Our body can only sustain activity for a certain period of time in a day before it needs to “recharge” with a restful sleep. One of the ways that you know that is time to rest is when the eyelids becoming “heavy”. This is a common way to describe the difficulty in keeping the eyelids open. The weight of your eyelids do not actually change. Instead the eyelid muscles become tired and experience difficulty in keeping the lids opened. However, there are times when you have no choice but to ignore this signal or continue to have heaviness of the eyelids despite having slept adequately.
Remember that you will need to sleep for 7 to 9 hours at least once a day in order for your body to get the rest that it needs. There are several important processes that occur with sleep and it is an unavoidable part of normal life. However, there are ways to relieve some of the symptoms of sleepiness like heavy eyelids can provide short term relief until adequate sleep resolves it. But do not confuse heavy eyelids with drooping eyelids – the latter may be due to medical conditions.
Heavy eyelids due to fatigue can sometimes be related to certain diseases as well. For example, in people with an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), fatigue is one of the major symptoms and naturally a heavy feeling in the eyelids will be a common occurrence. But for more of us, the feeling along with sleepiness and sometimes yawning is mainly due to fatigue and less often due to boredom. If you are experiencing uncharacteristic and excessive fatigue or drooping eyelids then you should seek medical attention immediately.
A gentle massage of the eyelids can help but it should be done very carefully. Remember that the eyelid is very thin and just underneath it lies the delicate eye. Since heaviness of the eyelids is due to fatigue of the levator muscles that move the eyelids, a massage will increase the blood flow in the area. This can help “wash” away the metabolites that accumulate in the muscle and increase the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles of the eyelids.
Cool the Eyelids
Be it a slice of chilled cucumber or a cooling eye gel, colder temperatures can help with muscle strain. It is not advisable to use ice since the skin of the eyelids are so thin. But there are range of cooling options that can be safely used on the eyelids. These days there are special eye shades that can be chilled and worn to cool the eye area. Although cold reduces blood flow to the area, it does reduce inflammation that may arise with eye and eyelid strain. It can also reduce puffiness around the eyes (“bags”) and cold may be invigorating to the eyes thereby providing short term relief from heavy eyelids.
Moisten the Eyes
Dry eyes are often accompanied by a feeling of heaviness in the eyelids even if you are not sleepy. If you do tasks that tend to cause eyestrain, work in dry cold environments or wear contact lens then you are more likely to experience dryness of the eyes. A sprinkling of water in the eyes may do the trick as a once off measure but it is better to use eye drops.
Removing your contact lens is preferable but if you cannot then use eye drops that are approved for use by contact lens wearers. Blinking regularly may also help to prevent dry eyes as it stimulates the lacrimal glands to secrete tears and the eyelids then spreads it over the eye. Take the necessary measures to avoid eyestrain. It can also cause heaviness of the eyelids.
Outdoors and Bright Light
Since heaviness of the eyelids is directly related to sleep, any measure to counteract sleepiness should also help ease the heavy feeling to some extent. Stepping outdoors in bright sunlight is one of the best ways to reduce sleepiness. Sunlight detected by the eye sends signals to the brain. The level of sleep hormones like melatonin are directly related to sunlight and darkness. But even bright artificial light can be useful in this regard. The one thing you would want to stay away from is dimly lit or dark areas as it will increase sleepiness and make the eyelids even heavier.
It is believed that yawning, another symptom of sleepiness and fatigue, is related to low blood oxygen levels. Breathing deeply may not only keep the yawning at bay but it will also pep you up and to some extent reduce the sleepiness and ease fatigue. But remember that you cannot prevent fatigue and sleepiness entirely if you have had a long hard day and it is your regular bedtime. Breathing deeply may be helpful and can ease symptoms like heaviness of the eyelids but ultimately if it is the time to sleep then these measures will only offer short term relief.
Hiccups are more of an inconvenience that affects all of us at some point or the other. It is usually short lived. Despite our best efforts to hold it back and the host of different “remedies”, hiccups are usually uncontrollable. One common hiccup remedy is to have a good scare. Whether it works for relieving hiccups or not is debatable. But it is one remedy that help beat the sleepiness and heavy eyelids for a period of time. Any strong emotions like fear causes the sudden surge of stress hormones like epinephrine which have a stimulatory effect on the nervous system.
It is never a good idea to use any substance in order to counteract natural responses of the body. But if you are in a situation where you have to skip the sleep then caffeine may be an option. Caffeine is a stimulant that is easily available and compared to nicotine, it is safer to use. Although not advisable for frequent use, coffee, caffeinated soft drinks and energy drinks with caffeine can provide short term relief against the sleepiness and heavy eyelids. But make sure you drink sufficient water. Caffeine is a diuretic that causes you to lose water and electrolytes which can lead to dehydration. Even mild dehydration can make you lethargic and sleepy.
Carbs are often portrayed as being unhealthy but a balanced diet should be composed of 60% carbohydrates. It is refined carbs when eaten daily and in large amounts that contributes to obesity. But in small quantities it can be useful when you are feeling fatigued and sleepy. Refined carbohydrates tend to have a high glycemic index (GI) which means it rapidly causes a rise in the blood glucose levels.
With glucose being the main nutrient used by cells to produce energy, refined carbs can give you a boost when your eyelids are feeling heavy. It can be easily sourced from sugar-laden sodas and candies or even stirring an extra teaspoon of sugar into your coffee. But do not overdo the sugar on a frequent basis. It is a short term ‘pick me up’ but at the end of the day you will still need sleep to properly relieve the heavy eyelids.
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on April 17, 2013