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Fighting Off Sleepiness: Myths and Facts

By Constance Matthiessen
WebMD Feature

Americans are sleepy. In fact, sleepiness affects the daily activities of 40% of us, say sleep exerts at Stanford University. No wonder we cling to so many fallacies about how to get by on little sleep. But what really works? What’s just a myth? Here are the facts.

Myth: A nap will only make me sleepier -- and make it harder to sleep at night.

Fact: A quick nap can dispel daytime drowsiness and get you back on track.

People often worry that if they give in to drowsiness and take a nap, they'll sleep for hours, or wake up feeling even worse.

In fact, taking a nap can refresh you -- just be sure to keep it brief, cautions Lisa Shives, MD, medical director at North Shore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Ill. "Research shows that that a short, 10-minute nap makes you more alert and improves performance on cognitive tests," says Shives, who is a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Timing is also important, says, M. Jawad Miran, DO, a sleep medicine specialist at Somerset Medical Center's Sleep for Life program in Hillsborough, N.J. "Naps taken for too long or too late in the day can throw off the body's inner clock. If you nap, do so for no more than 20 minutes, so you will remain in a lighter phase of sleep and can awaken without feeling groggy and out of sorts."

Myth: A grande latte is a bad idea because it will make it hard for me to sleep at night.

Fact: A cup of coffee can help you through the drowsy part of your day -- just don't overdo it.

Caffeine often gets a lot of bad press, but Shives, who savors her morning cup of coffee, is a big fan. "I always counsel my patents that there is nothing wrong with the judicious use of caffeine," she says. "Even people who get enough sleep often find that they get drowsy after lunch, for example -- it's the normal circadian dip. In my case, the circadian dip hits me like someone threw a blanket over my face, so I have a cup of black tea after lunch to ward it off."

Shives points out that people react very differently to caffeine, so you may want to start off with half a cup after lunch and see if that disrupts your nighttime sleep. Don't drink coffee in the late afternoon or evening.

As with naps, moderation is the key when it comes to caffeine. If you overdo it, you may set off a vicious cycle, making it hard to sleep at night so you are drowsier the next day. And many sleep experts advise against drinking caffeine after 2 p.m.

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