Sleep can be frustrating. When you’re desperate to get some much-needed rest, you stare up at the ceiling, so alert you could probably pilot a Moon lander. But when you’re at work or in class and desperately need that level of wakefulness, you find your head nodding and you keep losing time in five-minute increments.
In those moments it’s natural to turn to our old friend caffeine. And hey, caffeine works! Slamming some coffee or an energy drink (or caffeine pills, if you’re hardcore) definitely gives you the short-term boost you need to power through the afternoon doldrums or that all-nighter you’ve found yourself mired in. But caffeine isn’t always your best option. While moderate doses can help keep you awake and might even have some health benefits, too much can have a negative impact on your health, and even moderate amounts can affect your overall sleep patterns, locking you into an endless loop of being exhausted and relying on caffeine to get through your days.
It’s actually not that hard to stay awake without resorting to caffeine. If you’re powering through a sleepy afternoon or a long night and need to stay up without it, here’s how.
Water and snacks
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Caffeine is a short-term solution for staying awake. The better option is to give yourself an energy boost with the two things your body needs for that energy: Water and nutrition.
About 75% of Americans are dehydrated to some extent—we simply don’t drink enough water. And guess what? Fatigue is a classic symptom of dehydration, so drinking some clean, cold water will probably jolt you into a higher state of alertness and wakefulness. Drinking sufficient water every day isn’t just very, very good for you, it’s also going to help you sleep better in general so you don’t get drowsy when you need to work.
If you want a more effective energy boost than the temporary spike of caffeine (or sugar), food is a good strategy—it’s pretty much how your body was designed to get energy in the first place. This is why having a snack before a gym session works so well. Avoid sugar bombs and greasy, heavy foods that can make you feel logy, and go for high-protein snacks that include carbohydrates and fats. The carbs will boost your energy and the protein will help regulate how your body burns that energy. Instead of energy bars, go for some natural sugar with an apple, eat a salad for a vitamin B boost, or munch on some peanut butter. The influx of healthy calories will make you feel more awake.
Exercise and activity
If you’re dozing off at your desk, it might be time to take a break. Instead of grabbing yet another cup of coffee, stand up and move around for a few minutes. Exercise boosts your energy levels and reduces feelings of fatigue, and even low-impact activity like taking a short walk can wake you up and sharpen your brain.
If you’re struggling to stay awake during daylight hours, consider going outside to get some sun. Sunlight has a powerful effect on the human body, and has been shown to impact alertness and energy levels. Actually, just being outside can spike your mental acuity, helping to keep you awake and alert—so stand up, go outside for fifteen minutes, and then get back to work.
Finally, the counter-intuitive way to stay awake without caffeine is to sleep a little bit. A power nap can do wonders for your level of alertness and clarity, so if you find yourself dozing off, give in and grab some shuteye—for a little while. That means setting an alarm to ensure you don’t sleep for eight hours slumped over your desk, only to wake up to a meeting with human resources and the inability to turn your head without agonizing pain.
You don’t need to nap for a long time—as little as 10 minutes of quick sleep can have a huge positive effect, with 20 minutes being considered the “ideal” length for a power nap. Sleeping for much longer than that may not get you any immediate benefit—and might interrupt your regular sleep schedule—but planning ahead and scheduling a longer nap (up to an hour) earlier in the day can help you avoid that sleepy feeling altogether.