It’s normal for everyone to feel sleepy once in a while. But 5% to 10% of people in the United States deal with hypersomnia, or excessive daytime sleepiness. This condition can cause you to fall asleep repeatedly throughout the day, even during activities like eating or talking with someone.
Hypersomnia could be a symptom of an underlying issue like:
- Restless legs syndrome
- Sleep apnea
- Bipolar disorder
- Certain medications
- Using drugs or drinking too much alcohol
In some cases, your doctor may not be able to find the cause of your drowsiness. Experts call this idiopathic hypersomnia.
Luckily, there are things you can do at home to reduce your daytime sleepiness.
How to Avoid Daytime Sleepiness
Drink caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant. It can help you stay awake during the day if you have excessive sleepiness. But drinks that have caffeine like coffee, soda, or tea can make it difficult to sleep even when you’re tired. For this reason, it’s best to switch to decaf beverages later in the day.
Eat a snack. Sugary snacks can give you a quick boost of energy, but they’re often followed by a crash that causes low blood sugar, mental fogginess, and fatigue. Low-sugar, high-fiber snacks can help you maintain more energy. Choose options like:
- Yogurt with nuts and berries
- Peanut butter and veggies or whole wheat crackers
- Carrots and low-fat cream cheese dip
Take naps. You can schedule naps during the day to reenergize yourself. Rest can help you avoid daytime sleepiness. But if you overdo it, you may not be able to sleep at night. Keep your naps relatively short, and reserve them for earlier in the day. It’s best to nap about 6 or 7 hours before you would normally go to bed. If you must take a late nap close to bedtime, make it a short one.
Napping on the job can be touchy. If you need to nap at work, do it during your break and use a vibrating alarm clock, if necessary, to make sure it doesn’t spill over into your work time. Sleeping at your desk is usually not a good idea, but many companies now provide nap rooms for employees.
Exercise. Regular physical activity can keep you energized and allow you to sleep easier at night. Even though you may not feel like exercising if you have daytime sleepiness, physical movement will make you feel less tired in the long run.
A simple 15-minute walk can give you the energy boost you need. Start with a small amount of exercise and gradually build it up over time.
Get some sun. Light and sleep go together. Light, especially sunlight, affects your body’s internal clock. It’s important to have sunlight exposure during the day to keep you awake and encourage quality sleep at night.
Stay away from smoking and too much alcohol. Nicotine can stimulate your body in ways that can interrupt your sleep. While alcohol could make it easier for you to fall asleep, the affect will wear off and disrupt your sleep later in the night. For this reason, it’s best to avoid drinking later in the evening.
Stay hydrated. You may feel overly tired due to dehydration. Drink water throughout the day, especially after you exercise.
Practice sleep hygiene. Your sleep hygiene refers to your environment and daily routine that could affect your nighttime rest. To maximize your sleep hygiene, keep a consistent sleep schedule, free your bedroom of distractions, make sure your sleep space is comfortable, and follow a relaxing routine before you go to sleep.
Take a break from screen time. Staring at your computer, tablet, or phone for long periods of time can strain your eyes and make you feel tired. Every few minutes, stop to look at something else, or close your eyes for a moment to give your eyes a rest.
Lower your stress. You go through a lot of energy when you’re stressed. Try to add relaxing activities into your day to stay calm but avoid sleepiness. Working out, yoga, listening to music, spending time with loved ones, and reading are examples of ways to lessen stress.
Studies show that therapies like counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy could help ease the anxiety or stress that saps your energy and makes you sleepy.
Start a conversation to wake up your mind. If you’re fading fast, engaging in conversation can get your mind moving again.
Turn up the lights. Environments with dim lighting aggravate fatigue. Studies have shown that exposure to bright light can reduce sleepiness and increase alertness. Try increasing the intensity of your light source at work.
Take a breather. Deep breathing raises blood oxygen levels in the body. This slows your heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and improves circulation, ultimately aiding mental performance and energy. The idea of deep-breathing exercises is to inhale to the abdomen, not the chest. You can do them at your desk. Sitting up straight, try this exercise up to 10 times:
- With one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other on your chest, inhale deeply through your nose and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.
- Breathe out through lips pursed as if you were whistling. You can use the hand on your belly to help push air out.
Another technique, called stimulating breath, is used in yoga for a quick energy boost and increased alertness: Inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose, keeping your mouth closed but relaxed. Make your in-and-out breaths short -- do about three of each cycle in a second. Then breathe normally. You can do this for up to 15 seconds the first time and then add on 5 seconds each time after until you reach a minute.
Pull over if you’re driving. “Driving while sleepy is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol,” says Allison T. Siebern, PhD, a fellow at the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center in Redwood City, CA. Common tricks such as opening the windows and turning on loud music won’t keep you awake for very long behind the wheel. “Have someone else drive or pull off the road and take a nap until you’re no longer sleepy,” Siebern says.
If you’re on an extended trip, change drivers often. Stop at least every 2 hours to take a walk and get some fresh air.
Switch tasks to stimulate your mind. In 2004, Finnish researchers who studied people working 12-hour night shifts found that monotonous work is as harmful as sleep loss for alertness. At work or home, try to reserve more stimulating tasks for your sleepy times. Or switch to more engaging work responsibilities when you feel yourself nodding off.
Get some daylight to regulate your sleep cycles. Our circadian rhythms, which regulate our sleep-wake cycle, are influenced by daylight. Try to spend at least 30 minutes a day outside in natural sunlight. (Sleep experts recommend an hour of morning sunlight a day if you have insomnia.) Even a step outside for a breath of fresh air will revive your senses.
Get adequate nighttime sleep. That may sound obvious, but many of us succumb to shaving an hour or two off our sleep time in the morning or at night to do other things. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours a night, and teenagers usually need a full 9 hours. Block out 8 or 9 hours for sleep every night.
Keep distractions out of bed. “Reserve your bed for sleep and sex,” says Avelino Verceles, MD, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the school’s sleep medicine fellowship. “You shouldn’t read, watch TV, play video games, or use laptop computers in bed.” Don’t do your bills or have heated discussions in bed either. They may leave you sleepless.
Set a consistent wake-up time. People who have problem sleepiness are often advised to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including on weekends. But randomly setting an ideal bedtime can lead to more frustration if you have insomnia and already have trouble falling asleep, says Barry Krakow, MD, medical director of Maimonides Sleep Arts and Sciences Ltd. in Albuquerque, NM
Gradually move to an earlier bedtime. Another approach to getting into a consistent schedule is to try going to bed 15 minutes earlier each night for four nights. Then stick with the last bedtime. Gradually adjusting your schedule like this usually works better than suddenly trying to go to sleep an hour earlier.
When to See a Doctor
Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you constantly feel tired or if your sleepiness gets in the way of your daily life. This could be a sign of an underlying condition.
Your doctor will run tests and ask questions about your sleep routine. If you have a sleep partner, the doctor may also ask them if you gasp, snore, or move your legs a lot at night. You may need to visit a sleep specialist for more tests if your doctor suspects you have a sleep disorder.
Your medical team may suggest different treatment methods based on the cause of your daytime sleepiness.