Sleep inertia, or morning grogginess, is that disorienting feeling you get the moment your alarm clock goes off and awakens you from a deep sleep.
For some people, it’s not just a general feeling of brain fog mixed with physical fatigue. It’s also the imaginary sensation of being hit by a truck, so to speak.
People who don’t suffer from sleep inertia might smile tenderly at their alarm clocks. They can do amazing things like sit up in bed without having to push off the mattress.
To top it off, they let out a happy yawn while stretching their torsos to the sound of birds chirping outside of their bedroom window, ready to slay another day.
If this doesn’t sound like you, then …
A) You’re not alone (as you’ll soon find out in the stats below).
And B) You can do something about it (so keep reading).
Sounding the Alarm on Sleep Inertia
According to one source, alarm clocks can increase your chances of full-blown morning grogginess by 89%.
This is because alarm clocks can’t tell which sleep cycle your body’s in at any given moment of the night.
If the alarm goes off during the N3 stage of sleep, for instance, you’ll have a tougher time waking up than if you were roused from baseline sleep.
If you have no clue what I’m talking about, then let’s take a brief moment to review the four stages of sleep and how they contribute to morning grogginess.
The Four Stages of Sleep
The four stages of sleep are:
1) N1: Drowsy sleep. During this stage, you may drift in and out of sleep. Your eyes move slowly under your eyelids. Your muscles are relaxed, and you may experience sudden muscle contractions at the onset of sleep. This stage is also called non-REM 1 sleep.
2) N2: Light sleep. Waking up from N2 sleep is fairly easy, which is why it’s also called “light sleep.” During this stage, your body temperature drops, your heart rate slows down, your breathing becomes deeper and more deliberate, and your blood pressure lowers as it prepares to enter a restorative phase of sleep. N2 is also known as non-REM 2 sleep.
3) N3: Deep sleep. If you’re abruptly woken from N3 sleep, you’ll feel as if it’s not morning yet. This is because your brain is hard at work releasing growth hormones to repair tissue damage, counteract muscle atrophy, and restore a host of other bodily functions. This stage is also called non-REM 3 sleep.
4) REM: Dream sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement. It’s when your brain is in overdrive, causing your eyes to “flicker” underneath your eyelids. What’s more, your muscles are paralyzed (due to something called “atonia”), preventing you from acting out your dreams. Your body temperature and heart rate increase, your blood pressure rises, and your breathing becomes rapid. The REM stage of sleep typically happens 90 minutes after N1 kicks off the first sleep cycle of the evening.
N1 and N2 are considered baseline sleep because your body has yet to enter its restorative stage. During recovery sleep (N3 and REM), your brain waves slow down. Your heart rate and breathing pattern also step on the breaks, allowing your body to relax and drift into blissful sleep.
Explaining it to a fifth-grader: There’s lots of stuff happening inside of your body during the third and fourth stages of sleep. But what does this have to do with sleep inertia?
How Each Stage Affects Sleep Inertia
N1 and N2 sleep are the stages least likely to contribute to morning grogginess. That’s because waking up from these stages is easy on the brain, so you’ll feel refreshed right away.
N3 sleep, on the other hand, may lead to sleep inertia by shifting the brain’s functions abruptly from body-repair-mode to what-the-fuck-just-happened-mode.1
When I think of being roused from N3 sleep egregiously, I think of a cartoon character bombing on stage (let’s call him Dave). A collective “booooo” rises from the audience and prompts a cane to appear from behind the curtain hanging above stage right. The cane’s curved end hooks Dave by the neck and drags him offstage.
The moral of the story? No one wants to be Dave.
Similarly, waking from REM sleep may cause morning grogginess, especially if you’re in the middle of a hot dream in which you, a vampire, and a werewolf are caught in a passionate love triangle (looking at you, Kristen Stewart).
If your alarm goes off, not only will you never find out which of the two sworn rivals will emerge victorious in the battle for your undying love. You’ll also wake up feeling like you hate the world as much as it hates you, and this is no bueno.
How Long Does Sleep Inertia Last?
Some of you might be thinking, “So what if I’m a groggy little b&$^# in the mornings? Sleep inertia doesn’t last forever!”
You’re right. It doesn’t.
Some sleep scientists argue that it takes an average of 30 minutes to overcome sleep inertia once you’re up, so if your alarm goes off at 6 AM, you’re not going to feel fully awake until 6:30 AM or later.
During those 30 minutes, you’ll probably hit the snooze button more times than you call your mother, splash cold water on your face, and spend the next excruciating 20 minutes waiting for that morning cup of coffee to kick in.
But hear me out: Those 30 minutes can set the benchmark for the rest of your day. If you let morning grogginess set the tone for the next few hours, chances are you’ll end up committing more acts of road rage on your commute to work or unleashing more snide remarks upon your significant other before your first cup o’Joe.
Is this is a good way to live, dear reader? Methinks not.
The goal is to feel rested when you’ve woken up in the morning — to give a fuck if an apocalypse suddenly wreaks havoc upon Earth the moment you get out of bed.
If you’re familiar with QWERTYdelight’s Sleep Collection, you probably know by now that my goal is to help you catch more of those elusive ZZZs.
Why? Because good sleep is the foundation of good mental health. It’s the juice you need to slay another day. And I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
6 Dreamy Tips to Avoid Sleep Inertia
If you want to wake up in the mornings feeling like you can take on the world, try implementing the below tips and tricks throughout the day and before bed.
Stick to what’s working for you and modify what’s not. For instance, you might have to move your alarm clock farther away (see tip #2).
Now, a masterclass on avoiding sleep inertia and morning grogginess would be to wake up on time without the use of an alarm clock. But let’s be real — alarm clocks are what world leaders use to make sure they’re on time for the G20 Peace Summit, thereby preventing future global catastrophes.
So let’s start with your loyal morning companion. No, not your husband, wife, or partner, silly. Your alarm clock, of course.
1) Use an alarm clock with a wake-up light
Waking up to a light that simulates a sunrise can cue your body to start producing serotonin and reset your sleep cycle to the point where you wake up feeling rested.
If you’re not keen on dropping $50+ on an alarm clock with a wake-up light, check out the “Sunrise Alarm Clock Lamp” by Brookstone retailing for around $25. Otherwise, paying a little more can get you an upgrade with a sunset simulator (if that floats your boat) and other nifty features.
2) Don’t hit the snooze button
I know. I know. This is hard to hear. Snoozing has become such a visceral reaction to waking up in the morning that not doing it almost feels unnatural. But hear me out.
Hitting the snooze button repeatedly does nothing but put off your transition into wakefulness. You might think it helps you sleep longer, but it doesn’t. Instead, sleep inertia sets in, leaving you feeling groggy and sleep-deprived throughout the rest of your morning.
It’s easy to hit that snooze button. After all, it’s just an arm’s length away. So, if you’re the type who loves a good snoozefest in the morning, you’ll probably be better off moving your alarm clock to the other side of the room (which is also hard to hear.)
3) Watch your caffeine levels
Your body is on to you. That is, it knows when to expect that burst of caffeine in the morning, and it’ll make you feel freakin’ crappy if you don’t give the ol’ body what it wants soon after waking.
If you’re a major coffee or tea drinker, try cutting back altogether. For example, instead of adding three heaping spoons of ground coffee to your french press each morning, try reducing it to two or one.
Moderation is key. Too much caffeine in your system can cause sleep problems and give the ol’ sleep inertia an extra boost.
4) Beware the nightcap
Alcohol can induce drowsiness and make you fall asleep fast, but the last thing it’ll help you to do is avoid sleep inertia.
In fact, people tend to wake up feeling worse after a night of drinking, even if it’s just an innocent nightcap before bed.
The simple (and scientifically proven) reason? Alcohol suppresses REM sleep (as one study showed), causing fragmented sleep and leaving you feeling groggy the next day.
Although deep sleep or stage N3 is important in replenishing your body’s energy, REM sleep is crucial in strengthening memory and cognition (hence the importance of getting enough sleep before a big test). It also boosts creativity so that I could finally write my novel … I mean … So that you could finally chase whatever creative dream’s worth chasing.
5) Do some temperature control
Our circadian rhythms (internal timekeeping system) work in tandem with our bodies’ temperature levels to keep us awake and asleep when we should be.
So, when you sleep in an extremely hot or cold room, your body’s internal sleep/wake cycle will get more mixed messages than Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” (damn you, Mr. Darcy!)
On the other hand, the right temperature can keep you from rousing too often through the night, which can disrupt your sleep cycle and lead to morning grogginess.
I like to keep the thermostat or AC between 68 and 72-degrees Fahrenheit. But what works for me might not work for you, so keep trying until you find the best temperature to suit your bedroom environment.
6) Find the right time to wake up
Hypothesis: Waking up during baseline sleep helps to avoid sleep inertia, therefore, training your body to awaken during the N1 or N2 stages of sleep (after a full night’s rest) will prevent morning grogginess.
Well, the hypothesis may be simple enough, but testing it is a completely different ballgame.
After all, REM sleep varies in length throughout the night. The first REM period can last 10 minutes, whereas the last one may last an hour or more.
So, how do you “trick” your body into waking up soon after the last REM period?
The answer isn’t clear-cut. First, you’ll need to make sure that your quality of sleep is optimal (see tips one through five.) Then, if you can manage to fall asleep at the same time each night, try waking up at different times of the morning and see how you feel.
For instance, if you go to bed at 10:30 PM and wake up at 6:30 AM feeling groggy AF, try waking up at 6 AM instead, or shoot for 7 AM.
If you can’t sleep past 7 AM (lest you get written up for arriving late to work again), then you might have to go to bed earlier.
This is an experiment, dear reader, and as such, a certain amount of trial and error is expected. So be patient. Because who knows? The best sleep of your life might be just around the corner! (Or over the fence if you’re into counting sheep.)
The Bottom Line on Sleep Inertia
Waking up in the morning while feeling rested is just one part of the sleep equation. If you sleep well throughout the night, sleep inertia shouldn’t be a big problem the next morning.
Granted, this is easier said than done for people who suffer from sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and insomnia. If this is you, it pays to check in with a sleep specialist to see what can be done to help you sleep better.
Nighty, night! (Or dare I say, good morning?)