You probably know the feeling all too well — grogginess that seems to weigh you down when you wake from sleep.
That heavy feeling right after you wake up is called sleep inertia. You feel tired, maybe a little disoriented, and not quite fully ready to hit the ground running. It can affect anyone.
Sleep inertia usually doesn’t last that long, but some people experience a version that lasts longer, known as prolonged sleep inertia.
In some cases, people who experience severe morning sleep inertia may be at higher risk for confusion during sleep arousal, or sleep drunkenness, a type of parasomnia.
Parasomnias are a group of sleep disorders that involve unwanted events or experiences that occur while you’re:
- falling asleep
- waking up
Sleep inertia isn’t considered a parasomnia. However, it can warrant a visit to a sleep specialist if it causes too much disruption in your life.
If your doctor diagnoses you with severe morning sleep inertia and it’s causing you distress or disrupting your life, you may need to undergo treatment.
Your doctor’s recommendations may vary based on whether you have any other type of sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea.
Your overall health and lifestyle may also play a part in determining treatment recommendations. For instance, you may need to reduce or eliminate alcohol use.
However, if you’re experiencing typical grogginess after waking up, you might want to try some countermeasures to overcome the fogginess.
For most people, sleep inertia might not be problematic enough to see a doctor. But you still have to cope with the effects when you’re awake.
Here are a few strategies that may help:
You’ve probably already thought of this. If you’ve ever blearily reached for a cup of coffee upon waking, you may be on the right track.
Caffeine can help you shake off some of the effects of sleep inertia. However, you do have to be careful.
You could consider popping in a stick of caffeinated gum.
A 2018 study found that caffeinated gum helped night shift workers combat the effects of sleep inertia after a nap. The study had only 5 participants, though, and the gum took 15 to 25 minutes to take effect.
A short nap, ideally between 10 to 20 minutes in the afternoon, can help counteract your sleepiness.
Researchers caution that this kind of short nap is really only effective if you’re not already sleep deprived. And if you do shift work, you may need to also consider the time of day and your prior sleep situation.
Exposure to dawn light — even artificial dawn light with a light box — may help you feel more alert and better prepared to perform certain tasks.
It might be worth a try, but more research is necessary.
Sleep schedule rearrangement
Consider when you’re trying to sleep. According to a
Your body wants to sleep during the “biological night,” the time when your body’s circadian rhythm promotes sleep. You’re going to have more trouble performing mentally challenging tasks right after you wake up, if you wake up when your body’s clock thinks you should be sleeping.
If possible, try to avoid having to wake up and dive right into a serious task during your body’s biological night.
Aligning sleep with your cycles
Everyone sleeps in cycles, each of which consists of four unique phases:
- N1 is the transitional period when your breathing, heartbeat, and brain waves slow to usher you into sleep.
- N2 is a period of light sleep where your muscles relax, your heartbeat and breathing slow, and your eye movement stop.
- N3 is when you begin to sleep deeply, and your brain waves slow even more.
- REM is rapid-eye movement. This is when you have vivid dream and consolidate new memories.
Each of these cycles lasts for about 90 minutes. Waking up after you’ve had a chance to finish all of these cycles, meaning after you’ve completed the REM phase, should (in theory) make you feel more refreshed.
You could use a sleep calculator to help you figure out what bedtime and wake time will let you awaken at the end of the cycle.
The trouble is, sleep cycle lengths are hard to predict. And if you get up to use the bathroom at night, it can throw your whole timing off.
So even with a calculator, it may be hard to get in sync with your sleep cycle and wake up at just the right time.
You could possibly try other countermeasures, like washing your face when you wake up or blasting cold air to perk you up.
Some scientists are even investigating the use of sound, which could include noise or music, to improve a person’s performance upon waking.
Whether you regularly experience sleep inertia or not, embracing good sleep hygiene is always a good idea. It can help you get the amount of rest you need to function well and feel good.
Consider a few of these strategies:
- Establish a regular bedtime routine to help you unwind and relax. You might listen to some soft music or read a few pages in a book.
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule. That is, plan to go to bed at the same time each evening and wake around the same time each morning.
- Log off from all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Some people find that it’s easier to forego the electronic devices, including tablets, laptops, and even televisions, if they keep them out of the bedroom altogether.
- Don’t drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages in the evening before bedtime.
- Keep your bedroom cool and dark, which can help you relax and sleep better.
- Avoid drinking anything containing alcohol before bedtime. Though a glass of wine might make you feel sleepy, alcohol can disrupt your sleep,
research finds, especially the REM sleep that’s important to memory.
- Don’t eat a big meal close to bedtime. But a light bedtime snack might help, if you’re hungry.
Evidence suggeststhat certain foods, like milk, tart cherries, and kiwifruit, have sleep-promoting properties.
- Higher levels of delta waves: These electrical waves in the brain are linked to deep sleep. Scientists can measure electrical activity in the brain with an electroencephalogram (EEG). Not only do people with sleep inertia have higher levels of delta waves, but also fewer beta waves, which are associated with wakefulness.
- Slower brain reactivation:
Researchalso suggests that there may be a slower reactivation of certain parts of the brain after waking, including the prefrontal cortex regions that are responsible for executive function.
- Slow blood flow in the brain: There also
might bea lag in the time it takes for the brain’s blood flow to speed up after waking.
Whether you’re waking up from a nap or a night of sleep, the symptoms of sleep inertia are pretty much the same.
You feel drowsy and groggy. You might also have problems concentrating or making connections. Or, you might wave other people off while you rub your eyes or make yourself a cup of coffee.
Now, the good news. Typically, sleep inertia disappears after about 30 minutes, according to a
In fact, it can sometimes disappear within 15 minutes. However, what some scientists call a “full recovery” takes about an hour to achieve — and it can continue to improve over the course of about 2 hours.
Severe morning sleep inertia, which affects both adults and adolescents, can last for a long time and disrupt your ability to get to work or school on time.
That’s when you might want to see a doctor, especially one with expertise in sleep disorders.
A sleep study can provide more insight into your sleep patterns and contributing factors.
Your doctor may also ask you about possible factors that can contribute to sleep arousal, such as:
- other sleep disorders
- depressive disorders
- medications you’re taking
- night shift or rotating shift work that could have a detrimental effect on your sleep
If you don’t experience sleep inertia very often, or your grogginess upon waking tends to wear off pretty quickly, you probably don’t need to worry about it.
Or, you could explore whether a few simple strategies, like drinking a caffeinated beverage in the morning or scheduling a short nap, can help.
If you have trouble shaking off the grogginess and its interference with your ability to get on with your daily living activities, talk to your doctor. You may benefit from seeing a sleep specialist.