Nearly everyone has days when they feel sleepy. But for some people, excessive sleepiness actually gets in the way of daily work, childcare, and even leisure activities. This is known as hypersomnia, recurrent sleepiness that makes people want to nap repeatedly, even at work.
Not surprisingly, the problem of daytime sleepiness usually starts at night. Even missing just a few nights’ sleep, or not getting enough uninterrupted sleep, can slow you down and sour your mood.
Poor sleep habits are often the cause of daytime sleepiness. Before you go through any more groggy and crabby days, try these 12 ways to improve nighttime sleep and avoid daytime sleepiness.
1. 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 seven to nine hours a night, and teenagers usually need a full nine hours. Block out eight or nine hours for sleep every night.
2. 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.
3. 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 suffer from insomnia and already have trouble falling asleep, says Barry Krakow, MD, medical director of Maimonides Sleep Arts and Sciences Ltd. in Albuquerque, N.M., and author of Sound Sleep, Sound Mind: 7 Keys to Sleeping Through the Night.
Instead, Krakow suggests starting out by setting a wake-up time only. “Stick by that for the first few weeks or even months to establish a rhythm,” he says. “That process of always getting up at the same time helps to anchor the circadian rhythm. And if you do that and have a bad night, you’ll also to be sleepier the next bedtime.”
4. 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.
5. Set consistent, healthy mealtimes.
Regular mealtimes, not just regular sleep times, help regulate our circadian rhythms. Eating a healthy breakfast and lunch on time -- rather than grabbing a doughnut and coffee in the morning or a late sandwich on the run -- also prevents energy deficits during the day that will aggravate your sleepiness. Plan to finish eating meals two to three hours before bedtime.
Exercise also gives you more daytime energy and keeps your thinking sharp. And if you exercise outside in daylight, you get still more benefits. Sleep experts recommend 30 minutes of exposure to sunlight a day because daylight helps regulate our sleep patterns.
7. De-clutter your schedule.
“If you don’t think you can allow seven or eight hours for sleep, then you need to look at your schedule and make some adjustments,” says Verceles. “Move some activities from nighttime to early evening or from early to late morning.” Try to eliminate tasks that aren’t really important. Getting enough sleep at night will help you function better during your remaining activities.
8. Don’t go to bed until you’re sleepy.
If you go to bed when you’re just tired, you probably won’t be able to fall asleep, Krakow says. “Distinguish between the feeling of sleepiness and being tired. Get into bed when you’re sleepy -- eyes droopy, you’re drowsy, you feel like you’re nodding off. It’s a very different kind of feeling.”
9. Don’t nap late in the day.
Late afternoon napping can make daytime sleepiness worse if because it can interfere with nighttime sleep.
10. Create a relaxing bedtime ritual.
A relaxation routine before bedtime can help you separate from the day -- especially from activities that are over-stimulating or stressful, making it difficult to sleep. Try meditation, soaking in a hot bath, listening to soothing music, or reading a book. A cup of herbal tea or warm milk can also be soothing, but skip those if they cause you to wake at night to go to the bathroom.
11. Avoid "nightcaps."
People often think that alcohol helps sleep, but it actually robs you of deep sleep, which is essential for feeling well rested. When the effects of alcohol wear off during the night, you’ll probably be wide awake again.
12. See a sleep specialist.
Daytime sleepiness can be caused by sleep disorders. If you are excessively sleepy consistently during the day even when you sleep well or if you fall asleep without warning during daily activities, you may have a sleep disorder such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea, a breathing problem that occurs during sleep. According to Krakow, undiagnosed and untreated sleep disorders are probably the greatest cause of daytime fatigue and sleepiness.
Problem sleepiness can also be caused by certain illnesses and medications. And mental conditions such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and anxiety are very commonly linked to sleep problems.
A sleep specialist can design a treatment program for you that treats the underlying sleep disorder and helps you develop better sleep habits and attitudes though cognitive behavioral therapy. Sometimes it takes a combination of medication and behavioral therapy to eliminate daytime sleepiness, but it can be done.