Sleep is a natural process that is necessary for the body to function at its optimum. However, at times it can be an inconvenience and a person may feel sleepy but needs to stay awake for various reasons. There are various short term solutions but it is important to bear in mind that this does not negate the need for sleep. Not only is sleep needed daily for optimal function, it is also needed to maintain health, wellbeing and ultimately sustain life.
Sleep Wake Cycle
The sleep-wake cycle encompasses approximately 8 hours of sleep and 16 hours of wakefulness. It is important to understand that ideally the sleep period would be at night while the waking hours would be during the day. The darkness and sunlight are conducive to aiding with each state but this is not always practical, like in shift workers who may need to be awake at night and sleep during the day.
It is important to understand the factors that influence the sleep-wake cycle as it provides key ways to stay awake.
The circadian rhythm is the biological clock that operates over 24 hours approximately. It includes a range of changes in the neurological, hormonal and metabolic processes in the body among other biochemical activities. Certain parts of the body become more active at specific periods within a 24 hour cyle while other parts become less active. Sleep and wakefulness are part of the circadian rhythm.
Melatonin and Adenosine
Two hormones play an important role in the sleep-wake cycle. The first is melatonin which increases towards the evening, stays elevated throughout sleep and subsides by the morning. Its levels are directly impacted by light exposure. The second hormone is adenosine which is known to be a sleep-inducing chemical. The levels of adenosine rise while awake and drop during sleep.
Fatigue directly affects the need to sleep. Physical or psychological exertion leads to tiredness and then fatigue if there is insufficient rest. As a result a person feels sleepy faster than they normally would. Therefore the need to sleep and possibly the duration of sleep that is required depends on the extent of the tiredness or fatigue. Low blood glucose and oxygen levels can also contribute to fatigue and therefore sleepiness.
- Read more on excessive daytime sleepiness.
- Read more on morning fatigue.
- Read more on insufficient sleep.
Tips for Stayng Awake
Sleep cannot be averted indefinitely but it is possible the alter the factors that influence the sleep-wake cycle. This does not mean that a person may be able to do with less sleep but can rather find ways to stay awake and alert for longer periods. However, the effect of lack of sleep eventually accumulates and will ultimately require excessive sleep in order to recuperate.
Physical activity can help delay the need to sleep to some extent. A brisk walk for example will increase energy levels momentarily. Avoid very strenuous activity as it may give a short term burst of energy but that is soon followed by fatigue and sleepiness. Breathe deeply while moving around. It is better to have frequent short episodes of physical activity, like waking up and walking around every 30 minutes to an hour.
Turn Up The Lights
Where extra lighting is an option, try to keep a room as brightly lit as possible. Sunlight is an even better option. The light helps to ‘trick’ the body into staying awake by naturally altering hormones like melatonin. Even short bursts of bright light can help if continuous bright lighting is not possible. However, avoid excessively bright light as this can lead to eyestrain which may in turn make a person feel sleepy.
Eyestrain can intensify the sleepy feeling. Looking at a fixed distance for a long time, especially with very bright or dim lighting, is the main way that the eyes are strained. This may be seen with prolonged TV watching, computer or mobile device use, long hours of reading and driving. The 20-20-20 rule is helpful to prevent eyestrain. This involves looking at an object about 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes.
Snack on Low GI Foods
Foods with a low glycemic index (GI) can provide sustained energy over a longer period of time. In contrast high GI foods provide short bursts of energy that lead to ‘downers’ a short while afterwards and this can intensify the sleepy feeling. Unrefined foods are usually lower GI while refined foods particularly those with carbohydrates like sugar are higher in glycemic index.
Practice Deep Breathing
Deep breathing can help to allay the sleepy feeling for short periods of time. If practiced regularly it may help to sustain a person and keep them awake and alert for longer. Sit or stand upright and take in a deep breath through the nose. Slowly breath out through pursed lips. Continue doing this for 15 to 20 seconds. Repeat once the tired or sleepy feeling starts creeping back in.
Change Tasks and Activities
Monotony can exacerbate the sleepy feeling. Try to change tasks or activities every few hours to prevent boredom from setting in. Yawning is a good sign of boredom and sleepiness, and should serve as signal that it is time for another task or activity. Changing tasks may not always be possible, especially in the work setting. Try to intersperse episodes of deep breathing and physical activity with works tasks.
Control Stimulant Intake
Stimulants like caffeine and nicotine may seem like a solution to stay awake but the effects are short-lived. Ultimately the boost in energy levels are followed by a ‘downer’ which intensifies the sleepy feeling. These stimulants also have adverse health effects, especially in the long term. Alcohol is central nervous system depressant. Initial bursts of energy are very short lived when it does occur and intoxication can be even more dangerous than sleepiness.
Try A Short Nap
A short nap can help for short periods of time. Power naps of 20 minutes or a long nap of up to an hour can help alay the sleepy feeling and increase energy levels. However, this is short-lived and napping should not be repeated more than once as a solution to stay awak for long periods. Remember there is nothing that can replace a good night’s sleep. Sometimes it is better to sleep sufficiently and continue with activities thereafter.