What is daytime drowsiness and what causes it?
Drowsiness during the day can present itself as an intense difficulty to stay awake, feeling listless and perhaps even numb, and less conscious of what is going on around us.
The alarm bells signaling daytime drowsiness can include a bad mood, an inability to pay attention, irritability and yawning. We have all experienced this at some point in our lives: who hasn’t felt their eyelids drooping during a work meeting, while sitting in class in the front row, or perhaps at home when you need to muster up the effort to do the ironing?
There are various reasons why we may feel the call of a comfy bed or sofa during the day: after eating a big meal, our body needs all our energy to digest it, the lack of sleep after a night cramming for school can catch up on us the next day, or working shifts might upset our day-to-day routine.
It is vital not to underestimate excessive, repetitive and consistent daytime drowsiness. If this sounds familiar, we recommend consulting your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis - it could be a sign of some kind of sleep disorder like hypersomnia or sleep apnea.
Sleepiness in students
A proportion of the global population is more predisposed to feeling sleepy. Some recent studies, for example, have highlighted how high school students in particular suffer from sleepiness in the first hours of school. This could be caused by delayed sleep phase syndrome, or so-called "night owl" syndrome; essentially, students tend to go to bed later because they don’t feel the urge to fall asleep.
This “teenage insomnia” may be partially caused by a shift forward in the natural biological clock during puberty. But the lack of an urge to fall asleep could also be caused by continual exposure to blue light displays, which stimulate the cerebral circuits that tell the brain it isn’t time to sleep yet and wake you up. Many students also tend to consume more stimulating substances like coffee or energy drinks.
Ideally, school should start at a later time, to make sure students manage to get enough sleep, taking into account the shift in their circadian rhythm. Some schools have got on board with this and have moved the school day on slightly, while others have moved more “energetic” subjects like gym to the beginning of the day, to try and stop students from falling asleep at their desks.
How can we avoid feeling drowsy during the day?
Here are a few tips and tricks to help anyone suffering from daytime drowsiness.
- Get the right amount of sleep. When life allows, we should look to sleep for 8 hours every night, avoiding studying up to the last second before going to bed, staying up staring at a screen or stressing out. Look to establish a regular nighttime routine that your body can get used to, with a more or less consistent sleep schedule. This should help ward off any sudden attacks of sleepiness while your boss is droning on about the ins and outs of that big new project.
- Catch forty winks. The most obvious solution to sleepiness is sleeping! But take note of one small but important piece of advice: an afternoon siesta should not last any longer than 30 minutes, to make sure your body doesn’t fall into too deep a sleep that could interfere with your natural sleep-wake cycle. It is also a good idea not to nod off too close to bedtime, ideally at least 6 to 7 hours before going to bed.
- Spend less time on electronic devices in the hours before sleeping. As well as emitting that dreaded blue light, which signals to our brain that we should stay awake, electronic devices are tempting distractions that end up having you scrolling through cat photos until the midnight hours without even realizing.
- Eat well. A poor diet can cause excessive daytime drowsiness. Eating too little can deprive your body of the energy it needs, while devouring too much food can make you feel sleepy because your body needs to focus all its energy on digestion. The ideal meal schedule is 3 balanced meals a day.
- Drink enough water. Even not drinking enough water can cause drowsiness. The ideal amount is 2 liters of water a day, or even more if you do physical activity.
- Drink tea or coffee. Tea and coffee stimulate our cognitive functions and therefore tend to drive away daytime tiredness and drowsiness. We recommend drinking one cup a day, in the first half of the day, so it doesn’t end up affecting your sleep.
- Exercise. Regularly exercising 4 to 5 times a week helps to improve nighttime rest, just remember not to do any strenuous activity right before bed! If you suffer from sudden bouts of sleepiness, going for a stroll, stretching your legs or even just doing a quick bit of yoga can help to improve blood circulation for a rapid burst of energy!
- Listen to music. Music can help you to stay awake when you feel sleepy during the day; you can stimulate your brain by choosing your favorite song and turning it up!
- Wash your face with cold water or take a cold shower. Cold water stimulates blood circulation and helps to combat excessive drowsiness.
- Eat or chew a mint-flavored candy or gum. The fresh taste will help to shoo away the feeling of sleepiness during the day.
- Get plenty of sunlight, turn on the lights and turn up the brightness. A dark environment fosters sleep, so give brightness the green light! The best kind is natural sunlight, which helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, but if it’s not possible to go on a sunny stroll, turn up the lighting in your surroundings to avoid the sense of relaxation and sleepiness.
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