We all have these days, where we are forced to function and go about our day on minimal sleep. This makes for a LONG day, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a productive day.
Here are 4 tricks I often use to maintain focus and brain power on these sleep deprived days.
1.Push Back Your Coffee
Delay the time of your first coffee as long as possible. This one might seem strange – how on earth do you delay the time of your coffee when you are waking up at 4 AM? So here’s the trick, our brain produces hormones at specific times every day like clockwork, which regulate when we feel hungry, alert, tired, energized, and so on. First thing in the morning – assuming our circadian rhythm is in sync (shift workers are an exception) – our hypothalamus triggers the release of cortisol. This is often referred to as the “stress hormone” because it is released during stressful times. While this is true it has MANY other important functions, including the role of waking us up in the morning.
If you resist the urge for coffee for about 20 minutes after waking you should feel alert enough to just forgo that coffee temporarily- if your hormones are in tune that surge of cortisol will hit you and perk you up. You will then wait until your cortisol drops to consume your first coffee – don’t worry you will feel this, probably 1-2 hours later. What this does is it reduces the amount of caffeine you will need throughout the day, and MAINTAINS your circadian rhythm. It also makes your first coffee that much sweeter, and instead of crashing shortly after breakfast, your first coffee could get you all the way into the afternoon.
This one is probably a surprise. Creatine increases available ATP for muscle cells but also BRAIN CELLS, meaning more available energy for your sleepy brain. In fact, endogenous creatine levels (the creatine we naturally produce) in our brain decrease during times of sleep deprivation. Interestingly, studies show that creatine can boost memory, and improve cognition in sleep deprived individuals. Supplement with 5-10g of creatine monohydrate in water or perhaps mixed with 10-20g of some naturally flavoured/sugar free protein powder or similar.
Have you ever gone for a nap only to wake up incredibly groggy and regret laying down in the first place? That’s what happens when you take a nap longer than about 30 minutes on extra sleepy days. You brain is SO tired that it jumps into deep stages of sleep faster than usual. You then wake up 60 minutes later in the middle of one of those deep stages (e.g. ‘slow wave’ sleep/delta brain waves) and you just don’t feel like yourself, and it takes a while to wake up from one of these. I personally notice symptoms of grogginess up to 2 hours later. Here’s what to do: limit your naps to fewer than 30 minutes OR allow for 80-90 minutes. The 30 minutes is enough to refresh you without letting you slip into deep stages and grogginess. The 80-90 minutes is enough to get through a valuable full sleep cycle.
4.Avoid the Morning Sugar
I hate to sound like a broken record but avoiding AM sugar and carbohydrates is even MORE important when you are sleep deprived. Studies confirm that our insulin sensitivity is impaired when we are sleep deprived – meaning we are more likely to store these foods as fat. And anecdotal evidence suggests the sugar crashes are even more severe when sleep deprived. The problem is we tend to crave these sweet sugary high carbohydrate foods even MORE when we are sleep deprived. Drive away cravings with some brain ignition coffee, and then keep your breakfast high fat and high protein. At lunch or later, try some blood-sugar friendly dark chocolate with sea salt to satisfy those cravings and give your brain another shot of energy- dark chocolate (90% or higher) can give our brains a shot of the reward chemical dopamine. Interestingly, a quick workout is enough to return this insulin sensitivity to baseline when we are sleep deprived.
McMorris, T., Harris, R.C., Swain, J. et al. Psychopharmacology (2006) 185: 93. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-005-0269-z
The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 95, Issue 6, 1 June 2010, Pages 2963–2968, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2009-2430