By Camille Peri
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
With more and more of us getting less and less sleep, it's tempting to reach for a Red Bull or an espresso when we feel sleepy at work. But consuming caffeine to combat sleepiness can lead to a vicious cycle.
The java jolt that helps you stay awake can take up to eight hours to wear off. Caffeine can also reduce your sleep time, alter the normal stages of sleep, and decrease the quality of your sleep.
How can you stay awake naturally? Try some of these 12 jitter-free tips to take the edge off sleepiness.
1. Get Up and Move Around to Feel Awake
In one well-known study, Robert Thayer, PhD, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, studied whether people were more energized by eating a candy bar or taking a brisk 10-minute walk. Though the candy bar provided a quick energy boost, participants were actually more tired and had less energy an hour later. The 10-minute walk increased energy for two hours. That's because walking pumps oxygen through your veins, brain, and muscles.
If you work at a desk, get up frequently for short walks. At meal breaks, walk to a restaurant or, if you bring your lunch, head for a nice spot to eat it. Whether you take a walk outside or just in the building where you work, it will make you feel more alert and refreshed.
2. Take a Nap to Take the Edge Off Sleepiness
There are two things to remember about naps: Don't take more than one and don't take it too close to your bedtime. "Nap between five and 25 minutes," says Barry Krakow, MD, author of Sound Sleep, Sound Mind: Seven Keys to Sleeping Through the Night. It's best to nap about six or seven hours before you would normally go to bed. If you must take a late nap close to bedtime, make it a short one.
Napping on the job can be touchy. If you need to nap at work, do it during your break and use a vibrating alarm clock, if necessary, to make sure it doesn't spill over into your work time. Sleeping at your desk is usually not a good idea, but many companies now provide nap rooms for employees.
"If you can't nap, even resting quietly with your eyes closed for 10 minutes or so will help," says Allison T. Siebern, PhD, a fellow at the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center in Redwood City, Calif.
3. Give Your Eyes a Break to Avoid Fatigue
Continuous fixation on a computer screen can cause eyestrain and worsen sleepiness and fatigue. Look away from the screen for a few minutes periodically to relax your eyes.
4. Eat a Healthy Snack to Boost Energy
Sugary snacks give you a quick energy boost followed by the sugar "lows," when low blood sugar produces mental fogginess and lethargy. Snacks such as these will provide better overall energy in the long run:
- Peanut butter on a whole wheat cracker or celery sticks
- Yogurt and a handful or nuts or fresh fruit
- Baby carrots with a low-fat cream cheese dip
5. Start a Conversation to Wake Up Your Mind
If you're fading fast, engaging in conversation can get your mind moving again. "Talk to a colleague about a business idea, politics, or religion," says Krakow, medical director of Maimonides Sleep Arts and Sciences, Ltd. in Albuquerque, N.M. "It's a very strong behavioral stimulator -- especially when it's a conversation about politics."
6. Turn Up the Lights to Ease Fatigue
Environments with dim lighting aggravate fatigue. Studies have shown that exposure to bright light can reduce sleepiness and increase alertness. Try increasing the intensity of your light source at work.
7. Take a Breather to Feel Alert
Deep breathing raises blood oxygen levels in the body. This slows your heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and improves circulation, ultimately aiding mental performance and energy.
The idea of deep-breathing exercises is to inhale to the abdomen, not the chest. You can do them at your desk. Sitting up straight, try this exercise up to 10 times:
- With one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other on your chest, inhale deeply through your nose and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.
- Breathe out through lips pursed as if you were whistling. You can use the hand on your belly to help push air out.
Another technique, called stimulating breath, is used in yoga for a quick energy boost and increased alertness: Inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose, keeping your mouth closed but relaxed. Make your in-and-out breaths short -- do about three of each cycle in a second. Then breathe normally. You can do this for up to 15 seconds the first time and then add on five seconds each time after until you reach a minute.
8. If You're Driving, Pull Over When Sleepy
"Driving while sleepy is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol," says Siebern. Common tricks such as opening the windows and turning on loud music won't keep you awake for very long behind the wheel. "Have someone else drive or pull off the road and take a nap until you're no longer sleepy," Siebern says.
If you're on an extended trip, change drivers often. Stop at least every two hours to take a walk and get some fresh air.
9. Switch Tasks to Stimulate Your Mind
In 2004 Finnish researchers who studied people working 12-hour night shifts found that monotonous work is as harmful as sleep loss for alertness. At work or home, try to reserve more stimulating tasks for your sleepy times. Or switch to more engaging work responsibilities when you feel yourself nodding off.
10. Drink Water to Prevent Tiredness
Dehydration can cause fatigue. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids and eat foods high in water such as fruits and vegetables.
11. Get Some Daylight to Regulate Your Sleep Cycles
Our circadian rhythms, which regulate our sleep-wake cycle, are influenced by daylight. Try to spend at least 30 minutes a day outside in natural sunlight. (Sleep experts recommend an hour of morning sunlight a day if you have insomnia.) Even a step outside for a breath of fresh air will revive your senses.
12. Exercise to Increase Energy and Reduce Fatigue
In a 2006 analysis of 70 studies involving more than 6,800 people, University of Georgia researchers found that exercise was more effective in increasing energy and reducing daytime fatigue than some medications used to treat sleep problems. Regular exercise also improves quality of sleep.
Try to exercise 30 minutes a day. If you decide to exercise hard some days, your energy level may drop for a bit and then surge for a few hours. Eating a meal that contains both protein and carbohydrates within two hours after a heavy workout will lessen the initial energy loss. Be sure to finish your workout a few hours before bedtime so you are not energized when you try to sleep.
When to See a Doctor About Your Sleepiness
If you find that you can't stop nodding off when you need to be alert, consult a doctor or sleep specialist. You may have an underlying sleep disorder such as excessive sleepiness or narcolepsy, which can be treated. Your doctor may prescribe medications to help you with a sleep disorder. If you have trouble falling asleep because of stress or other reasons, cognitive behavioral therapy can help you develop good sleep habits and relieve sleep anxieties.
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