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12.04.13

Five Healthy—and Legal—Ways to Stay Awake Longer

From moving around to turning up the lights and, yes, drinking coffee, here are some perfectly safe and legal ways to keep the Sandman away.

Sure, we’ve all heard that we should get more sleep. The realities of life sometimes get in the way of that, and it becomes “we should get more sleep later.” There is either more work to be done, or more fun to be had, or both. The only downside is that you wake up the next day feeling like a cast member of The Walking Dead.

Here are five ways you can hack your biology in order to pay less of a price for staying up longer.

Move around

Exercising before bed is a sure way to keep yourself awake. That’s why you should not do it when you actually want to go to sleep, and it is also why hitting the gym, or even some fast push-ups can tell your body that it’s not time for bed. This isn’t permission to treat yourself to an intense CrossFit style high-intensity workout right before bed; that is likely to make you more tired. Being physically exhausted isn’t fun when you are trying to stay up late. Just do enough to get energized.

Drink the right stuff

It’s tempting to switch to sugary caffeine bombs like Red Bull, but the sugar will lead to a crash. Instead, if you are going to use caffeine, drinking early in the evening so it will wear off by the time you want to sleep. When you stay up late, your blood sugar fluctuates more than normal anyway. Don’t make it worse by drinking sugar.

It pains me to say this, because half the reason you are staying up late may be to enjoy a few alcoholic beverages, but alcohol is unlikely to keep you awake.  One drink will cause a brief energy burst as it releases cellular energy, but more than one is going to make you sleepy.

Eat More Protein

Few people think about the fact that the brain and body use a lot more energy when we are awake. If you are pulling an all nighter, you’re going to need a lot more food then you are used to eating. Your brain can use up to 25 percent of your total calories. To stay awake, plan to eat larger meals than normal and to eat them more frequently.

The idea of a midnight snack is a good one. That doesn’t mean you should load up on microwave popcorn and stale donuts. Stick to foods that are high in healthy fats and healthy protein. Vegetables won’t make any difference in terms of keeping you awake, except maybe habaneros. Sugar and lots of starch will give you a boost followed by a crash that will end your late night partying.

Protein stimulates a neurotransmitter in your brain called orexin. It regulates arousal, wakefulness, and appetite. In fact, researchers hypothesize that modafinil, the real-world drug most like the fictional drug from the movie Limitless works in part because it increases orexin.

That’s why you should have the steak (extra points for grass fed) and avoid the pasta if you want to stay up late.

Watch Your Eyes

There’s nothing more annoying than trying to enjoy some late-night revelry only to find that you are squinting and your eyes are tired. When your eyes are tired, you’re squinting will make your facial muscles tired. Your trigeminal nerve runs right through your face, which means that squinting will affect your entire nervous system and make you tired more quickly.  If you wear contacts, wear your glasses earlier in the day, and bring some eyedrops. (And for the approximately 10 million people with chronic dry eyes, there’s always Visine.)

Turn Up the Lights

In my posts on sleep hacking, I’m forever encouraging people to turn the lights down at night because bright lights keep you awake. For three or four hours after you are exposed to bright white light, your body will not make melatonin, the sleep hormone required for deep sleep. You will live longer and sleep better if you avoid bright lights at night. However, if you really want to stay up late, you can turn up the lights and it will help enormously.

All of these work, but if you stay up really late, expect to pay for it the next day or the next night as your body’s melatonin production may shift similar to what happens when you have jet lag. Melatonin supplementation may help with this. You also can build up a sleep debt, which means you may want to take a nap to help pay it off. However, research has proven that people can learn to sleep more efficiently.