Fighting Off Sleepiness: Myths and Facts

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 16, 2010
5 min read

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.

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."

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.

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."

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.)

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.

Drowsiness is one of the primary symptoms of hypothyroidism, for example, and Shives says that is one of the first things your physician is likely to check for if you complain of persistent fatigue or sleepiness.

Depression and other mood disorders can also manifest themselves as sleepiness and fatigue. Daytime sleepiness can indicate a sleep disorder, like insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless legs syndrome, that is preventing you from sleeping well at night, and anuntreated sleep disorder puts you at high risk for a stroke or heart attack. Finally, recent research has found that excessive day time sleepiness in an older person can be a symptom of cardiovascular disease.

Of course, you may just be sleepy because, like so many other Americans, you don't get enough sleep at night. If this is the case, you may want to make some payments on your sleep deficit.

A growing body of research establishes how important sufficient sleep is to our quality of life. Sleep deprivation can trigger depression and anxiety; it can also impede performance and creativity. Finally, sleep deprivation can be fatal. As many as 100,000 deaths each year are caused by drowsy drivers, according to the National Safety Council.

It's never too late to begin developing good sleep habits. Why not start tonight?