Chances are half of your colleagues at work are desperate for a nap. Many adults don’t get enough sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation, the problem particularly "acute" among younger workers: one in three struggle to get out of bed each morning.
What’s keeping them up at night? Not work worries. Marie Gagnon, 24, is a regular at Rumor, a nightclub in Boston. Though she’s employed in a 9-to-5 job at an insurance company, she can’t imagine staying home every weeknight: "I don’t want to be bored," she says. "I love the energy of Rumor."
What time does it get rolling? Midnight. Gagnon says club goers with jobs go home at 2am and the college kids stay later. Maybe they would all get to bed earlier if they knew that research shows lack of sleep can make you dumb and fat.
Those who get fewer than six hours of sleep a night might as well be drunk. The Sleep Foundation determined that people who remain awake for 18 hours straight function similar to drinkers with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent, the level states use to determine whether someone is legally impaired to operate a car.
And, when you don’t get enough sleep your brain starts thinking it needs to store food, according to Eve Van Cauter, a researcher at the University of Chicago. Leptin, a hormone that helps regulate hunger and body fat, drops from lack of sleep, triggering hunger.
What to do about sleepiness? The most obvious solution is to change your lifestyle. "I used to try to go out every night in college," says Gagnon, "but now that I’m in the real world, I’ve cut back." Her job as a claims representative starts at 9am. She says as long as she’s home by 2am she can get to work on time. This leaves her short of sleep – most people need seven hours a night. To compensate, Gagnon sometimes puts in longer hours and drinks coffee – "five or six cups at a minimum."
But this is a risky strategy; after so much caffeine, the body’s response to the stimulating effects of coffee can become dulled. Which is why, even after six cups, she still feels a slump in the afternoon: "I usually have to go in early the next day or stay later to manage my workload."
Sleep researchers advocate alternatives to Gagnon’s strategy. "A bright light will keep you awake," says Daniel Kripke, professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Diego. For those of you in the light-bulb market, look for "a bright white or bluish light. Fluorescent without ultraviolet." Administer the light to yourself in the morning, when it is most effective in the battle against sleepiness. But "it probably has some benefits if you use it later in the day, too," he says.
Napping works. However, napping is considered an office disruption, so you might have to book a windowless conference room to get away with this one. But a nap is well worth the risk. It will rescue your lagging performance, according to Sara Mednick, sleep researcher at the Salk Institute.
Mednick currently is studying two groups of people in her lab. Those in one group do not get a nap, and their performances decreased as the day progresses. The other group napped and their performance not only did not go down, but it sometimes goes up after the nap. Mednick, not surprisingly, is gung-ho for naps, and in fact, she says, you can actually train yourself to be the kind of napper who can shut your eyes for ten minutes and wake up refreshed.
"You only need to practice for a couple of weeks," says Mednick. Alas, the chronic under-sleeper probably does not have the discipline to nap efficiently and so risks waking up feeling more tired than before.
Luckily, there’s the caffeine nap. Caffeine can clear your body of the chemical adenosine, which makes us want to sleep. Researchers at the Sleep Research Center at Loughborough University in England were investigating ways to prevent drivers from falling asleep at the wheel and causing car crashes. They found that the best way to regain alertness if you feel like you’re falling asleep is to chug a cup of coffee and then immediately take a 15-minute nap. The idea is to get the sleep in before the caffeine takes effect. So you have to start napping right after that cup of coffee – or a can of caffeinated soda – goes down. Not a bad solution, but certainly not long term.
The only long-term solution is to get a regular seven hours of sleep. So among all this research, the advice that stands out as the best is from Kripke: "If you don’t like how you feel the next day, then don’t stay up too late."