Many of us take a while to get going in the morning and might find that we aren’t particularly productive when we first start the day. This can be something of a problem if you need to be at work at 9am and especially if you have a meeting early. If you’re self-employed and rely on your own productivity to make any money then it’s absolutely devastating potentially.
So how do you make sure that you wake early and actually feel awake? Why the grogginess in the first place?
What Is Sleep Inertia?
When you wake up, some parts of your brain will immediately spring into action, but others require a little bit of warming up before they start working. This puts us in a situation where we are capable of function, but we aren’t optimally effective. Thus it takes everyone a little while to properly ‘come around’ though the amount of time seems to vary fairly drastically – in fact it can take anywhere up to 4 hours for some people to be firing on all cylinders which of course isn’t particularly useful if you want to have a productive day (1). On the other hand, if you are lucky you might be fully awake within 15 minutes – by the time you’ve brushed your teeth.
What Causes Sleep Inertia?
As mentioned, sleep inertia is largely caused by the fact that particular areas of your brain are still coming around. This is because those brain areas will have been particularly inactive prior to you springing to life and thus you are actually much more likely to experience sleep inertia if you wake up in the wrong stage of sleep. If you wake up in the wrong stage of sleep – slow wave sleep – then your sleep inertia will be most severe. Ideally you want to wake in stage 1 or stage 2 sleep (2) and not SWS (slow wave sleep), REM or the other stages. This way you will be close to already coming around. The ideal point to wake up is stage 1, which accounts for about 9% of your sleep time. In other words then, if you are waking yourself up with an alarm then you’ll find that you are more than likely to be woken during the wrong stage of your sleep.
Another issue is lack of sleep generally. If you don’t have enough sleep during the night, then you will wake up and still be tired: it’s that simple. Make sure you have a decent quantity and quality of sleep then and you’ll feel much better in the morning.
It also helps to make sure you have plenty of energy by consuming a decent amount of carbs the day before and by ensuring your cells are efficient at converting those carbs into useable energy. You can accomplish this for instance by using supplements (like creatine) and by ensuring that you get regular exercise. Otherwise you can feel lethargic and it might be slow going getting started in the morning.
How to Combat Sleep Inertia
The main way to combat sleep inertia is to use an alarm clock designed to wake you at the correct stage in your sleep cycle. Alternatively you can try and work this out yourself.
Bear in mind that a sleep cycle lasts for 90 minutes, meaning that after 90 minutes you’ll be just about to start the next sleep cycle. That way you know that in order to be ready to wake up at the ideal time, you should try to go to sleep at a time that is the time you want to make up, minus a multiple of 90 minutes. Seeing as you ideally should be looking to get 8 hours of sleep, the best time to go to bed would be seven and a half hours prior to your wake time, or nine hours prior.
This can be a little ‘hit or miss’ at the best of times though, especially seeing as many of us will spend a long time getting to sleep in the first place (and having to continuously adjust an alarm clock is hardly going to help with that).
An alternative is to use an app that attempts to actually measure the stage of sleep you’re in. There are some devices designed to do this with headbands to measure brainwave activity, while other devices try to measure your movement during the night (which is also how the smartphone apps work). While this is a nice idea, there are no real studies to confirm or deny their effectiveness and user reports are mixed.
A better option then is to use a ‘daylight alarm lamp’. This is a lamp that emits a light wave very similar to the natural light of the sun thereby making your brain think that it really is day time. At the same time it utilizes a gradual lightening effect before the actual alarm sounds (which will be something like the sound of birds).
This is ideal, because it gradually rouses you out of your deeper sleep and into the lighter stages. As the light increases, it will cause your brain to get rid of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and that will make you instantly feel more awake and rise out of your deep sleep. Then when the sound comes on, you’ll naturally already be stage 1 or 2. Many people say this makes them feel considerably better and it’s especially useful if you suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Make sure you also time your wake time to be at intervals of 90 minutes and this will help to ensure you wake with minimal inertia.
The Caffeine Effect
One more element to consider is your caffeine use. A lot of people use caffeine in order to help them wake up first thing in the morning and report feeling groggy and tired until the point when they get their first coffee. This then leads them to believe that they are using caffeine to clear their heads and to combat sleep inertia.
In fact, the relationship may be a little more complex and you might actually be doing yourself damage by using caffeine. That’s because drinking caffeine causes the brain to adapt and develop what is known as ‘tolerance’.
To keep things simple, caffeine essentially works by reducing a substance called ‘adenosine’ in the brain. This neurochemical builds up in our brains during the course of the day and when it gets too abundant this makes us feel groggy and tired – thus we turn in and sleep. Caffeine works by looking like adenosine and mimicking it in the brain. It then fits into the same receptors (the A1 receptors) that adenosine normally would, but without exerting any of the same effects. This then means that adenosine is unable to have its usual action and that in turn means it can’t make us feel as tired.
The problem is, that when you keep blocking adenosine on a regular basis, the brain starts to believe that it must not be making enough. As a result then it starts to amp up the production of adenosine/A1 receptors and you start to get even tireder. Now the same amount of caffeine won’t have the same effect (3).
The end result is that you now feel much tireder when you wake up because you haven’t had enough caffeine during the night. In short, you are addicted and what feels like brain fog or sleep inertia is in fact withdrawal symptoms.
If you are very reliant on caffeine then and you find that you suffer from bad sleep inertia, then try cutting that caffeine out of your diet and you should find the problem starts to go away. You might experience headaches for the first week or two, but eventually your levels of adenosine and your other neurotransmitters will go back to normal.