Living on very little sleep
April 26, 2007 9:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to start a job where I will be expected to live on 5 hours (or less) sleep per night on weekdays. I'm looking for tips on staying alive physically. Types of food, drinks, shakes, vitamins, exercise tips, sleep hacks, etc. -- anything that will aid my body physically during this period of my life.

I know there is no substitute for a good nights rest, but surely there are other things I can do that will help a little, right?
posted by JPowers to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
For how long will this last?
And can you sleep during the day?
Do you have to be at full mental alertness all day (eg will you be driving)?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:03 PM on April 26, 2007

Response by poster: This will last at least a year, probably longer.

No, I can't sleep during the day. I can sleep probably around 1am, up at 6am.

Yes, I have to at full mental alertness all day, even while driving.
posted by JPowers at 10:06 PM on April 26, 2007

Chug coffee. Immediately take 15 minute nap. Awake refreshed and ready to go.

On less than 5 hours of sleep a night, you will need to nap at some point if you're doing work that requires thinking or attention. So plan for times when you will be able to get it.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 10:06 PM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Are you going fishing in Alaska? Are you becoming a medical resident? Do you get breaks? Are your "nights" always at night? Are they consistent?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:07 PM on April 26, 2007

As silly as it sounds, I found Pzizzing to be helpful. You can export the tracks to iTunes/iPod if you need portability.
posted by squink at 10:13 PM on April 26, 2007

Response by poster: It's an assistant job, in Hollywood. You work from 8-8, then leave with scripts to read with coverage due to the next day. Plus, on top of this, I want to try and network at nights as much as possible.
posted by JPowers at 10:13 PM on April 26, 2007

I did that year before last for a few months. I survived, I functioned, I didn't crash the car during the commute (though I had nightmares about that).

Your question was in fact my first AskMe question ever, and people gave me a lot of encouragement.

My advice? Do your housework (make tomorrow's lunch, do your laundry, pick up around your apartment, whatever you have to do) the minute you get home, before you sit down, for fifteen or thirty minutes. Just keep moving. Don't let it pile up until the weekend -- the weekend is when you'll do most of your stuff, yeah, but you really need that time to rest. If you're like me, you won't be able to sleep the instant you get home anyway, no matter how tired you are.

Shun sugar -- it is your enemy.
Caffeine is your friend (though I was conselled against it in the other thread. YMMV.)
Make your lunch -- salads, fruit, etc...
(You will gain weight, no matter what you do.)
Go for a walk at lunchtime; get out in the sunshine during the day, at least a little.

Good luck.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:17 PM on April 26, 2007

My general routine for periods of predictable sleep-deprivation:
1. Tons of water; drink, drink, drink.
2. A small amount of coffee at 4 hour intervals
3. Eat well generally, rather than junky food
4. For me, very important to have a small amount of high-protein food every few hours (2-4). Tofu or cheese snacks for me, chicken or fish for others?
5. A really good, lights-out nap for at least half an hour in the afternoon.
6. Something small to eat that can help me snap awake if I'm drifting off (eg strong mints, wasabi-covered peas, etc)
7. Bathe often. If I'm sleep-deprived, my body loses some of its ability to regulate its heat. Having a shower re-sets me, so I don't spend the whole day chilly or clammy.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:18 PM on April 26, 2007

On preview: If I were you, I'd read scripts in the morning, before work -- not after a full day.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:20 PM on April 26, 2007

The truth is, JPowers, that a lot of the people doing those jobs are running on chemical assistance. And not usually the legal kind. It's essentially impossible to be at "full alertness" for twelve hours a day, five days a week on less than 5 hours of sleep at night unless you are one of those rare individuals who needs very little sleep. They do exist, but if you were one of them you wouldn't be asking this question.

Do you get lunch? Breaks? You're going to have to nap. Naps are helpful all out of proportion to their length, and if you can get a couple in a day it is possible.

Try to resist the lure of the drugs... I've seen it happen.
posted by Justinian at 10:21 PM on April 26, 2007

(Hey, so you got the LA job! Congrats - I didn't put the pieces together until now.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:22 PM on April 26, 2007

Hmm, since you know your job will be within a fixed schedule, you could try playing around with polyphasic sleep. Instead of sleeping in one chunk, you divide your sleep into segments throughout the day.

Your schedule doesn't sound like it'll allow for 20 minute naps every four hours, or 30 minute naps every six hours, but it wouldn't hurt to see if spacing them in is a possibily. (Break? Lunchtime?)

What I've done for a while, with success, is a slight spin-off on that. Biphasic sleep entails having a 90 minutes nap and then another longer session, between 3 hours (for me) and 4.5 hours (for others who've tried this) a while later. I slept from 10 to 11:30 PM (due to a part time job that wouldn't let me get home till about 9:30) and then again from 3:30 to 6:30 AM.

Whereas polyphasic sleep depends on making the max of REM sleep, biphasic mostly focuses on not countering the restful effects of whatever sleep you do get. The point is to sleep in 90 minute increments, give or take, so that you wake yourself up after a natural sleep cycle and don't feel the negative effects of being yanked out of Deep Sleep.

Do a bit more digging around on that, and see what fits you. There are lots of variants on polyphasic sleep that can be tailored to your schedule. Important though - don't eat a big meal before sleeping as you need as much rest as possible from said sleep, and stay away from caffeine. One or two cups when you wake up is okay, but try not to drink any after lunch.

Best of luck!! Your job actually sounds really cool.
posted by Phire at 10:32 PM on April 26, 2007

resident doctors take lots of little naps. even 10-15 minutes can really help. followed of course by coffee.
posted by alkupe at 10:38 PM on April 26, 2007

I work 4 days on, 4 off on a 12 hour shift 6-6, and I rotate every two weeks between days and nights. I do occasionally work an extra two days/nights. When I'm on nights I generally get about 3-5 hours sleep/day. I don't do anything unusual to stay awake during shift. I probably drink a bit more coffee/tea out of habit, but other than that I make sure I eat healthy. I used to swear by melatonin for sleeping during the day, but I've adapted and have no problem getting to sleep at any time, so now the most important thing for me is to eat a good balanced diet. No junk, no fast food, no candybars etc. Once you start depending on the quick sugar thing you're screwed. I pretty much feel like shit all the time when I'm on nights, but so it goes. You learn to deal with it. Once you get used to feeling like crap all the time, and not biting people's heads off around you, you've got it licked. I also find it important to get some exercise as well. Getting outside and walking the dog, getting a bike ride in, whatever. MOVE YOUR ASS. Seriously though, the best best thing is to eat properly. Steaming veggies in the microwave is a cinch, and you can't possibly eat enough of them.

So, that's my haggard, free-association, sleep deprived take on it. Any questions, fucking forget it, I got to sleep.
posted by Eekacat at 10:56 PM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

This insomniac can't give you advice on how best to manage on very little sleep, other than to say that it is very possible to get used to 5 hours a night, or less.

One suggestion I can make: Take a speed reading course. Might help free up some sleep time.

Congrats on the job, good luck!
posted by necessitas at 11:05 PM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend against polyphasic sleep. When you really get into it is incredibly difficult to stay awake beyond the usual nap time. (At least I couldn't, and may others complain of the same thing) It put a huge dent in my social life since I would typically crash hard about the time parties were getting interesting.

In university I had two jobs and full time student which meant that I got 2-4 hours of sleep 6 nights a week. Here's what I learned:

- You will redefine what "peak performance" is. In fact through the university I had IQ tests and dropped 15 points for the duration. (Don't worry, it comes back.)

- I would try very hard to avoid increasing your caffeine or stimulant intake. It will wreck havoc with what little sleep
you get.

-Keep your sleep schedule as consistent as possible. This will make sure you get the most out of what little sleep you have.

- Eat more healthy than you ever have. Take multivitamins. If at all possible work out on your lunch break.

- Streamline as much as possible. Hire a maid and laundry service. Get groceries delivered. It's really not that expensive, and not only does it save you time, but gives you piece of mind when you don't have to worry about the house being dirty or whatever.

- Pay attention now to when your most alert times are and schedule your most difficult work for those times, if possible.

- Have fun!
posted by Ookseer at 11:11 PM on April 26, 2007

Best answer: For once in my life, I'll recommend a drug: modafinil.

It was developed to treat the effects of narcolepsy (that's why I have it). But it also works for the general population -- check out some of the many military studies that've been done recently. Now modafinil's being advertised to increase alertness and reduce general daytime sleepiness, and I understand that doctors prescribe it off-label for that usage. Modafinil is a Schedule IV drug (point of comparison: Ritalin and Adderall are Schedule II).

I know the knee-jerk reaction; I had it too. But modafinil is not the kind of stimulant you used to see. It is not an amphetamine. It is not physically addictive. It does not harm the brain -- in fact, it's used as a smart drug, since it seems to be neuroprotective. It's not well-known because there is no reason to take it for fun: you don't get high, or even get a rush; you aren't driven to concentrate or work. You are just awake -- as awake as if you had had eight of the best hours of sleep, or, depending on the situation, as awake as if you weren't narcoleptic.

At the same time, modafinil is not exactly a traditional upper. There's no come-down effect. There's no need to take downers to try to relax, since modafinil doesn't get you jittery or force you to stay awake. If you get up and take modafinil before you check your e-mail and find out your plans have changed, you will have absolutely no trouble heading straight back to bed and falling asleep.

There are some side effects. The negative side effects are rare; the most common is a headache when you first start taking it, but that goes away within days. It's also worth noting that modafinil's been available in the world since 1994 (US since 1998), and in that time, there have been no overdoses. There are also some side effects that I consider positive. For some people, it acts as a slight appetite suppressant. There's also some anecdotal evidence saying that for some people, modafinil may function as an antidepressant.

There are some interactions to be aware of -- including, bizarrely, grapefruit. I don't remember specific drug interactions, since I don't drink, smoke, or do any drugs but modafinil (okay, okay, and whatever amount of caffeine is present in small amounts of chocolate). Modafinil is contraindicated for patients with a history of heart issues. Obviously, you shouldn't try driving on four hours of sleep before you know how modafinil works for you.

You take modafinil orally as needed; it comes in tiny tablets that are easily halved. You'll probably have to titrate a little at first, but the good news is that you won't become tolerant and have to increase the dose. You can't snort or inject modafinil (well, you can, but it won't work). If you want to stop, you won't go through withdrawal; I take varying doses on weekdays and none at all on weekends, and have no trouble with that schedule.

ANECDOTAL PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, take with all the salt you like: For me, Modafinil works like a miracle. This morning, I got out of bed, took my customary 100mg (half a tab), and fell asleep about ten times in the hour before it kicked in. I mean, I fell asleep when I sat to put on my socks, and when I leaned against a counter to brush my teeth. Even when I wasn't actually asleep, I was incredibly groggy and my thinking was muddled.

An hour after I took my dose, I finished getting ready, left my apartment, and got on the bus. By that time, I was psyched and ready to face the day, and literally wishing I could sing along with my iPod. Completely alert and awake, I sat through two long classes, one of which featured a tedious, droning lecturer. Then I went on to enjoy the rest of my day -- no heavy eyelids, no nodding off, no nothin'.

(To avoid morning trouble like I had today, you're supposed to set your alarm an hour before you'd usually wake up. When that goes off, you should take your dose, set your alarm for when you actually have to get up, and then roll over and go back to sleep. This is what I should be doing.)

I know you know this whole idea is unhealthy. If you need more than five hours of sleep a night, getting only five/night for an extended period of time is a bad idea. But if you're determined to do it, modafinil will help you immensely, and will hurt you far less than caffeine.
posted by booksandlibretti at 11:59 PM on April 26, 2007 [21 favorites]

Most people's sleep cycle is about 90 minutes so try to sleep in multiples of that - you may find it much easier to get up after 3 hours than after 4, after 4 hrs 30 mins than after 5 hours etc.

Coffee stops working after a while. You can put a pot of espresso in front of me and I'll drink it and go to bed immediately and I will sleep.

You will find that you get used to being tired, to having a bit of a dull headache etc. Peak performance is indeed redefined - you are happy to just get by a lot of the time.

Your job will involve reading and possibly time in front of a computer, too, so get an eye test and glasses if you need them. Little things like that make all the difference when your body is already exhausted. I have to look at a computer screen all day and I have found that I can no longer cope without my glasses - my prescription is such that I could still see without the glasses but the extra effort it takes just kills me!

Try to not let others make demands on your weekend really will need to get some kip. If you don't you will start the week tired and that makes for a very long week. If at all possible try to get a long weekend occasionally - the difference it makes in unbelievable.

Nthing the advice about eating properly - think light, easy to digest and rich in nutrients. Sleep depravation is a huge stress on the body and eating badly will cause your body even more will also take more energy to digest junk, which you will no longer have.

If you are too tired to drive pull over and take a nap - even a short nap can make the difference between you going home to sleep or to the morgue.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:58 AM on April 27, 2007

Biphasic slepp - don't do it. Every deptarment head I've seen try to do it in the Navy became a total asshole.

"Plus, on top of this, I want to try and network at nights as much as possible." Is that part of the job expectation or is that your personal choice?

If I hadn't read all the clarifying info in the thread, I would've thought you were in the military and were on deployment. My condolences - but at least it sounds like you'll be doing something that makes you happy. That factor alone can make all the difference on how long you can get by with such sustained sleep deprivation.

In my past experiences, I learned how to lay down and go to sleep immediately, getting a good 4 to 5 hours of solid sleep (which is much better IMHO than 8 hours of restless sleep). Knock off the caffeine and nicotine, and avoid the drugs at all costs. If you're young and healthy you'll make it through just fine. IANAD.
posted by matty at 4:49 AM on April 27, 2007

What I did: learn to nap for 15 minutes at a time. Lie down, or put your head down somewhere, and set an alarm (cell phone?) to go off in 15 minutes. Even if you don't go to sleep, just rest like that. Eventually it will become easier to take the nap. After your alarm goes off, stand up immediately and leave wherever you are. This actually becomes easier over time, and completely worth it, in my experience.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:15 AM on April 27, 2007

Make sure the naps are covert. People are funny about them. Best is to drive your car to a lot nearby. Otherwise an empty room with your feet against the door. No more that 20mins at a time or you'll feel groggy.
posted by TrashyRambo at 5:32 AM on April 27, 2007

My son's life is like that (he's at a service academy and he commonly even stays up all night to complete papers.) He has survived.

I recommend sleeping in three hour cycles (three hours is better than four, six better than seven, etc.) Be careful with too much caffeine at one time. Nap when you can. Try to somehow get in some exercise (can you read scripts while on a treadmill?)
posted by konolia at 5:38 AM on April 27, 2007

Get a newborn child. I've been running on 5.5 - 6 hours of sleep as a result, although I'm certainly not at peak. It will catch up to you. Learn how to rest your eyes. I do this frequently. It's basically down time for your eyes while your brain is still running.
posted by plinth at 7:18 AM on April 27, 2007

a couple tabs of the antihistamine BENADRYL make a pretty good and harmless sleep aid if you need to sleep right away but are too buzzed.

try using LIGHT as a cue to sleep and wake- so if you need to get up in the morning, don't close the curtains- let the sun help you up. stare into bright lights to wake you up when you're sleepy, and keep the lights very dim when bedtime's approaching.

also be aware that the light from your COMPUTER SCREEN will probably keep you up longer than you want to be at night, so if you're online before bedtime, dim the screen or work on a black-screen program to type your paperwork.

if you must only sleep a few hours, you could chug lots of water before bed and let your BLADDER reinforce your alarm clock.

also, place your ALARM CLOCK across the room, getting out of bed to turn it off will help wake you up.

use WAKE UP CALLS- get earlybird friends, coworkers, a call service, or even a taxi company to call you on important mornings.

this is difficult but doable. jennifer lopez is straight-edge and works like a maniac, use her as your inspiration and stay off the cocaine!
good luck!
posted by twistofrhyme at 9:15 AM on April 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you're going to try polyphasic sleep, be aware that you will start craving weird foods. I've heard white grape juice in particular. Having said that, maybe 8 oz. of white grape juice will help you even if you're not on polyphasic sleep.

I also second lots of water and 15-minute-long catnaps in your car away from the office. My roommate worked a similar schedule, and he used short but regular cardio to keep healthy and sane.

Good luck with your LA job. It can be done, and it can be done clean.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:49 AM on April 27, 2007

If you take naps during the day, where you don't have blackout curtains or something, use a sleep mask over your eyes. Works for me every time.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:16 AM on April 27, 2007

Welcome to Hollywood. I guarantee you this will last longer than a year - many people's entire careers are like this. I am just now recovering from 2 years straight of 10-14hr shifts that started at either 4am or 4pm.

A few words of advice -

1) Take every vacation you're offered.
2) When you run out of clothes, buy more. Laundry is for the weak.
3) Don't sweat the networking this early on. In my experience, your best contacts will be genuine friends you make. There are a lot of people willing to take your card and shake your hand, but they can't or won't do much for you. (This advice may not apply to your situation.)
4) Learn to hold your alcohol. This is very, very important.
5) Get to a gym as much as you can - exercise works wonders. And every stereotype of appearances mattering are true, true, true.

And, not specific to this industry, but in general - I would go against much of the advice above and say to moderate your caffeine intake. Don't be tempted to medicate with it when you're tired - just ride the wave until you bounce back. Better to be alert 70% of the time than a caffeine addicted zombie 100% of the time.

This is coming from someone who had an 8 cup/day coffee habit. After the 8th cup I would switch to red bull...
posted by milinar at 11:28 AM on April 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Definitely what everyone said about the importance of diet. You'll feel much better over the course of an entire day if you avoid simple sugars entirely (except as fuel for a last gasp at the end of the day, if necessary), keep yourself hydrated, and stay disciplined about getting good breakfasts and enough nutritious food throughout the day.

If you find you have trouble unwinding and getting to sleep, there are meditation techniques and breathing exercises that can help lots of people sleep better, and fall asleep more quickly.
posted by mattpfeff at 2:05 PM on April 27, 2007

I'm with SQUINK - Pzizz is the greatest! you want to be able to get to sleep quickly and easily (especially if you follow allot of the other suggestions and rely heavily on coffee etc) and i always find myself totally relaxed and asleep within 10 minutes.

Possibly the best function is the timed nap - it is great to for a quick perk-up if you find yourself with a "spare" 10- 20 mins. Some of what the guy says is a bit airy but i tend so just concentrate more on the tone of his voice than what he says

link to free trial and more info:

On a personal note: take it easy - if you need a day off - take one. No job is worth your sanity
posted by lrobertjones at 11:32 PM on April 27, 2007

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