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Fighting Off Sleepiness: Myths and Facts

Myth: A candy bar or can of soda will give me a kick-start.

Fact: Sugar will give you a temporary lift, but when it wears off you're likely to be even more tired than before.

People are often tempted to seek out the soda machine or the candy counter when they hit that afternoon slump. When we are fatigued, our bodies often crave a rush of fuel to keep us going, and Shives says that studies bear out this anecdotal experience. 

"Research shows that if sleep-deprived people are offered an array of foods, they disproportionately choose sugary and/or fatty items," she says. "Our bodies crave foods that have a high glycemic index because they provide a quick boost of energy."

The trouble is, when the sugar high wears off, you are likely to feel even more tired than you did before. One study found, for example, that an hour after drinking high-sugar energy drinks, sleep-deprived patients were sleepier and had more lapses in concentration than patients in the control group, who didn't drink the sugary drink.

To minimize afternoon drowsiness, Shives recommends that you eat a light lunch. "Avoid fats, sugars, and carbohydrates," she says. "Have some lean protein -- but be sure to keep it light."

Myth: Exercise will only make me more tired.

Fact: Moderate exercise can help combat drowsiness and leave you alert and refreshed.

Exercise is an excellent way to ward off an after-lunch circadian dip, says Shives.  It doesn't have to be a big time commitment: "You don't have to spend hours at the gym," she points out.  "A brisk 10-minute walk, or some vigorous stretching, will give you a quick pick-me-up."

Shives advises patients to pinpoint the time they typically get tired in the afternoon and to take an exercise break right before that time. "Don't wait until you start to feel tired," she says. "Walk around the block or do some stretches before your circadian dip hits, or you'll never get out of your chair."

According to Miran, "Daily exercise is the best natural sleep aid there is. Even a 20-minute walk taken at least four to five hours before the normal bedtime will help you fall asleep and improve the quality of sleep." It is important not to exercise too close to bedtime, because the stimulation can disrupt your sleep. (Miran cautions that you should always check with your physician before beginning an exercise regime.)

Myth: Sleepiness is normal -- I just have to live with it.

Fact: If you experience persistent sleepiness, you should consult your doctor: It could signal an underlying condition that requires treatment.

Sleepiness may be a fact of contemporary life, but that doesn't mean you should ignore it. If you often feel drowsy during the day, you should consult your physician. Drowsiness could be a sign of an underlying health condition that should be addressed.

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