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How to Stay Awake

Jay Summer

Written by

Jay Summer, Staff Writer

Dr. Anis Rehman

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Anis Rehman, Endocrinologist

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As many as one in four people feel so sleepy during the day that they have difficulty doing their work, schooling, or other important activities. People who have sleep disorders, work night shifts, or pull all-nighters often find themselves struggling to stay awake. While there is no replacement for getting the right amount of sleep, it is common to seek out ways to stay awake during class, at work, or while driving.

We cover several tips on how to stay awake, including ways to improve your morning routine and the best times for exercise or taking a power nap. We also address the benefits of a well-timed snack and offer suggestions for staying awake during class, work, and while driving.

Change Your Wake Up Routine

Just as a bedtime routine can help you fall asleep, having a consistent wake up routine helps you wake up on time feeling alert. To improve your morning routine, be sure to wake up at the same time every day, even on your days off. Keeping a consistent schedule will make it easier to wake up naturally and on time.

Get some sunlight as soon as possible after waking up. Bright light strongly influences circadian rhythms. Exposure to bright light soon after rising can help you wake up and feel alert. The sun is the best light source. However, if you work nights or live in the very northern or southern part of the world, you may not have access to natural light when you wake up. As an alternative to natural sunlight, using a light therapy box or visor can help you to feel less sleepy and more awake.

 

Go on a Walk

A quick break for some physical activity can help you feel more alert. Exercise releases endorphins in the brain that can raise your energy levels, improve your mood, and lessen pain.

Taking a short walk is linked to higher energy levels that may last for two hours or more after you finish exercising. Research has shown that regular exercise can even improve alertness in people with chronic health conditions like narcolepsy and chronic fatigue. As an added benefit, regular exercise helps you fall asleep faster at bedtime and improves the length and quality of your sleep.

Eat a Healthy Snack

Healthy food choices can help fight sleepiness. When you are trying to stay awake, try not to avoid meals just because you are tired. Low blood sugar can make you feel more worn out. If you do fall asleep after skipping a meal, hunger might wake you up earlier than you want.

While you may feel a temporary boost of energy after eating sugary snacks, high-sugar foods and beverages actually make you feel more tired over time. Instead, try having balanced meals containing protein and vegetables to help you stay alert. Fruits, vegetables, yogurt, eggs, nuts, fish, beans, and lean meats are all healthy food choices.

Finally, if you are trying to stay awake despite sleep loss, be sure to drink plenty of water. Dehydration can make you feel more tired.

Grab Some Caffeine

Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that is commonly found in coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks. It can make you feel more alert, less tired, and improve your concentration and energy. Coffee and tea are the most commonly used alertness-promoting substances in the world.

Caffeine’s effects on alertness and energy work by blocking adenosine within the brain. Adenosine is a naturally-occurring chemical that makes you feel sleepy. By blocking the effects of adenosine, caffeine excites your nervous system, leading to faster reactions, improved attention, and a better mood among other effects.

Caffeine starts working in about a half hour but its effects can last for many hours. The amount of caffeine in one cup of coffee or two cups of tea may keep you alert through a shift at work or a few hours at school. Be careful though, because caffeine can make it harder to fall asleep, so avoid caffeine within eight hours before you plan to go to bed.

While caffeine can help you stay awake in the short term, it should not take the place of regularly getting enough sleep. If you use large amounts of caffeine, you may find that caffeine no longer makes you feel as alert as it once did or that you need to take higher amounts to get the same effects.

Take a Power Nap

While napping in order to stay awake may sound counterintuitive, a short nap can help you feel more awake for several hours afterwards. Studies have found that people feel more alert and less sleepy after napping. However, naps should not take the place of regularly getting enough sleep. Napping too much can make it more difficult for you to fall asleep at night.

Health experts recommend limiting daytime naps to about 20 minutes at a time. Longer naps can actually make you feel groggier than short naps due to sleep inertia. Sleep inertia can leave you waking up from deep sleep feeling groggy, confused or in a bad mood. Sleep inertia usually lasts less than an hour, but may last longer if you are sleep deprived. Bright lights, washing your face, and caffeine may shorten sleep inertia.

The best times for a nap are in the early morning or mid-afternoon before 3 p.m. Napping closer to your desired bedtime may interfere with falling asleep on time.

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Stay Awake

How Can I Stay Awake in Class?

To stay awake in class, pack a portable, low-carbohydrate snack and some water and take a few minutes to be active before you get to class. Physical activity during schooling has been linked to higher alertness, concentration, and focus among students from grade school to university. Between classes, as little as 5 to 10 minutes of physical activity can help boost your alertness.

How Can I Stay Awake at Work?

Staying awake at work can be challenging, especially if you can’t control your work hours or environment. Working while tired is linked to a higher risk of poor job performance, work errors, accidents and injuries. If you feel tired at work, several tips may help you to stay awake.

  • Turn up the lights: Adjust lighting in your workplace to be as bright as possible. If the overhead lighting is too dim, consider using a portable light box.
  • Vary work tasks: Try mixing up what you are working on, as research has found that repetitive and boring work is just as bad for your level of alertness as being sleep deprived.
  • Optimize sleep before work: Follow sleep hygiene recommendations and sleep in a quiet, dark, and cool room when you are not at work. A several-hour nap before work may improve your alertness during a night shift.
  • Limit caffeine to the start of the shift: Taking caffeine close to the end of a shift can make it more difficult to sleep after you get home from work. Research has found that a single cup of coffee or tea at the start of a work shift may be more effective than spacing out small doses over the course of your day.

How Can I Stay Awake While Driving?

If you feel tired while driving, pull over and stop the car as soon as you can safely do so. Drowsy driving can be as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. Each year, drowsy driving causes over 90,000 car crashes and almost 800 deaths.

Research shows that you may not be able to accurately identify when you are too tired to drive safely. If you know in advance that you may need to drive while tired, it is best to arrange to ride with a friend or coworker, take public transportation, or reschedule your drive. Warning signs of drowsy driving include difficulty focusing, eyelids that feel heavy, not remembering the last few minutes or miles, frequent blinking or yawning, and drifting across lanes.

A 20-minute nap can help improve alertness and safe driving ability. Caffeine may also help, but it may be less effective if you are very sleep deprived or if you regularly use caffeine. Cold air, food, non-caffeinated beverages, and listening to music have not been proven to prevent drowsy driving.

How Can I Stay Awake After an All-Nighter?

While it may seem like a good idea to stay up all night for work or school, sleep loss can negatively affect your performance and increase your risk of accidents. A single all-nighter can interfere with your thinking, mental health, and judgment. Repeated sleep loss has been linked to several health problems including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

If you cannot avoid an all-nighter, the best way to recover is to get enough sleep as soon as you can. Re-establish your bedtime and wake-up schedule as quickly as possible. Avoid daytime naps that interfere with bedtime sleep. Get physical activity, ideally in sunlight, eat low-carbohydrate meals, and drink plenty of water. Caffeine in the morning will improve alertness, but should not be taken within eight hours of bedtime.

How Can I Stay Awake Without Caffeine?

If you can’t consume caffeine  or choose not to, making healthy choices can help you stay awake.

As an alternative to caffeine, make sure to get as much bright light as possible, preferably natural sunlight. Make time for 5 to 10 minutes of physical activity. Eat a healthy, low-carbohydrate snack and drink water. Finally, try taking a 20-minute nap, but avoid napping for too long or too late in the day as it may make it harder for you to fall asleep at bedtime.

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About Our Editorial Team

author
Jay Summer

Staff Writer

Jay Summer is a health content writer and editor. She holds a B.S. in psychology and master's degrees in writing and public policy.

author
Dr. Anis Rehman

Endocrinologist

MD

Dr. Rehman, M.D., is a board-certified physician in Internal Medicine as well as Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism.

References

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