It can be embarrassing to yawn mid-conversation just because your body is overcome with fatigue — and not because the other person is boring you. While it's normal to feel drowsy during your afternoon slump, being sleepy all the time isn't. After all, the late Dr. William Dement, one of the founders of the field of sleep medicine, often recounted, "Drowsiness is red alert."
While underlying medical conditions can contribute to low energy levels the next day, the most common cause of daytime sleepiness is none other than sleep deprivation. Yet, not many people realize that circadian misalignment (living in a way that goes against your circadian rhythm) can contribute to sleep deprivation, playing a part in all-day tiredness. Not working with your circadian peaks and dips may also mean you aren’t maximizing your daily energy levels to the fullest.
The truth is, you don’t have to be sleepy all the time. Read on to find out how you can feel and function at your best all day, every day by keeping your sleep debt low and lining up your daily activities with your circadian rhythm.
Feeling sleepy all the time can put a damper on productivity and performance, amongst many other things that matter to you. Getting back to your A-game level boils down to the two laws of sleep: sleep debt and circadian rhythm.
Ahead, we show you how the two laws of sleep relate to all-day sleepiness.
Feeling drowsy during wakefulness usually indicates you aren't getting enough sleep — you’re burdened with a huge amount of sleep debt. You’re likely going to bed too late and/or waking up too early. Or you may be taking too long to fall asleep and waking up during the night. This means your sleep schedule isn't meeting your sleep need (the genetically determined amount of sleep that your body needs). If you've struggled with never-ending tiredness for some time now, you might be dealing with chronic sleep deprivation, on top of acute sleep debt.
Going against your circadian rhythm leads to circadian misalignment, another key factor that leads to all-day drowsiness. It can happen independently of sleep debt, which is to say if you've met your sleep need but still feel sleepy all the time, you're likely plagued with circadian misalignment. On the flip side, circadian misalignment can accompany — and aggravate — a high sleep debt.
There are various ways in which circadian misalignment can occur. Social jetlag (a mismatch between your social and biological clocks resulting in an inconsistent sleep schedule) is one of the most common scenarios. Picture this: You commit to an early sleep-wake schedule during the workweek, but sleep in and party late on your days off. Unsurprisingly, you find it hard to fall back into your usual bedtime and wake time when the workweek starts and sleepiness ensues.
Or, you could be a night owl living on an early bird schedule. In which case, you'd likely find it hard to stay awake during an 8 a.m. lecture, much less participate in the lively class debate. It’s also possible you’re indulging in screen time just before bed, which means that artificial light exposure is delaying your body's internal programming for melatonin release (a sleep-promoting hormone), making it harder to fall asleep later.
This mismatch between your circadian drive and your daily schedule worsens your lack of sleep by increasing sleep latency (you take longer to fall asleep) and sleep fragmentation (you're less likely to sleep through the night). It's no wonder you wake up feeling lethargic all day.
While a high sleep debt and circadian misalignment are the primary culprits for being sleepy all the time, there may be other underlying causes.
For starters, there are multiple sleep disorders closely associated with excessive daytime sleepiness:
In addition, certain health conditions may contribute to relentless drowsiness:
Aside from physiological medical conditions, being sleepy all the time may be traced to mental health problems like depression, too. Unhealthy lifestyle factors such as chronic stress and a sedentary lifestyle can also make it hard for you to get the sleep you need, contributing to never-ending fatigue.
If you suspect a health condition may be the root cause of all-day drowsiness, it's best to consult a healthcare professional. They may recommend blood tests and other testing options to diagnose the exact cause and prescribe treatment options specific to your medical condition — for example, antidepressants for depression. (Do note that these medications often come with side effects like disrupting sleep, which can exacerbate your already high levels of daytime sleepiness).
When you are besieged by a constant barrage of yawns, it likely means you aren't at the top of your game for all the things that matter in life: school, work, family, friends, "me" time, and the list goes on. Aside from reduced productivity, poorer emotional well-being, and downgrades in your social relations, the hazards of being sleepy all the time also extend to your overall health.
A study found that police officers assigned to night shift work — a prime culprit of being sleepy all the time — were the most likely to have:
The same study also showed that the one-two punch of circadian misalignment (frequent night shifts) and high sleep debt (less than six hours of sleep each night) increased the risk of poor heart health and diabetes among participants by fourfold.
More research also warns that being sleepy all the time puts you and others at personal risk. For instance, the odds of sleepy drivers crashing their cars are 10 times more likely than their non-drowsy counterparts. Sleep-deprived surgeons also made more errors and suffered greater downgrades in memory and attention compared to well-rested colleagues.
The good news: You can stop feeling sleepy all the time and be at your best. In fact, the solution is as simple as lowering your sleep debt and lining up with your circadian rhythm through positive lifestyle changes centered around good sleep hygiene.
First, identify your sleep need to ensure you're getting enough sleep every night. The RISE app calculates this for you using sleep-science-based models and the past 365 nights of sleep data tracked by your phone to learn your unique sleep biology and calculate your sleep need in hours and minutes.
Next, adjust your sleep schedule (keeping in mind your chronotype — more on that in the next section) to meet your sleep need and catch up on sleep. Go to bed earlier tonight, nap during your afternoon dip, and/or sleep in up to an hour the next day to lower your sleep debt without risking circadian misalignment. At the same time, a consistent sleep-wake cycle can help steady your circadian rhythm and maintain sleep debt at a low level for better energy during the day.
Paying down sleep debt is all well and good, but it won't be sufficient if you're still neglecting your circadian rhythm. To really get a handle on those yawns and snores, you need to align your sleep schedule with your circadian rhythm and chronotype. For example, if you're a self-professed late-riser, try sleeping and waking later per your body's natural sleep-wake preferences.
That being said, not everyone's lifestyle can accommodate a night owl orientation, given that most of society is wired around an early bird schedule. If work and social obligations are preventing you from sleeping and waking at your biological times, learn how to reset your sleep schedule with our in-depth guide on how to become a morning person.
Pairing your sleep schedule with your circadian rhythm to meet your sleep need is only one-half of the formula to tackle daytime sleep problems. To ensure you're falling asleep at your target bedtime and staying asleep throughout the night, what you do during the day is just as important as what you do during your bedtime routine. That's why good sleep hygiene is tied to your circadian rhythm as it rises and ebbs from dawn till dusk before repeating again.
The RISE app gives you the exact times of your daily energy peaks and dips on the Energy screen:
Understanding the peaks and dips of your circadian rhythm is essential to the do's and don'ts of good sleep hygiene so you can feel and function better every day. For instance, napping during your afternoon dip is ideal for paying down sleep debt without disrupting that night's sleep. Knowing that it's completely normal to feel drowsy during the afternoon slump can also help you ride it out, or even better, schedule low-energy tasks during this window of time to help you stay productive.
Contrary to what many people think, being sleepy all the time isn't part and parcel of life. Likely, you haven't met your sleep need or aligned your sleep cycle with your biological clock. Understanding the two laws of sleep — keeping sleep debt low and maintaining circadian alignment — is your key to unlocking better energy levels every day to be at your optimum (or as close to it as possible).
That's where RISE can help. Instead of using questionable sleep metrics like "sleep quality" (note: there is no scientific consensus on what “quality” means) or the amount of time spent in REM sleep, the RISE app keeps a close eye on the one thing that matters most in downplaying all-day tiredness — the amount of sleep you've missed out on, aka sleep debt. RISE also goes one step further with in-app reminders that prompt you to do the right things at the right time to ensure you're playing by the rules of your circadian rhythm. Get the RISE app today to stop feeling sleepy all the time and live life to the fullest.
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