road for a break – if you are experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Yawning
  • Being unable to keep your eyes open
  • Catching yourself nodding off
  • Struggling to keep your head up
  • Not being able to remember driving the previous few miles
  • Driving past your exit
  • Missing road signs
  • Drifting out of your lane or onto the road shoulder

6. Don’t Panic, But Do See Your Doctor if Sleepless Nights Become a Habit

Sleep medicine specialists like Gozal, Khan, and Kothare have expertise in helping people get restful sleep on a regular basis, and advise seeking help sooner rather than later if you are having ongoing sleep issues. Oftentimes chronic insomnia starts because someone’s sleep routine gets disrupted (maybe because of a stressful life event they’re coping with or a disruption to their schedule), and even once they have the opportunity to get back to their previous healthy sleep schedule, their bodies and brains struggle to do so.

It’s important to know that one night of poor sleep isn’t going to wreck your health. But if disrupted sleep becomes a habit, you could put yourself at higher risk of certain chronic illnesses down the line.