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What are effective strategies for mitigating the impact of acute sleep deprivation on cognition?

by NaiveTortoise1 min read31st Mar 201938 comments

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I've recently been finding that I struggle much more with intellectual work (math, hard programming, writing, etc.) when I sleep less 6.5-7 hours. While I'm at peace with the fact that I seem to generally require >7 hours a sleep, it's frustrating that even though I set aside enough time for adequate sleep, I'll often wake up after only ~6 hours of sleep and not be able to fall back asleep.

My cognitive ability seems to be impacted by a single night of bad sleep even when I've been sleeping well in the recent past. Concretely, if I've slept 8 hours every night for two weeks, a single night of poor sleep can still result in a ~50% less productive day.

In addition to impacting productivity, acute sleep deprivation also leaves me much less capable of entertaining myself by thinking, so I become much more inclined to seek out distracting forms of entertainment like scrolling through the internet. It also seems to increase my cravings for generally "unhealthy" foods (I've seen references to this in literature, but won't bother linking them since it's not the focus of my question).

Other useful notes about my general sleep habits/history include:

  • I'm not sure if I've always been this sensitive to sleep deprivation and just notice it more due to a combination of more introspective and spending more time on certain activities or if something's changed and I've become more sensitive.
  • I generally have 1 cup of coffee in the morning around when I wake up. More cups of coffee do not seem to offset sleep deprivation's impact on my cognitive ability, and in fact have at times exacerbated it.
  • I've tried napping when it's fit with my schedule and each time ended up lying awake for the 20-40 minutes during which I intended to nap.

I'd love to hear others' strategies for mitigating the impact of acute sleep deprivation on cognitive ability. I've done some preliminary searching for papers, articles, etc., but those that I've found focus on reducing tiredness rather than on returning cognitive ability to baseline. I'm open to trying strategies including but not limited to diet changes, supplements, medication, and habit changes.

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4 Answers

It might be helpful to have sleep tracking to have a better idea of what you need.

There's hardware like https://dreem.com/en/product that promises to help people sleep better.

General tips for better sleep are about avoiding blue light right before bed. I sat my f.lux so red that green and black became the same color. In addition I have Philips Hue lights that dim red.

Cool down the room when you are sleeping.

Make the room in which you are sleeping pitch black.

Don't eat anything 2 hours before going to bed.

Thanks, I'll try this out! Zeo had already been shut down when I went to buy one, so I'm excited to see there's a similar product on the market.

I'm not perfect about avoiding blue light but I do usually sleep in a cold room, stop eating well before bed, and wear an eye mask (although my room isn't as dark as it should be).

Hopefully the Dreem will still help me get a better understanding of the factors that impact my sleep though.

-13GPT22y
  • Get more sleep at night.
    • Take melatonin at the appropriate time and dose. It's cheap and legal in the U.S., but most products have way too much. https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/07/10/melatonin-much-more-than-you-wanted-to-know/ most insomnia drugs are not much more effective than this.
    • Avoid light at night, especially blue light. Light inhibits natural melatonin production, which interferes with your circadian rhythms.
      • If you can't darken your room completely, you can use a sleep mask instead. Get the kind with cups (like opaque swim goggles) instead of the kind that puts pressure on your eyes.
      • Use f.lux on your personal devices to reduce blue light after sunset or use one of the similar built-in features of your OS. Windows 10 has the new "Night Light" setting, macOS and iOS have "night shift" mode. Newer Samsung phones have a "blue light filter" setting. These options vary in quality and may have configurable intensity. More intense is more effective and it's surprising how much you get used to it.
    • Falling asleep is a common failure mode of certain types of meditation practice. You can use this to your advantage when suffering from insomnia in bed. Even beginners fail to meditate this way accidentally, so it's not particularly difficult to do on purpose. Focus your attention on the sensation of breathing or on the ringing in your ears. When you notice you are lost in thought, refocus your attention. But when you notice the dreaming arise without directed effort, dive in and let them take you. It works for me anyway. If not, at least you got your meditation in today.
  • Take naps. Even 20 minutes dramatically improves performance when sleep deprived.
    • Try the sleep mask when napping.
    • Try the meditation techniques for naps too.
  • Track your sleep quality.
    • You can get smartphone apps that purport to do this using the phone's sensors. Some fitness trackers or smartwatches also have this function built in or available as an app. Accuracy varies.
    • You may have sleep apnea. Talk to your doctor about doing a sleep study to diagnose possible issues and treatments. Some people do much better on a CPAP, but there are many other treatment options.
  • Avoid eating late at night. This can cause indigestion, which can keep you awake.
    • if you suffer from heartburn, sleep on your left side to contain it better, because your esophagus attaches to your stomach on the right side (unless you're one of those rare people with backwards internal organs).
  • Exercise regularly. I'm not sure why this helps, but it seems to. Perhaps mental fatigue doesn't always line up with physical fatigue unless you actually make some effort physically during the day.

The answer above is not a direct response to the question as asked, but it is still a very good list of interventions for improved sleep.

I'd add a few points. That the sleep literature is very big on maintaining a good circadian rhythm (entrainment) and a few interventions follow from that.

  • Go to sleep and wake up a the same time each day.
  • Don't sleep too late in the day.
    • I try to avoid napping after 5pm no matter how tired I am.
  • Expose yourself to good amount of blue light in the morning for at least fifteen minutes, but ideally 30-60 min good. This
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3ChristianKl2yhttps://humancharger.com/ [https://humancharger.com/] would be another light therapy device for the mornings.

An off-label use of fluoxetine (Prozac) is that it can caused prolonged sleep, possibly by reducing anxiety in ways that make it easier to stay asleep longer but specific mechanism of action is unknown. Worked well for me in treating narcolepsy-related sleep depravation, i.e allowed me to stay asleep 10 hours a night so I got enough sleep to avoid sleep attacks during the day. I'm no longer on it and still able to get enough sleep; my theory there is that regular meditation replaced the need for a drug to produce the same effect, allowing me to stay asleep longer.

I remember reading somewhere that meditation has been shown to reduce the need for sleep but was skeptical. If there's any literature on this that you consider trustworthy, please share!

2G Gordon Worley III2yI don't have any literature on it, but it has had that effect on me. That is, as long as I'm meditating regularly (I average about 45 minutes a day of "serious" meditation, and another 60 minutes or so of "casual" meditation) I find if I don't get a full 10 hours I still often won't have sleep attacks (in fact I now normally only sleep about 8 hours most nights) and I can sleep as little as 6 hours and still function mostly normally (but not doing that repeatedly, and I will almost certain have a sleep attack on those days).
-10GPT22y

Methods I've personally found useful for improving productivity when temporarily my cognitive ability or conscientiousness is lowered, not necessarily due to sleep deprivation:

  • Selecting from my TODO list tasks that are either non-demanding, or very exciting
  • Sitting next to a big window and spending a lot of time people-watching. I don't understand why it worked, but I noticed it would put me in a rhythm where I would make slow but consistent progress with my work.
  • When a lot of mental energy needs to be mustered (and so the above two methods are not an option), cut out all the stimulation: put away my phone; close all the non-relevant web browser tabs; put on noise-cancelling headphones with pink noise playing; go to a separate room and/or use big objects to restrict my field of vision to nothing but my workstation. Also, make sure that I won't be disturbed for the next couple hours at least: prepare a glass of water, go to the toilet, make sure my co-workers understand this "do not disturb" mode.

You seem to assume that your lowered ability is caused by sleep deprivation. Is that an assumption? If so, I would encourage you to track your sleep quality and your cognitive performance and see if they really correlate, if you can think of a way to do it.

My fully subjective impression is that my insomnia never impacted my cognitive performance. I used to stress about it impacting my bodybuilding. Then I started believing that the impact of my sleep deprivation is minimal, if any, and that new belief probably helped me improve quality of my sleep.

Sitting next to a big window and spending a lot of time people-watching. I don't understand why it worked, but I noticed it would put me in a rhythm where I would make slow but consistent progress with my work.

Going for a long walk similarly seemed to help temporarily.

You seem to assume that your lowered ability is caused by sleep deprivation. Is that an assumption? If so, I would encourage you to track your sleep quality and your cognitive performance and see if they really correlate, if you can think of a way to do it.

This is an assumption in the

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1CheerfulWarrior2yJust to clarify my point: I was suggesting it was more like a confirmation bias than placebo. In my case at least, I used to think that sleep deprivation lowered my performance, and then started believing there was no correlation at all (although lack of sleep still affected my mood, so it was undesirable). However, I have little confidence in that belief, and even if I was more certain about it, it's just an anecdote.
-11GPT22y
21 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:57 AM

I used to think I didn't get anything from trying to nap, since I never fell asleep during one. Then someone reported that I had been snoring during one of those naps in which I hadn't noticed any sign that I'd fallen asleep. Now I'm uncertain whether naps are worthwhile.

I face the same problem; currently my "solution" is to do a bunch of busy work (replying to emails, reading blog posts I've been meaning to read, life admin stuff etc.) that isn't cognitively demanding. I'm lucky in that sleep issues are rare enough that when they happen I do have enough of this busy work to fill the day.

Good to know I'm not the only one!

For me, the strategy you describe works sometimes but fails when I block out my schedule for a day to allow myself to focus and then unexpectedly sleep poorly the night before.

I worked as a strategy consultant for several years, with an unreasonable work-life balance, and in college generally did not get enough sleep, so I have some experience to draw on here :-).

I've found transcending-based meditation to be super restorative and often much easier to drop into than a 20 minute nap. I practice Natural Stress Relief Meditation ($40 self study course at nsr-usa.org), but I read a recommendation for the 1 Giant Mind app, which teaches a similar technique and I think is free.

As for being productive while awake: I've found the following most effective:

Maximizing energy

  • cold showers (you can start with a hot shower, just end with a one minute cold shower at the end... Feel free to warm up afterwards with clothing or bedding)
  • high intensity cardio (I personally do 15 min on the elliptical, alternating between 30 second intervals of sprinting and 30 seconds of easy walking - but the general goal is to get your blood flowing and heart racing without exerting yourself so much that it significantly tires you out).
  • Eating low carb and as little as you can
  • Listening to non-vocal electronic music

Staying focused

  • Using the pomodoro technique
  • Using blockers like leechblock and appblock
  • Turning my phone off and putting it in a different room physically

Maximizing clarity of thought:

  • Storing as much as possible on paper (electronic or physical) - diagrams, bullets, detailed action steps - rather than my working memory

Thanks! These are good recommendations!

I used to do cold showers but stopped a while back. Maybe I'll revive the practice.

Eating low carb and as little as you can

I'm curious about this one. You find that eating low carb/less keeps you sharper on days when you sleep very little? I've anecdotally noticed that fasting gives me an energy boost on days when I sleep well, although at the cost of making me a bit more jittery, but haven't noticed the same effects on days when I don't sleep enough. Is this purely anecdotal or can you share some articles/papers about this?

Sorry, long hiatus from LW so just saw this comment.

I actually found / find eating low carb maximizes my energy levels generally, sleep deprivation or no. Or, more specifically, it avoids the sluggishness / energy dip that often comes after eating a satiating amount of carbs. I know Atkins and other low-carb proponents claim that it provides more / more sustained energy (IIRC, the mechanism of action is avoiding blood sugar swings), but I haven't looked into it rigorously, TBH.

Sleep deprivation is cumulative over the span of weeks. Being short 30 min each day for two weeks is disastrous. Almost no one is near top capability with even 7 hours. Memory formation and recall are especially limited on low sleep, even if you drug to overcome the lapses in attention. Physical health is also severely harmed (look at how attractive someone is after 'beauty sleep' vs deprived), perhaps mostly via poor diet choices but honestly why would evolution not layer on physical garbage collection processes when mental ones are already underway ... further, a bunch of micro naps doesn't give you the same concentration of deep sleep as the last 3 hours of an 8.5 hour bout would (8.5 is my ideal; 8 is tolerable).

While not directly a response to the question as asked, I agree with many of the other contributors that sleep tracking is valuable as part of an overall sleep strategy.

I use a FitBit Ionic to track my own sleep and feel that it is quite accurate, at least as far as sleep/wake times go. I can't really assess sleep stage accuracy, but I've found that's of less value than simply tracking sleep/wake/duration. After a year of not trying to be that disciplined, I recently started paying more attention again to sleep tracking and my sleep behavior in general.

What always strikes me when I look at my sleep data after a few months of not looking at it is that my subjective sense of my sleep behavior is just way off. I'll think that I've been going to sleep 11-12pm each night with occasional nights of staying up to 1-2am, but then the data says 1-2am is the norm. Similarly I'll think that most nights I'm getting enough sleep the for data to tell me that's the minority.

Related to the importance of a consistent routine and well entrained circadian rhythm, I'm now focusing more on sleep time and wake time than whether I successfully slept enough hours or how many times I wake up in the night (a struggle for me). The time I got to sleep is especially an input I much more directly control than the output of whether it was a good night's sleep. It seems good to focus directly on the thing I can control, separately checking whether it is having the desired flow-on effects.

Fitbit's out of the box sleep dashboard is pretty nice, but doesn't make the data I most care about immediately apparent. It's got one graph which shows sleep and wake times over the course of the past week, but I feel it's not quite enough as a feedback loop on my behavior. As a solution to that, I recently set up my own report derived from the data to be emailed to me each day. (I did something similar in 2016 except with an online dashboard. The dashboard had the disadvantage that after a few months when I got busy and distracted I stopped checking it. Since I check email daily, I'm hoping I'll be far less likely to stop looking at my new report.)

. . .

You can see a sample of my sleep report here.

  • First graph: each bar is a night of sleep going from time of sleep to wake time. Green is asleep, red are periods when I was awake.
  • Second graph: plots deviation from desired sleep and wake times (both later and earlier). Dark red is for bed time error, transparent red for wake time error.
  • Third graph: time asleep in bed (blue) + time awake in bed (red) = overall time in bed.

My sleep is not quite as consistent as I'd like yet, but a 5x improvement of previous months. I do allow myself exceptions for social events and other unusual circumstances; for now I'm focused on avoiding those nights when it just wasn't worth it to stay up late and I'm pointlessly sacrificing tomorrow in particular and my overall sleep hygiene in general.

Stimulants are an excellent short term solution. If you absolutely need to get work done tonight and can't sleep amphetamine (i.e. Adderall) is a great solution. Indeed, there are a number of studies/experiments (including those the airforce relies on to give pilots amphetamines) backing up the fact that it improves the ability to get tasks done while sleep deprived.

Of course, if you are having long term sleep problems it will likely increase those problems.

accidental duplicate

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