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Too Tired? 5 Ways to Get More Zzzs

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If you think that you can skimp on sleep during the week and make up for it on the weekend—and still perform your best at work—you’re mistaken.

A recent study found that sleeping late on the weekend isn’t enough to help you recover when you’re sleep deprived, especially if you’re a guy.

In the study, presented at Sleep 2011, an annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, subjects were restricted to six hours per night of sleep for six nights and then allowed to sleep 10 hours the next two nights. They were given cognitive tests throughout the week.

In men and women, their performance decreased dramatically after being sleep deprived, and did not improve after the two nights of recovery sleep. Although people reported they felt less tired after the longer nights of sleep, their performance was as poor as it was in the midst of their sleep deprivation.

But compared to men, women felt less sleepy and had a smaller drop in their performance when they were sleep deprived, and they experienced greater improvements after they were allowed to sleep later. That may be because women tend to spend more of their sleep time in the more restorative “slow-wave” sleep than men.

"Women with a higher amount of deep sleep can handle better the effects of one work-week of mild sleep deprivation, and their recovery is more complete after two nights of extended sleep," said the lead researcher, Dr. Alexandros N. Vgontzas, director of the Sleep Research and Treatment Center at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa.

Women may be wired to have a deeper more restorative sleep because their child-rearing responsibilities cut into the amount of sleep they get.

Most Americans report getting about six hours and 55 minutes of sleep on average weeknights, but we need from 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye. Eking out even another half hour of sleep for many of us could make the difference between good and poor productivity the next day. 

To find the time, take this advice from the experts:

1. Don’t watch TV before bed. Your bedtime routine may include watching TV, but you’d probably go to sleep a lot earlier if you skipped Parenthood or the 11 p.m. news, not to mention Letterman. DVR your favorite late-night shows and grab a book instead. Read for a half an hour and hit the hay.

2. Log off early. About 95 percent of Americans use some type of electronics like TV, computer, video game or cellphone within the hour before bed. But computers, cell phones and other interactive media are stimulating and can disrupt the sleep-onset process even more than watching TV. If you need to use your computer in the evening, do it right after dinner and give yourself a limited amount time to check your e-mails or catch up on Facebook. It’s so easy to spend hours on the computer without realizing how much time has passed.

3. Don’t drink to get to sleep faster. Though drinking alcohol may help you fall asleep, it increases the number of times you wake up throughout the night, making your sleep less restorative.

4. Don’t exercise after 8 p.m. Exercising right before bed (within three hours of bedtime) can stimulate your body and make it more difficult to wind down and fall asleep.

5. Alternate late nights. If you must watch TV or stay up late on certain nights, don’t do it every night. Give yourself every other night to make it up. Otherwise your sleep debt will add up and will affect your performance all week.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.