7 Ways to Wake Yourself Up When You’re Tired

It happens to the best of us—we wake up from a seemingly full night’s worth of sleep only to feel totally depleted of energy and question how we’ll make it through an entire day. Despite our best efforts, stats show that most of us aren’t getting the quality and quantity sleep that’s recommended. In fact, an estimated 1 in 3 Americans are not getting enough shut-eye, according to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, but this means uninterrupted and REM sleep—the kind where your body is fully rested and in full recovery mode. “Insufficient sleep results naturally in a physiologic drive to sleep that is sometimes beyond the control of the individual,” explains Marcie A. Claybon, M.D., Internal Medicine Physician & Medical Director at Chicago’s BIÂN. “Mental alertness is hindered, resulting in slower response times, poor functionality at work and risk of injury or accident and chronic sleep deprivation can additionally impact hormonal levels, causing a rise in cortisol (stress hormone) and a disruption in the balance of leptin & ghrelin (which impact satiety and hunger).”

We know that sleep is essential and feel depleted when we’re not getting the right amount. In fact, it’s believed that during sleep the body is offered a restoration period to repair itself physically and even psychologically Dr. Claybon points out. “Neurochemical toxins built up during the day are thought to likely be cleared during the sleep state, while new neuron connections are formed within the brain,” she says. “Memory consolidation, cognitive function, optimized metabolism, emotional health, and normal physiologic organ function are all deemed to be dependent on adequate sleep.”

Sometimes, we think we’re getting enough sleep—i.e. we’re going to bed and waking up well past the 7-hour stretch—however, we might be short on quality of sleep. Unfortunately alcohol, certain medications, and some medical conditions such as sleep apnea can result in poor sleep quality even if sleep duration is perceived to be adequate, Dr. Claybon explains. “If an individual is abruptly awoken during the depths of late-stage, intensive sleep (during deep sleep or REM), they are likely to feel much groggier than if they were to naturally awaken during a lighter stage of sleep,” she says. “This is why it is typically advised that naps not be longer than about 20-30 minutes (limited to earlier, lighter sleep stages) so as to avoid a hangover effect.”

If you wake up feeling sleepy, the good news is that there are a handful of things you can do to wake yourself up—which can be especially helpful if you have a busy day ahead of you or perhaps hoping to start it all off with a workout. Here, medical pros share their tips for how to wake yourself up when you’re tired.

Aim for the proper amount of sleep

Board-certified internist Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D. recommends starting with prevention by first making sure you have adequate length of sleep. “The average night’s sleep in the United States until lightbulbs were invented 150 years ago was nine hours a night,” he says. “If you are not getting this, start the morning by making a list of things you don’t enjoy that you can cut out of your life, then using that time to increase sleep—and then follow through with that.”

Splash some cold water on your face

It might sound unpleasant and abrupt, but this is an old-school solution that works, according to Dr. Teitelbaum. “There are two key parts to the wake-sleep cycle part of the brain called the autonomic nervous system: one part, called the parasympathetic nervous system, is what calms us and allows us to go into sleep, and the sympathetic or adrenaline nervous system is what allows us to be alert,” he says. “Waking up doesn’t automatically mean shifting from one to the other, but you can shift to the sympathetic nervous system by splashing cold water on your face or drinking cold water.”

Open the windows

Blackout shades or dark curtains can be helpful in encouraging you to sleep well past the time when the sun comes up somewhere between 5 and 6 AM, however, they can also cause you to still feel tired and foggy after waking. For this reason, Dr. Claybon recommends opening your shades immediately upon waking. “Allowing natural light in, first thing in the morning is a great way to maintain circadian rhythm patterns that stimulate arousal,” she adds.

Don’t grab for your phone

While natural light can help wake us up and make us more alert, the type of light that our smartphones and tablets emit does not. This type of light is known as blue light and it can negatively impact our sleep and circadian rhythm, notes sleep medicine specialist Peter Polos, M.D., Ph.D., a Sleep Number sleep expert. He recommends holding off on looking at your phone for as long as possible after waking to allow your body to get into rhythm.

Have a cup of coffee

While this suggestion comes as no surprise to any of us, coffee truly can perk you up and get you ready to start your day. “The caffeine content in coffee turns off adenosine, a key chemical in the brain that induces sleep,” explains Dr. Teitelbaum. “This is why many people can’t wake up without it!” He recommends limiting your intake to 1–3 cups a day for optimal effects.


A brief burst of moderate exercise (e.g. a brisk walk) can frequently shift the body out of its lethargic state, explains Dr. Claybon. “Energy begets energy, they say, and this is most definitely true for humans,” she adds. She recommends exercising within a few hours of waking for a much-needed energy boost that can last through the day.

Eat a balanced breakfast

The food you eat can impact how well you sleep and even how you function throughout the day, Dr. Polos points out. He recommends incorporating a breakfast that includes a balanced diet—protein, carbs and greens—whenever possible.



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