I’ve written about ways to get better sleep, and yet I am writing this post from a state of exhaustion.
Despite knowing all the right things to do, sometimes it’s difficult to follow through.
You can have the most calming, zen bedroom, and still toss and turn because of an ache or something on your mind. You can avoid stimulants and start unwinding early in the evening, and still wake up to the sound of a blaring siren at 2:00 AM.
Sometimes the best laid plan can fall apart when you can’t seem to remove that pea from under your mattress. It will happen on occasion—hopefully less often than not, but from time to time at best.
How can you function when it’s just not possible to call in sick and tired to life? How can you make it through the work day with minimal damage to your health, mood, relationships, and job?
I have a few ideas, but first, in the interest of full disclosure: I have more flexibility than the average person might, since I work from home and make my own schedule. Hopefully these ideas represent a balanced mix for people who have flexibility and people who don’t:
1. Protect Your Health.
When you don’t get enough sleep, you compromise your immune system. One thing I like to do when I am particularly exhausted is increase my intake of foods that have the opposite effect.
Dark colored produce, like broccoli and berries which are high in antioxidants are a great choice. I also like Emergen-C, a powder supplement you add to water, which boosts energy and bolsters the immune system.
2. Carpool or take the bus.
If you’re exhausted, there’s a good chance you’re also running late for work. That might make it inconvenient to take public transportation—but it’s better to slink past your boss’ office door at 9:30 or 10:00 than to fall asleep at the wheel.
I know because I’ve been there. In 2000, I fell asleep on the highway and crashed into the guardrail. Luckily, no one got hurt, but that’s not always the case. In 2009, as many as 1.9 million Americans had a car accident or close call because of drowsiness.
According to David Cloud, head of the National Sleep Foundation in Washington D.C., its possible to fall into a three to four second microsleep without knowing it—which is all the time needed to travel the length of a football field basically unconscious.
3. Get into the sun.
Fifteen minutes in the sun can increase your vitamin D levels. The vitamin, along with B, is responsible for fighting fatigue. People with deficiencies often experience tiredness, moodiness, aches, and stress. While a little extra sunshine can’t replace the benefits of consistent sleep, soaking in the rays can pep you up a bit.
4. Eat several small meals instead of large, heavy ones.
Ever notice how a big, heavy meal makes you want to curl up in the fetal position and check out for an hour or so? Spacing out your meals helps regulate your blood sugar and should also help increase your energy throughout the day.
Also, avoid processed, fatty foods, sweets, or foods with refined white carbohydrates. They don’t contain enough nutrients and are easily digested and absorbed, which means you’ll feel energized at first and sluggish shortly after. You’re already tired—why add fuel to the fire?
5. Avoid caffeine.
If you drink a lot of caffeine, your body’s response to it will change. You could drink over eight cups and still feel sluggish—but that doesn’t mean you won’t get the headache, irritability, dehydration, and host of other side effects that come with caffeine-overload.
Instead, try an energy boosting food, like almonds, oranges, salmon, spinach, or blueberries.
6. Spend some time under bright light.
Sleep researchers suggest this will help you feel more alert. In a 2007 study of women with breast cancer, increased exposure to bright light during chemotherapy resulted in less fatigue and better sleep.
7. Resist the urge to channel your crankiness.
You might feel inclined to confront someone who wronged you when you’re exhausted. Whenever you feel something uncomfortable, it’s tempting to channel it somewhere—to take the feeling and do something with it. Fight the urge. You aren’t thinking clearly enough to have a productive conversation, and you’ll likely say something you regret.
In fact, if you have any big meetings scheduled, do your best to push them to another day, even if it ruffles some feathers. According to the National Sleep Foundation, staying awake for 18 hours causes you to function similarly to someone with .08 blood alcohol level. You wouldn’t lead an important meeting drunk—would you?
8. Be gentle with yourself.
When you’re tired, it’s all too easy to get irritable and moody. You might even have a mini breakdown. (Admission: I’ve cried over ridiculous things when I’ve been extremely exhausted.)
Know that this is normal, but plan to combat it. Avoid people or situations that trigger anger or frustration. Use a deep breathing relaxation technique when you feel yourself getting antsy. Anything to keep your nerves calm.
9. Catnap if you can.
If you don’t have a hammock or canopy bed adjacent to your desk, this might not be an option. (Of course this never stopped me when I worked in a corporate environment—I took quite a few naps in my car.)
If you can nap, however, the right length is crucial. If you sleep for too short or too long a time, it will work against you. Experts suggest 20 minutes is ideal, since it generally takes 10 minutes to fall asleep and 10 for light, restful sleep. If you can’t fall asleep on demand, you might consider a brainwave entrainment CD (Google it!) to help slow your brainwaves.
10. Prepare to avoid making the same mistake tonight.
Most of the time when we don’t get enough sleep, we are directly responsible. Whether you put too much on your plate or stayed up to late, the constant is personal choice. It’s not always the case—if you have a baby, for example. But most of the time, it is.
If you recognize that sleep deficiency is causing your problems, set out to address the root cause. Deal with stresses that are keeping you up at night. Change your environment to allow for better sleep. If all else fails, see your doctor to check for health issues that might be affecting your sleep.
Your energy, your focus, and your attention are your greatest resources. They’re what you use to make a difference in the world; they’re the best gifts you can give to your friends and family. Protect them as best you can by taking the time you need to recharge.
If from time to time you can’t, be gentle with yourself and take even better care than you usually do. A little self-kindness can go a long way in making a bad situation better.
Photo by Alex Bellink. This post originally appeared on tinybuddha.com in 2010.