In a perfect world, we would never need alarm clocks. Not only would we effortlessly conk out the moment our heads hit the pillow, our eyes would spontaneously open at the same time every day, and we would spring enthusiastically from our beds as chirping bluebirds alighted on our fingertips.
As if. In reality, less than 30 percent of people in one survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported getting the rest they need every night — not that this statistic is anything to lose sleep over. Experts have a wealth of tips for the chronically fatigued.
This is your wake-up call.
Get into the mood
A few tweaks to your evening ritual will make mornings a whole lot easier.
- Snack yourself to sleep. Eating a small carbohydrate-heavy snack with a bit of protein one to two hours before bed will trigger your brain to produce the calming neurotransmitter serotonin, says New York City nutritionist Joy Bauer, author of "Joy Bauer's Food Cures" (Rodale). Her favorite sleep inducers: a scoop of light ice cream with berries, or a rice cake with a slice of turkey or a teaspoon of peanut butter.
- Chill out (for real). Keeping your body cool at night signals it to fall into a deeper, more restful sleep, says psychiatrist Sara Mednick, author of "Take a Nap! Change Your Life" (Workman Publishing). Turn down the thermostat in your room to 68 degrees, she says.
- Ditch your bleeping alarm clock. “The loud sound that wakes you up from deep sleep is too much of a transition for the brain and body,” says Mednick. “Your brain is still moving very slowly and can't adjust to the fast, bright waking world. It can take 30 minutes to an hour to fully clear your head.” She recommends replacing a conventional alarm clock with one that “wakes you up gradually, either with light or with gongs that start very quietly,” she says. (Most come with quirky names like Peaceful Progression or the Zen Timepiece.)
- Don't light up. Keep digital clocks out of view, urges Mednick — who adds that lights blinking on your BlackBerry, computer, or television can also disrupt slumber. Even worse, a visible clock can be a stressful reminder of how much time you've spent tossing and turning, which can make it harder to sleep peacefully. So can exposure to bright light during your two-minute trip to the bathroom. “Even a little light can decrease melatonin levels, making it difficult to fall back to sleep,” says Mednick.
- Watch out for Sunday-night insomnia. Yes, it can be caused by workweek dread. But more often it's the result of erratic sleep behavior on the weekends — when you're more likely to stay out until 2 A.M. and lounge in bed past 10 the next day. The solution, says Michael Thorpy, director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, is to put yourself on a sleep schedule and stick to it seven days a week. “It's the single most important thing you can do to improve your energy level,” he says.
Spring into action
Waking up is hard to do — not even the kindest alarm clock will change that. When throwing the covers over your head isn't an option, these tricks will propel you up and out.
- Don't procrastinate. Slapping the snooze bar only postpones the inevitable — and leaves you with the kind of fragmented sleep that makes you feel groggy. Set the alarm for the time you really have to get up, and place the clock across the room — so you're forced into the vertical position.
- Video: Vanquish the anguish of secondhand stress Hit the gym. “Exercise increases blood pressure and heart rate and activates the whole sympathetic nervous system,” says Thomas Plante, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in California. For those with no major cardiovascular problems, “this wakes you up and gives you a healthy boost in the morning.” The most energizing workouts, according to Plante's research: solo outdoor activities, which expose you to energy-boosting sunlight and “aren't so draining, because you don't have to worry about keeping up conversation.”
- Give yourself goose bumps. We weren't very excited to learn that a cool shower is better than a warm one. But Mark Mahowald, professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, says that simply making your shower a few degrees cooler will increase alertness. And if you're daring, some neuroscientists theorize that taking a truly cold shower (68 degrees) could increase levels of beta-endorphins and produce a sense of well-being, says Orly Avitzur, a neurologist in Tarrytown, New York, and editor in chief of the American Academy of Neurology Web site. Adding a peppermint body wash or shampoo to the mix puts even more spring in your step, says Rachel Herz, author of "The Scent of Desire" (William Morrow) and visiting professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School. (She co-created Scentology's Endurance Enhancer, an energizing peppermint-based fragrance.) “Numerous studies have shown that people are stronger, faster, and more attentive after exposure to peppermint,” according to Herz. One such study, at Wheeling Jesuit University, found that athletes exposed to the scent could do more push-ups.
Eat for energy
What we eat and drink in the morning is extra-important because breakfast can provide either a long-lasting energy boost — or just a short-lived jolt that leaves you yearning for bed by noon.
- Start drinking. Down two eight-ounce glasses of plain water as soon as the alarm goes off. “We all wake up dehydrated,” says Susan Kleiner, a dietitian and author of "The Good Mood Diet" (Springboard Press). This is a problem, considering that every biochemical reaction — all of our thinking processes and our muscle contractions — depend on us having enough water.
- Get your Omega-3s. These fatty acids “are critically important in improving brain function, energy, and mood,” says Kleiner, who has been known to add omega-3-rich salmon to her morning omelet. Taking a 1,000- to 1,500-milligram supplement every day may also produce energizing benefits in a week.
- Stages of sleepResist the baseball-size bagel. After providing a quick spike in blood-sugar levels, simple carbohydrates leave you even more sluggish than before. Instead, try a protein shake or a slice of whole-wheat toast with fruit and cottage cheese or Greek yogurt, or have the toast with an omelet, says dietitian Susan Bowerman. Eggs are also rich in choline, which helps the brain make the concentration-boosting neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
- Try some caffeine. The stimulant not only inhibits the body's chemicals responsible for drowsiness, but it also prompts the release of adrenaline, which speeds heart rate, opens the lungs' breathing tubes, increases blood flow to the muscles, and causes the liver to release sugar into the bloodstream. An eight-ounce cup in the morning (or about 50 milligrams of caffeine) is enough to kick-start most people into the land of the living, according to Thorpy. Just steer clear of those fat- and sugar-laden milk shakes masquerading as coffee. The best brew is a latte, says Kleiner: “The protein and carbohydrates in milk are ideal for fueling the brain and muscles.”
The 4 o'clock slump
If you fight off sleepiness in the morning only to have it return full force after lunch, you've got company — The New York Times reported that an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of us take a daily catnap. (The body's circadian rhythm shifts into rest mode around 2 or 3 P.M.) Taking a 20-minute nap can restore energy without leaving you feeling groggy. Then again, it could also get you fired. Here, some ways to wake yourself up instead.
- Take a walk ... and not just to the coffee machine. The energizing benefits of exercise apply at any time of the day, says psychologist Thomas Plante, who claims a brisk stroll around the block can reinvigorate your mind and body as well as a double espresso. (The former is arguably even more effective, because its rousing effects last longer and won't impact your sleep later that night.) “Our studies show that even ten minutes can give you the boost you need,” says Plante.
- Hit the (water) bottle. Mental and physical energy plummet when you're even mildly dehydrated, says registered dietitian Susan Kleiner. Drink more water than coffee, which in excess can act as a diuretic. As for those colorful energy cocktails of taurine, ginkgo, and creatine billing themselves as rocket fuel, “they're expensive candy,” Kleiner says. “It's probably the sugar and caffeine that give you the jolt — and will also cause you to crash a few hours later.”
- Stages of sleepSnack smarter. “When you're tired, it's best to choose foods that give some carbohydrates to lift your blood sugar, plus some protein to sustain you,” says registered dietitian Susan Bowerman. Her top picks: a carton of yogurt, a piece of string cheese with whole-grain crackers, or a half-cup of cottage cheese with fruit. Even the office vending machine offers a few options. Trail mix will keep you going until dinnertime, provided you “eat just the nuts and dried fruit, not the coated raisins or chocolate chips,” says Bowerman. “The next-best bet is an oatmeal cookie — at least you'll get a few whole-grain oats. Have one with some low-fat milk.”
Yet another reason to abandon your vices: They can help prevent you from getting a good night's rest.
- Too much caffeine. This one's obvious. But what may be surprising is exactly how long the caffeine from coffee, tea, and cola stays in your system. You need to cut yourself off at least eight hours before bedtime to be safe, says Bauer. And keep in mind that eating a lot of chocolate late in the day can also keep you hopped-up at night.
- Nicotine. If you must smoke, have your last cigarette of the day at least four hours before bedtime, says Thorpy.
- Alcohol. The drink that helps you drift off is likely to make you toss and turn hours later, says Mahowald. For some, even one glass of wine can corrupt sleep quality. But for most, it's downing several drinks that will lead to increased alertness as the alcohol leaves the bloodstream — which could be at 3 A.M.
- A big meal. “A food hangover is almost as bad as an alcohol hangover,” says Bauer, who cautions that the bloating caused by eating a plate of steak frites at night will leave you feeling sapped the next morning. A high-protein meal can make the body feel more alert, too, says Bowerman, who advises having a high-carb dinner instead.
Sunlight, exercise, and a whiff of peppermint will keep you awake long enough to read this story — but if you want to actually remember any of it, go to bed. Robert Stickgold, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has spent nearly 20 years proving that getting a good night's sleep helps etch memories and new skills into the brain. In one 2005 study, Stickgold had subjects type a numerical sequence in the morning and again 12 hours later (without a sleep break). The group that learned the sequence in the evening and returned after a night of sleep for testing was 20 percent faster — and became 35 percent faster after three nights of sleep.
While no one knows the precise effect of sleep on memory, Stickgold theorizes that when the body is snoozing, the brain shuts out external stimuli and “sifts though the day's overlapping memories, finds underlying patterns,” and comes to certain conclusions. Alas, your Starbucks double latte can't do that.
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