10 Ways to Stay More Awake During the Day

Learn how to keep on top of your diurnal rhythms.

Posted Oct 28, 2019

There is much ado about sleep because we believe that sleeping better significantly increases our quality of life. That is true, but we only want to sleep better to feel and function better during the day. Focusing too much on sleep can put added pressure on our nighttime routine and disregard the important things we can do to improve our daytime wakefulness to truly be awake better. 

 Wikipedia, used with permission
Source: Wikipedia, used with permission

What are diurnal rhythms?     

Less well-known than circadian rhythms (24-hour sleep-wake rhythms) are diurnal rhythms, which are independent, daytime biological patterns that ebb and flow depending on their function. Many of these cycles occur outside of our awareness and affect how we feel and are affected by what we do each day, whether it is hormone production or body temperature changes, the four-hour nasal cycle, digestive cycle, or much longer menstrual cycle. When synchronized, we feel good and function fine, but we are left feeling foggy-headed and tired when they’re out of synch. 

“Thousands of genes need to be switched on and off in order and in harmony,” not to mention having the right materials in their correct position, according to Russel Foster and Leon Kreitzman, who study circadian neuroscience at Oxford University. During these rhythmic biological processes, proteins, amino acids, enzymes, and hormones are metabolized and then allocated to specific jobs of locomotion, growth, or reproduction, to name a few, each with precise timing. This timing, whether by the millisecond, minute, or time of year, requires energy and function at their peak based on internal timing and external cues.      

“Without this internal temporal compartmentalization and its synchronization to the external environment, our biology would be in chaos.”1

kanyanat wongsa/Shutterstock
Source: kanyanat wongsa/Shutterstock

So what are these biological rhythms? 

On a typical day, we wake up, and body temperature begins to increase several degrees from early-morning temperature lows. The brain starts to warm up and synchronizes its daytime versus nighttime patterns using zeitgebers—cues from our environment (the most powerful being sunlight) that the body uses to engage in a physiological process. The typical pattern is 24 hours, more or less, following the rising and setting of the sun.

But this is hardly the only system cycling in a 24-hour rhythm. Upon waking, blood pressure rises, and platelet coagulation increases. The hormone cortisol releases from the adrenal glands to help increase alertness. Typically, humans feel more awake within 30 minutes of waking (unlike cats who wake quickly from a “cat nap”).

Many of us then reach for a cup of coffee—the world’s most utilized performance enhancer. The digestive system, including the liver and pancreas, are also on the clock, preparing us to break the fast of slumber. Even adipose tissue, or body fat, keeps time using leptin and ghrelin—the hormones that help regulate food intake and satiability. Ghrelin triggers the preparation of gastric acids that prepare the stomach for food. Meanwhile, muscle cells oscillate along with every other organ and almost every single cell.

Energy, mood, and productivity are affected by many zeitgebers and fluctuate according to temporal landmarks: the timing and amount of light our eyes receive; the amount, type, and timing of food; and when and how much we move our bodies. These behaviors and many others directly and immediately affect neurochemicals, the brain, and every other organ.

These systems have memory and help our systems anticipate what will happen at the same time tomorrow. The disruption of these habits (from things like schedule changes, time zone travel, illness, or depression) can lead to an un-pairing of the sleep-wake cycle from other cycles (e.g., digestion) and strains the boundaries of the human capacity to keep it all synchronized and to function at their best.1, 2, 3

Nearly all living things are subject to the light and dark cycle of the sun, yet we follow a natural pattern with sunrise and sunset less so than in the past, primarily due to 24/7 access to light, food, activity, socializing, and substances. 

Here are my 10 top tips for improving wakefulness.

These suggestions help to set parameters to entrain our body’s complex and intelligent rhythms. It is not important that you practice all of these perfectly, just enough to be awake better. 

1. Take restorative breaks. Breaks can restore focus and, thus, productivity to normal levels, especially if they include nature, intentional relaxation, or socializing and are unplugged from electronic devices.

2. Time important tasks for earlier in the day. Since critical thinking and focus are rising throughout the morning and peaking right around lunchtime, do the tasks that need the most serious executive skills in the morning, leaving more mundane, creative thinking, or physical tasks for the afternoon.

3. Increase natural light exposure by going outside for 10-60 minutes in the morning, sitting near a window, or using a full-spectrum light indoors.

4. Reduce screen time. Assess realistically how much time you spend on screens, and whether this is more time than you spend doing other things. Take frequent breaks, increase face-to-face time with loved ones, and spend more time outdoors whenever possible. 

5. Move more. Daytime is the best time to be physically active because this is the time you want to feel more awake. Your body will adjust to moving more as long as you increase very gradually. The more you move during the day, the more efficient sleep will be at night.

6. Eat regular meals and avoid alcohol. Regular daytime meals prompt the chemical and mechanical digestive rhythms that move food through. Avoid food several hours before bedtime and “fast” until breakfast. Avoid alcohol until your energy and concentration are at desired levels. 

7. Wake up at the same time every day and get out of bed. It does not matter when you fell asleep or need to be up, anchor your wake up time to the same time seven days per week. Naps will not interfere with nighttime sleep if they are 20 minutes or less and not near bedtime. 

8. Sleep on it. Since our executive brain functions better in the morning, hold off on major decisions or even important emails late at night or even in the afternoon. “Sleep on it” is still good advice. Respond once your mind is refreshed.

9. Have fun. In When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink4 recommends finding your “syncher’s high” by involving yourself in other rhythmic activities, such as singing in a choir or playing a musical instrument, running, rowing, dancing, cooking, yoga, or even joining a flash mob. Regular enjoyable activities are required. 

10. Express emotions in a healthy way. Unexpressed emotions often reveal themselves physically with reduced focus and fatigue. Respectful, honest, assertive communication is best to keep your relationships strong and energy flowing.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

References

1. Foster, R. & Kreitzman, L. (2017). Circadian rhythms: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press. Extended quote used by permission of Oxford University Press.

2. Arendt. J. (2010). Shift work: Coping with the biological clock. Occupational Medicine, 60, 10-20.

3. Bhatti, P. Mirick, D. K., & Davis, S. (2012). Invited commentary: Shift work and cancer. American Journal of Epidemiology, 176, 760-763.

4. Pink, D. (2018). When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing. New York: Riverhead Books.