Sleep inertia is the physiological manifestation of not wanting to wake up, and it can compromise your functioning and mood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which reports that people who struggle with sleep inertia can have a slower reaction time, worse short-term memory, and slower speed when it comes to thinking, reasoning, remembering, and learning.
“It can be related to a brain that wants to sleep more, or perhaps a brain that is not expecting to awaken at a particular time.” —W. Christopher Winter, MD, sleep-medicine researcher
If you’re someone who can’t function without having a cup of coffee in the morning, you may well know exactly what sleep inertia feels like in effect. And according to experts, there are several reasons it may impact you: “It can be related to a brain that wants to sleep more, or perhaps a brain that is not expecting to awaken at a particular time,” says board-certified sleep-medicine researcher W. Christopher Winter, MD, of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It.
The effects of sleep inertia can last anywhere from a few minutes to up to several hours, and though it isn't harmful, per se, it can be annoying, to deal with—especially if you have things to do. That said, experts agree that there are a few tips you can implement to ease the burden of your sleep inertia struggles. Try the following six tips instead of falling back into bed.
Now that you know what sleep inertia is, try these 6 tips to get out of its cycle and wake up faster (and clearer-headed)
1. Open your window shades
The goal here is to expose yourself to bright light because that “signals directly, via the retina, to your body clock that it is time to be awake,” says Michael Awad, MD, chief of sleep surgery at Northwestern Medicine.
Dr. Winter says you need “bright, full-spectrum light,” because artificial indoor lighting is, unfortunately, less effective. Light helps to signal to your brain to stop making the sleep hormone melatonin, “thus promoting not only wakefulness, but also creating a schedule signal in the brain that the time of the light exposure is the ‘wake-up’ time,” he says.
2. Wash your face
One small study, cited by the CDC, had 10 healthy young adults try a few different strategies to shake off sleep inertia when they woke up after a nap. One such exercise was washing their faces immediately after napping. While the researchers found that the impact of face-washing on sleep inertia was mild, they also noted that the act “suppressed subjective sleepiness” right after waking up. Meaning, people felt more alert after they washed their face.
To really reap the benefits, Dr. Winter recommends washing your face with cold water, if you can stand it.
3. Drink coffee before you nap
This seems counterintuitive, but that same small study the CDC refers to found that people felt the most alert when they woke up from a 20-minute nap after they had 200 milligrams of caffeine (about 16 ounces of coffee) before their nap.
After just 20 minutes, it’s likely your body will actually start to feel the effects of caffeine, Winter says. “A caffeine nap is designed to utilize the wakefulness-promoting elements of the caffeine and time it so that it's kicking in just as the individual is awakening,” he says. Caffeine doesn’t actually prevent sleepiness, Dr. Awad explains. Instead, it “blocks” your brain’s ability to detect the sleepiness you’re feeling.
Note: This won’t work before you go to bed at night—the "nappuccino" only works with napping.
4. Play music
Turning on your favorite songs after you wake up can go a long way toward helping you to feel alert. One small study found that people who played music for 20 minutes after they took a short nap felt more alert—especially when they played music they preferred.
Playing music can be a “cue” to your body that it’s time to wake up, Dr. Winter says, caveating that, “it depends a lot on what music is selected.”
5. Exercise after you wake up
This can be tough to pull off if you’re already struggling with waking up, but a meta-analysis of the impact of exercise on sleep inertia published earlier this year found that being active “may speed up the physiological changes that occur upon waking, which are thought to influence sleep inertia.” Basically, exercising should be able to help wake you up, if you can handle it.
6. Drink something caffeinated
There’s a reason why plenty of people drink coffee when they wake up—it’s a good way to shake off the mental fog of sleep inertia. In fact, sleep researcher Andrea Spaeth, PhD calls caffeine one of the “most effective strategies” for fighting sleep inertia. Research has found that people are better able to shake off sleep inertia, whether they drink coffee or take caffeine in another form. But, the placebo effect can also be at play: Even “the smell of the coffee can help create more of an arousal in the morning,” Dr. Winter says.
If you’ve tried these tricks and you’re still struggling with sleep inertia despite getting at least seven hours of sleep at night, it’s time to talk to your doctor. “It’s never wrong to seek further help,” Dr. Winter says.
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