Each of us has experienced sleep inertia at some point or another. It is common across populations, with everyone from babies to old people falling victim to it. While it has not been classified as one of the sleep disorders along with sleep apnea, insomnia, and so on, you should consider visiting a doctor if the symptoms persist and it interferes with your regular functioning.
What is it?
Sleep inertia is the state between sleep and being fully awake. Scientifically, “sleep inertia refers to the transitional state between sleep and wake, marked by impaired performance, reduced vigilance, and a desire to return to sleep”. You could find yourself feeling this for anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours.
Most often, people who have sleep inertia try to cope with it by drinking caffeine or by forcing themselves to jolt awake with loud alarms.
What does it feel like?
Most often, sleep inertia feels like grogginess you are not able to shake yourself out of. You may feel like simply staying in bed. You may also feel tired and disoriented. This often leads to lower productivity levels and in some cases, a general feeling of frustration. You may find yourself unable to concentrate or carry out even the simplest actions. However, these feelings usually begin receding after 15–20 minutes.
What causes it?
While research has been done on the causes of sleep inertia, this is an ongoing process. Sleep inertia is dependent on how long you sleep for, the quality of your sleep, and the state of sleep you wake up from.
The only fact that has been ascertained is that this condition is caused by an interruption in the REM cycle of sleep. Melatonin is the chemical in the body that enables you to sleep. When your REM cycle is disturbed, you wake up with high levels of melatonin. Further, there has been a link between longer sleep cycles and increased levels of melatonin during the REM cycle.
Conversely, during non-REM sleep, your blood pressure, heart rate and brain activity are at much lower levels. This allows you to become active and get into your usual routine much faster.
Essentially, waking up in the middle of a sleep state causes sleep inertia, whereas waking up at the end of a sleep cycle ensures better sleep quality. This holds true for short naps as well.
What can it cause?
If you suffer from minor sleep inertia, chances are it will not cause much more than a slight disruption in your mornings. Once you are able to shake off the feeling of grogginess, you will be able to go about your day as usual.
But, if you suffer from chronic sleep inertia, the ramifications can be significantly more harmful. Firstly, the severe drowsiness you feel can be detrimental in carrying out the most basic tasks in the morning, such as having breakfast and getting ready for work. If you drive to your workplace, this drowsiness can also increase your chances of meeting with an accident since you are not able to concentrate on your driving properly. You may also find it hard to coordinate your movements, increasing the risk of getting injured.
Regularly experiencing sleep inertia can result in you being poorly rested. This, in turn, can lead to what has been termed as ‘wake-up stress’. Further, constant low energy levels can cause memory loss and a lower capacity to retain new information.
If you are unable to get out of bed on time, you may become a regular latecomer at work or university. Chronic sleep inertia also lowers your productivity levels significantly, especially in the first half of your day. This may affect your performance at work and may even affect your relationship with your colleagues.
In trying to deal with your sleep inertia, you may inadvertently cause more harm. For example, for those of you that rely on your morning caffeine fix to wake you up, continuous consumption of large amounts could result in a variety of heart-related issues. For others who rely on loud alarm clocks to wake them up, high adrenaline levels can result in increased levels of stress which in turn could lead to chronic stress issues.
These effects of sleep inertia are especially dangerous for individuals who work in fields that require them to be on top of their game at all times, making quick decisions that could impact several other people. People who fall into this category include firemen, policemen, and doctors. If you work in a sector that necessitates quick thinking and actions, you might want to consult a doctor before your sleep inertia worsens.
What can I do to stop it?
As has already been discussed, caffeine and adrenaline are two methods that are often used to combat sleep inertia. However, it is important to keep in mind that these solutions are short term and do not really address the cause of the condition. By focusing only on resolving the results of the condition, you could actually be worsening the problem in the long term. While some people have suggested not resorting to loud alarms and in fact just sleeping with no alarm, this may not help you if you are not in the habit of waking up on time by yourself. Unless your body clock is trained in a manner that your routine won’t be disrupted, this may actually result in you constantly oversleeping.
- Today, the market does have products that will help you deal with your sleep inertia. One of these is an alarm clock that monitors you during different stages of sleep and wakes you up at the right point in a sleep cycle. This will ensure you are well-rested and that your melatonin levels are at an optimum level for you to wake up.
- Research has also shown that a caffeine infusion when you are sleep deprived and chewing caffeine gum for five minutes after waking up can reduce sleep inertia after naps.
- Another solution that has been found to work in three studies is something called ‘dawn simulators’. These simulators gradually increase the amount of light available in the room before awakening, impersonating daybreak. These studies have found an improvement in the level of drowsiness that people feel, but more research will have to be done to ensure the durability of the solution.
- Further, since your body’s temperature fluctuates when you are asleep, studies have also shown that applying a wet cloth to your face right after waking up along with a cool breeze from a fan, could promote quicker responses and lessen sleep inertia.
- Other than what research has shown, there are simple steps you can take at home to reduce sleep inertia. The first of these is getting into a proper sleep routine. You will feel less rested if you are constantly waking up at a time that your body thinks it should be asleep at. Try and form a pattern wherein you go to sleep and wake up within the hours of a “biological night”. This is that time period in which your body is producing melatonin and allowing different organs to rest. If your work does require you to wake up at an early hour and get to work, try and keep important tasks that need you to focus on and make decisions in, for later in the day.
- You could also take short naps, that are not longer than 20 minutes, to help you fight the constant drowsiness. Beware, however, because napping for too long can result in more severe sleep inertia.
If sleep inertia is not addressed at an early stage, it could lead to the development of a more serious sleep disorder. While home remedies and minor adjustments to your lifestyle can help you address the condition, it may not be a permanent solution. The best way to address the underlying causes of such an issue and find a more long term solution would be to meet with a doctor. The expertise of a trained medical professional can do wonders to help you find a stable way to cope with your sleep inertia and ensure you are able to stay productive.