Dr Laura GinesiNational Bed Month is The Sleep Council’s longest standing awareness campaign, which started in 1990 and runs throughout the whole of March.

As part of National Bed Month, Dr Laura Ginesi (Lecturer in Applied Human Physiology at Birmingham City University’s Faculty of Health), shares her tips on coping after a bad night’s sleep and ways to repay the sleep debt.

Electricity and artificial lights were introduced in the 19th century but current working patterns and technology have extended the day and seem to be progressively detaching our physiology from the solar 24-hour cycle of light and dark.

The result?

Disruption of our daily physiology and sleep that leads to impaired performance – more mistakes, poor attention to detail, impaired mental and physical reaction times along with difficulties in remembering and reduced motivation – when you have accumulated something called sleep debt. Worryingly, individuals who experienced daytime sleepiness are:

  • more likely to report high stress levels (80%),
  • reporting that they drive while feeling drowsy at least once per month (27%),
  • spending less time with friends and family (39%),
  • saying that they are too tired for sex (33%),
  • turn up late for work (20%)

None of which are likely to do anyone’s well-being much good!

How to stay awake after a bad night’s sleep

It is extremely hard to ignore the urge to sleep and can result in dangerous consequences, for example when driving or operating machinery. Nevertheless there are things you might like to try if you have to keep on going:

  • A tired out, stressed out brain may need to rest so schedule your day or working time so you can take a break where you do something different.
  • Dehydration can make you sleepy, so keeping your body hydrated may make sure you stay awake.
  • Go out and have a walk – getting some fresh air and sunlight will help to lift your mood.
  • Take a shower – might make you feel more morning-like
  • Stay where there is good lighting, a non-squishy chair and a table or desk.

Recovering from Sleep debt

Sleep patterns may change as a result of stress but the need for sleep – sometimes called sleep pressure – doesn’t go away because you’re stressed – the deficit grows every time you skimp on sleep.

The good news is that sleep debt can be repaid but you can’t expect it to happen in one extended sleep marathon as the amount of sleep we need is quite individual. Tacking on an extra hour or two of sleep a night seems to be the very best way to catch up, re-align your internal time clock and restore normal, optimum equilibrium. Here are some suggestions that will encourage you to:

  1. Start to factor sleep into your daily schedule; it is just as important for your well-being as being active and eating a well-balanced diet.
  2. Stop taking your stressors (job, school, finances, children, ageing parents, global warming, broken down car, boiler anxieties – whatever!) to bed with you; sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques can help you to let them go.
  3. Do your sleep sums! If you missed 10 hours of sleep during the week, then try to add 3-4 extra sleep hours on your days off or at the weekend and add on an extra 1-2hours per night the following weeks until you have repaid the debt in full .
  4. Prioritise your short-term sleep debt:
    • Go to bed when you are feeling tired
    • Allow your body to wake you naturally in the morning ( i.e. no alarm clock(s) allowed)
    • It’s a myth that alcohol will help you sleep – once its effects have worn off you will find yourself more wide awake!
    • Caffeine is best avoided in the 4-6 hours before bedtime; it’s not just in coffee but in tea, chocolate and some fizzy drinks;
    • You are more likely to feel tired and sleep well if you take some regular exercise especially in the afternoon
    • Block out distracting noise as best you can – ear plugs work!
    • Eliminate as much light as possible and banish distracting technology – mobiles, TVs and PCs – from the bedroom
    • Warm milk and foods that are rich in an amino acid called tryptophan (also found in bananas) may help you to sleep.
  5. Avoid napping during the day; although it’s generally not a bad thing to do, if you nap for too long you may find that you won’t be able to sleep at night and the vicious cycle will continue. Late afternoon is a “sleepy time” for most people so if you have to nap, then limit it to 30-45 minutes and you should still be able to sleep well at night.
  6. Once you have identified your pattern, then fix a pre-sleep ritual (a warm bath or a few minutes of reading) followed by bedtime and establish an awakening time.

You may find yourself catatonic in the beginning of this recovery cycle but as the days pass, the amount of time you spend sleeping will gradually decrease – you erase your sleep debt and bring your physiology into a sleep pattern that is uniquely right for you.

My advice

Don’t let bedtime and wake-up time to drift because your physiology adapts to good sleeping habits – even if you are retired or not working.

Avoid building up even sleep debt – go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Even better if you can do this without an alarm clock!

Sleep becomes more elusive if your sleep debt builds up; meanwhile your need to sleep becomes more urgent. This can lead to a positive cycle that compounds itself every night leading to insomnia.


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Laura Ginesi

Laura Ginesi

Lecturer in Applied Human Physiology at Birmingham City University’s Faculty of Health
Laura Ginesi

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