What is Wakefulness?
In the most obvious sense, it’s the state we (ideally) spend approximately 2/3 of our days. Being fully awake is the opposite of being fully asleep.
Why talk about wakefulness?
It’s during our periods of wakefulness that we develop what is called a “sleep drive.” Lack of sleep, over the course of the day, creates shifts in our neurochemistry that result in a growing “sleep pressure” which leads to feeling sleepy and needing to sleep at night. (This, in addition to our responses to environmental changes in light that are circadian by design.)
Our sleep drive, like our hunger or sex or thirst drive, builds up as a result of a lack of sleep.
You get hungry when you don’t eat, right? You also get sleepy when you don’t sleep.
Similarly, you tend to get hungry at certain times of the day, and the same is true for sleep.
Much of the discussion about the sleep process focuses on the way our circadian rhythms help us to fall asleep, but we also rely on these rhythms to wake up in the morning.
A good, wakeful day—one in which we can be as energetic as the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed squirrels in the video above illustrates—is a good thing for a variety of reasons. Being naturally wakeful and energized during the day:
- means we are more productive at work or doing tasks
- improves mood, reduces swings in mods, and regulates emotions
- makes it easier to exercise or make other healthy lifestyle choices (like saying no to that 3pm latte)
- helps us to make more intelligent decisions and to practice sound judgment under pressure
- leads to better sleep at night thanks to the aforementioned sleep drive
- is evidence you are sleeping well
Being fully awake during the day is supposed to be normal… but is it?
The problem of daytime sleepiness
How many among us feel 100 percent wakeful from the moment we awaken to the moment we fall asleep? Probably very few.
Some of us take a while to wake up in the morning. Some of us feel sleepy after meals. Some of us begin to feel drowsy in the late afternoon or evening far ahead of our usual “bedtime.”
Wakefulness during the day is something that we don’t link with sleep, but the fact is, we need an appropriate 2:1 balance of wakefulness and sleepiness in order to live our lives optimally.
A little daytime sleepiness every now and again, or under normal circumstances, is nothing to worry about:
That mid-afternoon slump is the result of circadian processes that influence neurochemistry following digestion, but we are built to go through this short period of sleepiness, then recover for the rest of the day
Jet lag may cause temporary daytime fatigue, but it is usually self limiting
If you have a cocktail at lunch, that might make you sleepy before the sun goes down
If you had to get up 3 hours earlier than usual to catch a plane or go on a trip, that will also make you sleepy
These are all normal circumstances that we can experience, and usually we can recover from them
The daytime sleepiness we should be worried about is the kind that leads to problems with the activities of daily living, including work:
Who among us truly wants to sleepwalk through life? I doubt anybody does, but for so many of us, living our days in a drowsy “fog” has become the norm.
Where does this sleepiness come from?
- Too little sleep at night caused by delays in bedtime or by morning wake times that are extremely early (often related to lifestyle or job demands)
- Adequate hours of sleep fragmented by frequent awakenings (due to medications, health problems, stress, caregiver responsibilities, external interruptions)
- Undiagnosed, untreated or poorly treated sleep disorders (most commonly insomnia, sleep apnea, movement disorders of sleep, nocturia)
- Undiagnosed, untreated or poorly treated health conditions that lead to disrupted sleep (due to dawn phenomenon, pain, medication side effects, central nervous system disruptions, mental health concerns)
- Poor sleep hygiene (poor stress management, alcohol or cigarettes at bedtime, blue spectrum light exposure from electronic devices at bedtime, late and heavy meals, sleeping areas that are light or messy or noisy, etc.)
Over time, multiple nights of poor sleep can lead to a repeating problem of daytime sleepiness. This is code for “sleep deprivation,” which culminates over time in sleep debt.
Once you hit a life defined by sleep debt, it’s very hard to course correct and get back to normal and healthy circadian rhythms.
Simple solutions for achieving days of wakefulness (and nights of sleepiness)
- Stick to a consistent sleep-wake schedule by avoiding the snooze alarm, going to bed at the same time every single night, and getting up at the same time every morning
- Make your bedroom as dark and as quiet as possible
- Manage your stress through relaxation techniques, cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia, bedside journals, yoga, meditation, aromatherapy or other approaches to encourage sleep at night
- Exercise during the day (in the morning, if possible); even a brisk walk can help reinvigorate you if you’re in a “fog”
- Go outside for 20 minutes right after rising to reset your circadian rhythms to a healthy pattern
- Avoid foods and beverages after lunch that might lead to daytime sleepiness or insomnia
- Try not to rely on stimulants to keep you awake; instead, a protein-rich breakfast and plenty of water throughout the day can help keep you alert
- Use melatonin in the late afternoon or evening, prior to bedtime, to help with falling asleep
- Try a coffee nap for afternoon slumps
- If you tend to be a night owl, try to adjust your work schedule to flex time to allow you a later sleep-wake schedule (if possible). The world may or may not be able to accommodate your rhythms but you can certainly try if you’re losing a couple of hours of sleep every night because of early-morning schedules.
The solution to a fantastic, high-energy day is to get your sleep. Which can be the easiest and hardest thing to achieve, depending upon your circumstances.
Perhaps the hardest part of all this is seeking help for your drowsy days and restless nights. But it’s the first and most important step to finding the sleep-wake balance you need to be the healthiest, most effective, and happiest you.