Good sleep hygiene. You likely know the drill — turn off all devices an hour before turning in, don’t eat a big meal just before bed, make sure the bedroom is dark and cool. But what if you follow the rules and get plenty of sleep, but still find it nearly impossible to get out of bed in the morning? Or even once you drag yourself out of bed, the mental fog continues?
The problem might not be how you sleep, but how you wake up. Say hello to sleep inertia.
Sleep inertia was first labeled as such in the 1950s, after Air Force pilots who were often stationed in the cockpits of their planes described the symptoms: an irresistible desire to go back to bed and mental grogginess that can last for hours, often leading to simple mistakes. Quite literally, the brain, once asleep, would prefer to remain in that inert state. It is possible to fight sleep inertia, but it is important to understand that both quality and quantity of sleep are vital. Most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night to wake up feeling their best. Assuming one is getting enough good quality sleep, there are things you can do to ease the transition from sleep to alertness.
No matter how tired you feel when the alarm goes off, an extra nine minutes of sleep will not help. More likely, you will feel worse. Why? Our natural body clock — our circadian clock — functions through 24-hour hormonal cycles that govern physical, mental and behavioral changes. By sleeping the requisite number of hours, we allow our bodies enough time in each stage of sleep. Our bodies cycle through each stage several times a night, with each cycle lasting from 90 to 110 minutes. Drifting back into sleep after hitting the snooze button starts another sleep cycle, which is then jarred back awake a mere nine minutes later. All you’ve done is confuse your brain and thrown it into a semi-awake state, as it fights to get back to the sleep (inertia) state. What follows is mental sluggishness, which can then lead to cognitive impairment and a whole host of unhealthy behaviors. Better to put the alarm (or phone) in another room, or at least across the room, than to hit the snooze button.
Drinking coffee first thing may seem like a good idea, but it actually sets the body up to crash from the caffeine high early on. In fact, studies have suggested there are certain times that are best for coffee drinking. As part of our natural circadian rhythm, cortisol production generally peaks between 8 and 9 a.m. Cortisol makes us feel awake and alert, so drinking coffee at the same time we get a natural jolt can greatly diminish the effects of caffeine and cause unnecessary increases in our caffeine intake. Waiting until after cortisol levels have dropped (around 9:30-11:30 a.m.) can ensure getting the boost we want from our morning Joe.
Our bodies are dehydrated after a full night of sleep. Water makes up a good 73 percent of our brains and is necessary for making neurotransmitters and hormones that influence all brain activity. Researchers have found that dehydration can impair our attention span as well as affect our long- and short-term memory. Drinking at least 12 to 20 ounces of water upon waking will give us the most benefit.
Light is necessary for regulating those circadian rhythms. Letting light hit your eyes stimulates a nerve pathway connecting the retina and hypothalamus in the brain. A part of the hypothalamus then tells other parts of your brain to activate changes in body temperature, hormones and other key factors that all scream “wake up!” Natural light is best, but if unobstructed sun is not available or it is just plain dark out, there are light-based alarms that start brightening the room slowly before you get out of bed. To make your brain immediately feel more awake, turn on all the lights in your room as soon as you get out of bed.
Don’t check your cellphone or computer as soon as you roll out of bed — you can easily be lulled back into sleep and, just as importantly, get sucked into whatever you are reading and waste precious morning time. When you consider that the first two to four hours upon waking are the best of the day for your brain, you want to make the most of them.
Take a cold shower to increase blood flow, neurotransmitters and respiration. All of these can give you a burst of energy and even improve your mood. If the thought of a cold shower is too much (especially in the colder months) try this trick: stick your arm in the cold water, up to the shoulder.
Light exercise will get the circulation going, leading to a positive impact on oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Walk briskly for 10 minutes, do some jumping jacks or perform any light workout you prefer to ensure your brain is fully on alert.
If you experience extreme fatigue no matter what you try, it may be time to consult your doctor. Your doctor can determine whether testing is needed for a possible sleep disorder, such as apnea or restless leg syndrome.