Even if you are a diehard morning person, waking yourself up in the a.m. can be quite a challenge. And it’s not just you. There is a phenomenon called sleep inertia that refers to the brain fog and sluggishness that occurs after waking up from sleep. Even when you do manage to get up and going, that leftover sleepiness can take a toll, impacting the rest of your day.
Luckily, there are some relatively simple ways to feel more alert and awake first thing in the morning. Of course, if waking up is a significant issue for you, you may want to rule out potentially bigger issues like sleep apnea. If you are chronically sleepy, it’s never a bad idea to chat with your doctor. Otherwise, the tips below can help you jump out of bed, ready to tackle the day.
Get enough sleep
Although this isn’t what many will want to hear, getting enough sleep is a big part of the equation for waking up alert. I chatted with Dr. Chris Jung, an Associate Professor at the University of Alaska who studies sleep and the circadian rhythm, who explained that we go through 90-minute sleep cycles consisting of four stages: Stage One, Stage Two, Deep Sleep, and REM. If you wake up out of deep sleep, sleep inertia is the greatest and can really wreck your morning.
Dr. Jung points out that some research has shown that waking up in deep sleep results in cognitive function worse than 40 hours of sleep deprivation. Going 24 hours without sleep is equivalent to having a blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent, so waking up out of deep sleep is extremely detrimental, and can cause significant impact to cognitive function. Sleep inertia in such situations can last up to two hours as well; it’s a hard thing to shake off if you wake from deep sleep. Luckily, the further you get away from deep sleep, the less of an issue sleep inertia becomes.
So, how do you avoid waking up in the deep sleep phase of your sleep cycle? Dr. Jung suggests getting, at minimum, five hours of sleep at night (although he pointed out that anything under six hours results in pretty harmful impacts on your body). That’s because the first half of the night consists of more deep sleep, while the second half of the night contains more light and REM sleep. So, if you let your body go through a few full cycles, you’ll be less likely to wake from deep sleep. That’s also part of why seven to eight hours is the recommended amount of sleep, as you’ll go through more cycles.
Light is crucial
After waking up at the right point in your sleep cycle, the most important tool for waking up alert is to expose yourself to light. Exposure to light suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin, effectively telling your body to wake up. Sunlight also boosts cortisol, which can make you more alert. “Getting out into the fresh air and natural sunlight are the best ways to wake up in the morning, for doing so stops the floodgates of melatonin and flips the ‘on’ switch to our circadian rhythm,” explains Dr. Rebecca Robbins, a Sleep Scientist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Assistant Professor at Harvard. So, open up those blinds and let that sunshine flow in. Or, even better, step outside for a quick walk to get bathed in natural light.
Direct natural light is best, but that’s not always possible. Whether it’s a gloomy day, you have a bedroom with limited windows, or it’s the middle of winter, bright natural light is sometimes hard to come by. If sunshine isn’t an option, turn on your lights. Dr. Jung suggests setting up a light therapy lamp as an alternative to natural light. Such a light can also help you get back on a schedule after traveling across time zones. Or, as a way to get things started, you could check out sunrise alarm clocks. The important thing is to brighten up the room you are in as you get the day started.
Adjust your relationship with your alarm clock
Alarm clocks are an unfortunate reality for most of us. “In a perfect world, we would be waking up naturally, but in reality, many of us are not getting enough sleep, causing us to be reliant upon alarm clocks that, in some cases, emit blaring noises that emulate sirens or other loud, cortisol-raising sounds,” says Dr. Robbins.
Along with those alarm clocks typically comes the use of the snooze button. “Although poorly studied, we have a sense that many individuals rely on the snooze feature, which allows you (in theory) to fall back asleep, but the sleep you likely get after the alarm first goes off is of poor quality,” Dr. Robbins explains. Instead, she recommends setting your alarm to the latest possible time and getting up as soon as it goes off. Some even suggest placing the alarm clock (or your phone) on the opposite side of the room so that you have to get out of bed to turn it off. By avoiding the snooze button, you’ll get a longer chunk of quality sleep instead of a period of interrupted sleep, which is better in the long run.
Pour a cup of Jo
Caffeine can be an extremely useful tool to wake yourself up. Dr. Jung explained that caffeine works because it is an adenosine antagonist. Adenosine is the compound that makes you tired, but caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors, preventing you from getting sleepy.
While caffeine comes in many forms, there has been some research to show that coffee may have benefits over other options. Researchers who compared brain activity between subjects who drank coffee versus those taking caffeine found that “the subjects were more ready for action and alert to external stimuli after having coffee,” according to the study. The researchers pointed out that other caffeinated beverages may have the same effect, so if you’re a tea fan, you’re in luck as well.
Some of the impact may be from the act of making coffee, not necessarily the coffee or caffeine itself. Some studies have found that routine and wake-up tasks can also play a role in helping break through sleep inertia and feeling alert in the morning. So, whether you use a drip machine, prefer to take the time to make a latte, whip up an iced coffee, or fix a quality cup of espresso can help you start your day on the right foot with a clear head.
If you’re like me, it’s easy to drink the coffee and only the coffee. But dehydration can cause a drop in blood pressure, which leads to reduced blood flow to your brain and a feeling of sleepiness. So, it’s important to also start your day with water, milk, or juice to keep hydrated and keep blood flowing to wake up fully in the morning. Keeping hydrated throughout the day can also stave off sleepiness, so we recommend keeping a water bottle on hand.
Get some exercise
Exercise is another very useful tool for waking yourself up. “Exercise serves as a simple and effective countermeasure to sleep inertia, particularly for those in critical roles like pilots and surgeons,” explains Dr. Scott Ferguson, Assistant Professor of Aerospace Physiology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Plus, if you get outside for exercise first thing in the morning, you get the added benefit of that natural light with your activity.
Exercise gets your blood pumping. “By changing blood flow distribution within the brain and releasing key signaling molecules, a brief session of light to moderate aerobic exercise upon waking can enhance alertness, cognitive function, and mood,” Dr. Ferguson clarifies. That boost to cognitive alertness is especially important for high-pressure tasks or those requiring precision and concentration. As an added bonus, regular exercise strengthens circadian rhythms, aiding in overall sleep quality and readiness to perform immediately after waking.
Some scents, such as rosemary, peppermint, and citrus, have been shown to result in increased cognitive function and alertness, as well as provide mood-boosting benefits. Picking up an essential oil diffuser and some of the scents above can be an easy way to brighten up your morning or help out with tiredness in the afternoon. You could even opt for a smart plug that allows you to set the diffuser on a timer, starting as your alarm goes off and you work your way out of bed.
Address your sleep hygiene & habits
Sleep hygiene refers to both your sleeping environment and behavior, encompassing a range of habits and tools. It impacts the quality of sleep that you get, which will trickle down to how awake you feel in the morning. To set yourself up for a better night of sleep, scientists recommend having a wind-down routine before bed to prepare your mind for sleep. Just as bright light in the morning helps you wake up, dim lights at night can help you prepare to fall asleep. You’ll also want to avoid using your phone right before bed, as the blue light can impact your sleep. And, of course, investing in a quality mattress that is right for your body and how you sleep is also essential.
How to get past afternoon sleepiness
Even if you do manage to wake up alert and ready for the day, it’s very common to feel fatigue settling in towards the afternoon. That’s partly because as you go through the day, your body is burning through adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for energy, eventually breaking down to adenosine. Remember, adenosine is the compound that makes you feel sleepy, and it is building up in your brain throughout the day.
Many of the suggestions for waking up in the morning also apply to getting past the afternoon slump. Expose yourself to bright light, try aromatherapy, hydrate, drink some caffeine, get fresh air, and/or get some exercise.
But there’s another tool you can try: A nap. Dr. Jung explained that naps can be incredibly helpful. The key, though, is to avoid waking up out of deep sleep. A 45-minute nap will leave you feeling worse off than before because you’ll be waking up in deep sleep. So, if you’re going to take an afternoon siesta, keep it to between 15 and 19 minutes so that you wake up before you slip into deep sleep, or nap for 90 minutes so that you get all the way through deep sleep. Keep in mind, though, that taking a long nap may make it harder to fall asleep that night, especially if you had a good night’s sleep the night before.
Final thoughts on how to wake yourself up
As you can see, there are lots of different components to waking up feeling awake, alert, and ready to go. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by it all, thinking you need to change everything. However, as Dr. Jung explained, the absolute most important thing is to avoid waking up in deep sleep by getting enough sleep. Following that, exposing yourself to bright light—ideally natural light—is crucial for kickstarting your circadian rhythm. And caffeine can also be a beneficial tool for getting your day started.