Tired, grumpy, self-medicating with KitKats and coffee? Here’s how the experts handle sleep deprivation

Running on fumes after yet another night battling insomnia, noisy neighbours or small children? We’ll get you through the day

The world is full of advice on how to get a good night’s sleep, but sometimes doing so just isn’t possible. If you are struggling with a sleep disorder, are a shift worker or have a toddler who wakes every few hours, being told how to sleep well can be galling. For others, despite feeling knackered all day, a fourth episode of The Bear can seem more appealing than going to bed.

How do you know if you are sleep-deprived? For some people, the answer will be obvious; for others, it may be less so. Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford, specifies three signs that you are probably not getting enough sleep: “Feeling that you don’t perform at your peak during the day; oversleeping on free days; or craving a nap during the day.”

Guy Meadows, the founder of the Sleep School, suggests you ask yourself: “Do I wake up in the morning feeling refreshed, with enough energy to go about my day effectively, to perform tasks and have a relatively stable emotional outlook on the world?” According to Meadows, most of us could do with an extra hour to an hour and a half of sleep each night.

Thankfully, there are things you can do to help you cope.

A man making a cup of tea
Caffeine can improve alertness, but too much may give you the jitters. Photograph: Louise Beaumont/Getty Images

Is it OK to load up on caffeine to stay awake?

If you are on your fourth coffee of the day, there is some good news. It is “a wonderful stimulant drug”, says Meadows. But he sounds a note of caution: “Caffeine is friend and foe.” It works as the antagonist to adenosine (a chemical the brain produces that causes drowsiness and thus helps us to sleep), masking the problems rather than solving them.

“Much will depend on what the goal is,” says Ian Walshe, a senior lecturer at Northumbria University who researches sleep, exercise and nutrition. “Coffee or caffeine will improve alertness, but too much may give you the shakes or jitters.” He points to one study that has shown that “drinking coffee after sleep restriction can reduce glucose control – not great for those who have diabetes”.

Used to working with corporate types who consume three triple espressos of a morning, Meadows is reassuringly relaxed: “If you have two to three cups of a caffeinated beverage before midday, then from midday onwards swap to decaf or herbal alternatives.” Drinking too much coffee later in the day will, however, probably disrupt your sleep when you do finally get to bed.

How can I cope with a night of little sleep without grabbing a KitKat or something else sweet for breakfast? Are there healthy foods that will help?

While it can be tempting to reach for sugary things, “a balanced and plant-packed breakfast will set you up for a far better day”, says Rosemary Martin, a registered dietician. “Aim to include some wholegrain carbohydrates alongside fruit or vegetables, protein and healthy fats.” She recommends oat porridge with soya milk, soya yoghurt, berries and nuts. “Or, if you have a little more time, scrambled tofu on wholemeal toast with tomatoes, spinach and avocado.” All the experts interviewed mention nuts as a good option.

Bowl of porridge with fruit and nuts
Eating wholegrains, fruit and nuts for breakfast will give you a healthy energy boost. Photograph: Arx0nt/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Why do I want to eat so much when I’m tired – and is this a problem?

“Lack of good sleep can cause an imbalance in your appetite hormones,” says Martin. “The hormone ghrelin, which causes you to feel hungry, increases and the hormone leptin, which signals that you are full, decreases.”

As Meadows says: “It’s a perfect storm where we want to eat more and we don’t know when to stop. Combine that with the fact that when we are sleep-deprived our willpower is lower and it becomes pretty tricky.

“Poor sleep, or sleep deprivation, leads to an increased likelihood of poor lifestyle choices. Many of us get stuck in the habit of eating junk food, and the knock-on effect is that the junk food disturbs our sleep, because it’s higher in sugar; it’s more stimulating.”

After a bad night’s sleep, Martin recommends “making a conscious effort to choose foods that are high in fibre, such as wholegrains, beans, fruits and vegetables. Because they are packed with fibre and water, they will help you feel full while limiting your overall energy intake.”

If I get the chance to nap, should I?

Foster says a nap can be a blessing, but there are provisos. He recommends a 20-minute nap immediately after lunch, “which can improve your cognitive performance during the second half of the day”. In general, he advises against letting a nap run on, because you can fall into deeper sleep. For the chronically tired, however, a two-hour nap will help.

A woman with her head on a pillow in a man’s lap
A 20-minute nap after lunch can improve cognitive performance. Photograph: FG Trade/Getty Images

If I get the chance to sleep in at the weekend, should I?

If you have a lie-in, says Foster, “you are shifting the clock to a later time, meaning getting up on a Monday is going to be more difficult”. If possible, maintaining a regular sleep schedule “really is the best way to do it”.

Getting up early will also mean you get more all-important morning light. Foster recommends setting an alarm clock and going outside, or sitting next to a window. While all light is a stimulus for wakefulness, Meadows says morning light is the most stimulating: “It will help to increase serotonin, which will help to boost your mood. It will help to synchronise your body clock to the time zone that you’re in, helping to boost the release of cortisol, to give you get-up-and-go.”

A woman looking at a light box.
A light box may help you get going in winter. Photograph: Rocky89/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Can light therapy help?

Absolutely, says Foster. In winter, he recommends using a light box. Meadows, who sounds almost chirpy for 3.30pm on a Friday, swears by his: “I have one on my desk. The first thing I do when I arrive in the morning is have my coffee and turn on my light therapy – without fail.”

Obviously, you should not stare at the sun, but Foster says that light is “such a powerful, free health resource” that he would urge us to “harvest it” by “getting at least 10 minutes of good, solid natural light”.

I tend to stop exercising when I am exhausted. How can I motivate myself? Are there exercises that work well when you are tired?

This is a dilemma Meadows has heard before. “One of the questions I get asked a lot is: ‘Should I cut my sleep short and go to the gym?’” It is about being kind to our sleep-deprived selves and adapting: “We don’t need the exercise here to increase tiredness.” So, a high-intensity run isn’t the best choice.

“You need to listen to your body,” says the personal trainer Sarah Overall. “It is tired for a reason, so strenuous workouts are not always the best idea.” When she is exhausted, “getting out in the fresh air with my dog works wonders”. She also recommends “doing a bit of gentle yoga or pilates”. The exercise physiologist Tom Cowan agrees, suggesting limiting the intensity and duration of your exercise and opting for activities such as tai chi or gardening.

Even if you do force yourself to the gym, it may not have the desired effect, as Meadows explains: “Exercise is the stimulus for growth, but sleep is when growth occurs. If you are sleep-deprived and hitting it hard at the gym, it’s pointless.”

Man doing a downward dog yoga posture over a small dog, who is looking up at him
Gentle exercise, such as yoga or walking the dog, can be more beneficial than a hard workout. Photograph: The Good Brigade/Getty Images

Is there anything I can do – or eat – that will instantly wake me up?

A quick fix may sound appealing when you are operating on broken sleep, but there are no specific foods that Martin would recommend. “Ultimately, it is your overall dietary choices that will help you to feel energised and focused.”

Overall suggests a lunchtime run to keep you wide awake and working efficiently in the afternoon: “Aerobic exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, increasing cognitive efficiency.” Alternatively, she says, “a brisk walk or a cycle ride will do the trick”.

Will a lack of sleep always sabotage my health? Can I minimise long‑term effects?

“Short term, you can get away with it,” says Foster. “It’s in the long term that things start to fall apart.” He catalogues the ill effects: “Your cognitive performance drops with accumulated sleep deprivation – your communication skills, your decision-making skills, your memory.”

There is also an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, depression and psychosis. The World Health Organization classifies night-shift work as a probable carcinogen.

Foster recommends higher-frequency health checks for the chronically sleep-deprived, “so you detect that change in blood glucose in the pre-diabetic phase before it becomes a chronic condition”. You can also detect “any other nasties that may be creeping up on you”.

Exhaustion can make me feel irritable. What is the best way to make sure I don’t snap at other people?

“Just be aware that you’re going to be more irritable,” says Foster. It may be easier said than done, he admits, but “try to make sure you’re not putting yourself into situations where you have to rely on your empathy”.

If you and your partner need to discuss anything serious, try to find a time when you are not so tired, he advises. In his household, for instance, they don’t talk about family finances at bedtime.


Ellie Violet Bramley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sleep tourism is booming. Here’s why | Arwa Mahdawi
The world is stressful, so an adventure holiday is the last thing you need. Instead, hotels are offering fancy sleep suites and AI-powered beds, writes Arwa Mahdawi

Arwa Mahdawi

19, Jul, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
My deep sleep quest: I tried 11 popular insomnia cures. Do any of them actually work?
In lockdown, insomnia has soared. Our tired, intrepid writer tried a range of remedies – including CBD, deep breathing and lettuce water

Emma Beddington

26, Jul, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
The experts: Cardiologists on 20 simple, successful steps to a healthy heart
Our hearts are muscles and need proper fuel and rest. Here is how to keep yours on top form – from avoiding cocaine to watching your cholesterol

Sarah Phillips

14, Nov, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
Unsteady on your feet? Why sleep deprivation is ruining your walk
From obesity to heart disease, there are many harmful effects of a lack of sleep. Now scientists are adding an unexpected one to the list: a wobbly gait

02, Nov, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Should I worry about being tired all the time?
Is modern life making us ill – or are we just a little underslept?

Joel Snape

22, Oct, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Yes, you’re tired. But are you hungry tired, angry tired, resignation tired, stupid tired …? | Emma Beddington
We need new ways to describe our constant state of exhaustion. ‘Hyperfatigue’ barely scratches the surface, writes Emma Beddington

Emma Beddington

21, May, 2023 @1:00 PM

Article image
Should I worry about how much sleep I’m getting?
Late nights, early starts, nightmares, anxiety, children … there are so many things that can cut into our shut-eye. When does that threaten our health – and what can we do about it?

Joel Snape

30, Apr, 2023 @2:00 PM

The hidden dangers of sleep deprivation

Missing out on your nightly rest has recently been linked to major health problems including heart disease and stroke

Leo Hickman

09, Feb, 2011 @8:00 PM

Article image
The hell of somniphobia: ‘On a bad night I get zero to two hours’ sleep’
The fear of falling asleep can have many causes, from trauma to sleep apnea, and the effects are debilitating. But there are effective treatments

Amy Fleming

24, Apr, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
The healthspan revolution: how to live a long, strong and happy life
Dr Peter Attia is an expert on longevity and preventative medicine. He explains how sleep, weight training and other incremental changes can make us much more resilient

John Harris

28, Mar, 2023 @5:00 AM