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Despite our best efforts, sleepless nights aren’t always avoidable, especially when you take into account the fact that variables such as mood and diet can affect our ability to get quality rest. So, we asked a sleep expert how to biohack your way into feeling more alert after a bad night’s sleep. 

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According to a recent study by the University of Southampton, the number of Brits reportedly suffering from sleep problems has risen from one in six to one in four since the beginning of the pandemic. And Google search trends suggest that people are seeking advice about the lowest amount of sleep they can survive on daily.

It’s no surprise that sleeplessness is such an issue when you take into consideration the many variables that can affect our ability to relax into restful sleep. Not only do you have to worry about overstimulation from electronic gadgets, but sleep quality can also be adversely affected by things out of your control such as weather and mood.

The groggy feeling we get after a bad night’s sleep goes deeper than the feeling of residual sleepiness, according to Dr Sonia Khan, lead pharmacist at Medicine Direct. Khan says grogginess occurs when “the body can’t carry out the essential maintenance that it’s required to do every night. For individuals that do not fall into the later stages of sleep, this means that your brain effectively stays active all day and is unable to effectively process and store yesterday’s events.”

She explains, “In essence, your brain has not switched off from the previous day. Your body is also unable to repair any damaged cells and muscles to ensure there is enough energy in them for the following day.”

Despite how many sleep hacks you try, sometimes there’s no escaping the fact that you’ll have a disrupted night. Although we can’t replace the hours of lost shuteye, experts have determined that our bodies’ responses to certain stimuli can lead to an increased feeling of alertness.

Read on for three science-backed ways to fight the brain fog that follows a restless night. 

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Practise yoga nidra

Pulling your yoga mat out after a waking up from a long night of tossing and turning might seem counterproductive, but Risa Gabrielle, a certified sleep therapist swears by this yoga practice and says, “30 minutes of yoga nidra can feel like the equivalent of getting up to two hours more sleep.”

Yoga Nidra or yogic sleep as it’s commonly known is “a deeply guided meditation that puts you in a hypnotic and hypnagogic (between sleep and rest) state.”

Gabrielle says: “It slows your brainwaves, so you are able to experience the restorative benefits of sleep while technically still being awake. And it helps you access the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxation response. Unlike taking a nap, you don’t feel groggy when you finish a yoga nidra.”

She advises using free guided yoga nidra sessions on YouTube or the Yoga Nidra Network.

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Utilise intentional stressors

Not to be confused with mental or emotional stress, physical stress involves putting the body in a situation that “positively stimulates adrenaline release. Despite feeling tired and sleepy, putting your body through its paces with a short HIIT workout, or a quick run can “give you a burst of energy in the morning.”

If you’re not huge on physical activity first thing in the morning, Gabrielle suggests taking a cold shower – start warm and then work your way up to cold, or practising techniques such as Wim Hof or Tummo breathing, can elicit the same energy high. Gabrielle explains, “The reason this works is that these are positive stressors that will increase adrenaline and cortisol levels – they’ll certainly give you energy in the short term.”

For people who suffer with chronic sleeplessness disorders such as insomnia, the habitual practice of intentional stress has long-term benefits. Gabrielle says that over time your brain starts to associate the stressor with the positive effect of boosted energy.

She explains: “What that does is helps release dopamine and serotonin, which helps the body get more out of the adrenaline release. By marrying the adrenaline and cortisol spike with the feel good-hormone dopamine, and the mood stabilising-hormone serotonin, these practices help you manage the stress response in your body in the long-term.”

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Get into the light

We already know that getting out into natural light can boost your mood. However, instead of saving your daylight hour for a relaxing lunchtime walk, when chasing an early energy boost, Gabrielle suggests you “get outside within the first 30 to 60 minutes of waking up.”

Using this method to counteract the effects of bad sleep depends on timing “the body’s cortisol release so that it is strongest in the mornings. Getting this daylight also prevents a late shift in cortisol release – which correlates with anxiety, depression, insomnia.” She explains, “The right amount of cortisol in the morning helps to improve focus, energy levels and learning.”

When it comes to light exposure, it’s not just a matter of when but also of how much. Gabrielle specifies: “On a sunny day, get outside for five to 10 minutes, if it’s overcast, 10 to 20 minutes will do. On a cloudy day it takes about 30 minutes to get the right amount of daylight.”

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Tips to feel more rested ahead of a restless night

If you’re working late, staying up to binge the latest must-watch or have to wake up early for a flight, there’s not much you can do to prolong your sleep. However, Gabrielle has a few tips for making whatever amount of sleep you do get feel more restful. 

  • Put all your gadgets away at least half an hour before bed. Gabrielle says, “The blue light from your phone is debilitating to sleep, but the other reason is that the content from our phone or TV can spike our cortisol and adrenaline levels.”
  • Build rest stops into your day so that bedtime is the first time you’re resting all day. According to Gabrielle, “Intentional rest helps soothe your nervous system, and gets you into that rest and digest state.” She suggests the following practices for intentional daytime rest: “Stop looking at screens for two minutes, close your eyes and scan your body and breathe; listen to a five-minute guided meditation; go for a walk without your phone; do a restorative yoga pose.”
  • Dr Sonia Khan, lead pharmacist

    Sonia Khan (MPharm) is the senior pharmacist at Medicine Direct.

    Sonia Khan (MPharm) is the senior pharmacist at Medicine Direct. Sonia graduated from Bradford University in 2012 with a Master of Pharmacy and has since worked for some of the UK’s largest pharmacies. Sonia specialises in a number of conditions ranging from women and men’s health to sexual health and chronic conditions

  • Risa Gabrielle

    Risa Gabrielle is a certified sleep therapist who works across the UK and internationally.

    London-based sleep therapist Risa Gabrielle works across the UK and internationally, seeing private clients and running sleep workshops for groups. Risa loves nothing more than helping others to achieve quality sleep. Her signature course “Sleep Rehab” is launching online in September 2021. 

Images: Getty, and courtesy of experts 

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