Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed is an expression so common you’ll find it in most dictionaries. That little string of words paints an optimistic but unrealistic picture of how we should aim to feel first thing in the morning. But let’s get real. For many adults, waking up tired often becomes the norm — and waking “with a burst of energy” starts to sound like a pipe dream.
It could leave you wondering, “Is it normal to wake up feeling tired? And what can I do to feel more energetic?”
Feeling tired when you wake up is normal. It’s a natural part of the body’s process of transitioning out of sleep. What’s not normal is feeling tired throughout the day. The good news? There are steps you can take to minimize the time you spend it that morning grogginess zone, and there are ways to optimize your energy levels throughout the day.
Did I get enough sleep? If that’s the first thing that pops into your mind as soon as your alarm clock beeps, a shift in perspective may be helpful. Constantly worrying about how often you’re waking up tired can be stressful and counterproductive, managing expectations is a good first step toward feeling better about your sleep.
Waking up feeling slightly groggy or tired is just part of the human experience. It's called sleep inertia: "The transitional state between sleep and wake, marked by impaired performance … and a desire to return to sleep." The main thing to know about sleep inertia is it is completely normal. It's misleading marketing — often seen in commercials for mattresses and pharmaceutical sleep aids — that gives us the idea we should wake up with raised, outstretched arms and feel immediately amazing.
One of the many restorative processes happening in your brain as you sleep is the flushing out of adenosine, a chemical that builds up during waking hours and eventually causes feelings of sleepiness and the desire to crawl into bed. During the night, the body clears out the built-up adenosine.
However the chemical residue doesn’t just magically disappear the moment you wake up. It can take anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes for it to dissipate and for its effects to wear off. (In your RISE app, we call this your “grogginess zone.”) It's a necessary transition and not an indicator of poor sleep.
You'll commonly experience this period of drowsiness even after what you might consider to be the perfect amount of sleep. The real test isn’t how you feel the moment you open your eyes; it’s how much energy you have throughout your day.
While you may not be able to escape your grogginess zone altogether, there are a few things that may help you pass through it more quickly.
If you’re worried about excessive grogginess and the amount of sleep you’re getting, sleep debt is the most important number to consider. Sleep debt is a running total of the hours of sleep you’ve missed, compared to the sleep your body needs. (Although eight hours is a generally accepted estimate, sleep need can vary from person to person. The RISE app uses data from your phone and/or wearable combined with proprietary sleep-science-based models to learn your unique sleep biology and calculate your sleep need in hours.) Instead of attempting to analyze sleep quality or figure out how much deep sleep or REM sleep you’re getting, try simply keeping track of and minimizing your sleep debt.
To address sleep debt, it’s not enough to look at a single night of sleep. Tabulating the hours of sleep you owe your body over a 14-day period will give you a better picture of your body’s energetic capacity as it relates to your sleep habits.
If a full night of restful sleep is followed by prolonged sleep inertia and tiredness or low energy levels the next day, calculate your sleep debt from the two preceding weeks to find out if your sleep debt has been building up unchecked. The RISE sleep app makes such calculations automatic and even provides guidelines for minimizing and lowering sleep debt.
Maintaining a consistent bedtime is a keystone habit that can help keep you in the black. But when you get off track, using afternoon naps and sleeping in on weekends might be necessary to pay down your sleep debt. Getting off your regular sleep schedule is not ideal, but carrying a high sleep debt is worse.
If you have a nine-hour sleep need and you wake up after six hours of sleep, you will likely feel tired that day. However, this is not always the case.
Sometimes, after a particularly short sleep, it is possible to feel like you have even more energy than usual during the day. But what you're feeling may actually be caused by the stress hormone cortisol, as your body's fight-or-flight functionality kicks in. Poor sleep can increase cortisol production, which can feel good in the moment but is more likely to be detrimental to your health in the long run.
The problem this can cause (as it relates to sleep inertia) arises when your body gets accustomed to the good feeling of pumping cortisol, to the point that your body experiences the absence of a fight-or-flight response as a bad feeling. This is why it's possible to actually feel extra groggy or tired after a night when you sleep longer than you usually do and to "wake up tired” after a particularly long night of sleep. It's called a sleep hangover, and it can be an indicator of being caught in a bad cycle. To steer clear of that unhealthy dynamic, try to meet your sleep need as consistently as possible.
In addition to addressing your sleep debt, assess the other factors and habits that may be contributing to your morning grogginess and low energy levels. There may or may not be a simple or single reason you’re having problems with waking up tired, but being aware of your sleep hygiene and habits can help pinpoint the most likely offenders.
What do alcohol, caffeine, late-night snacking, and excessive hydrating before bed have in common? They all have the potential to disrupt sleep, which can affect your energy levels the next day.
Because caffeine and nicotine are stimulants, consuming them close to bedtime has the potential to disrupt or inhibit sleep. Drinking alcohol may cause you to fall asleep faster. But as its sedative effects dissipate during the night, it often interrupts your sleep cycle with multiple micro-awakenings, which you may or may not remember the next day but will probably feel in the form of lingering tiredness.
Eating and drinking too much water (or other beverages) close to bedtime can also be problematic, as indigestion and frequent trips to the bathroom during the night are hardly conducive to restful sleep. The common-sense solution? Try limiting your consumption of these substances in the hours leading up to bedtime and note any improvements in sleep and next-day energy.
The RISE app can let you know the exact timing of when to curb all of these things based on your biology and sleep need.
Your body clock, or “circadian rhythm,” refers to the biological and behavioral patterns that predictably fluctuate in roughly 24-hour periods. It’s a cycle that repeats each day and influences when you wake up and go to bed. If you have an irregular sleep schedule or stay up late watching Netflix each night, waking up tired could indicate circadian misalignment, which can have negative effects on cognitive function, motor skills, and the ability to focus.
On Monday mornings, this often manifests as social jet lag: feeling tired because you have to wake up early again after shifting your sleep schedule over a weekend of late nights and sleeping in. Your circadian rhythm — or energy schedule, as we call it at Rise — is impacted by three main factors: light, sleep schedule, and melatonin. Melatonin is a sleep hormone that makes you feel sleepy and is influenced by exposure to light at different times of the day.
To get sufficient sleep and minimize your time in the morning grogginess zone, keeping a consistent sleep schedule is key. And because light plays a pivotal role in the timing of your energy schedule, paying attention and being deliberate about your exposure to light may help get your energy schedule back on track. Try exposing yourself to light (preferably sunlight) as soon as you wake up and removing most light, especially blue light, 90 minutes before your target bedtime.
Keeping bright overhead lights on in your home after sundown and nighttime exposure to excess blue light from the screens of your phone and computer is a recipe for circadian misalignment, not to mention increased sleep inertia. Before the advent of electricity and artificial lighting, circadian rhythms were largely dictated by the light changes around sunrise and sunset and were much easier to maintain — mostly because ill-timed light exposure was simply not an option.
Today, with the abundant artificial light sources available to us, it’s all too easy (and common) to use them late into the night. The reason this is so disruptive to sleep is that by avoiding darkness, we are also blocking the signal that tells our bodies to produce more of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Limiting light exposure at night is a powerful tool for adjusting and optimizing your energy schedule.
Stumbling around in the dark between sunset and bedtime is hardly a viable solution, but there are relatively inexpensive interventions that can help you limit light exposure at night:
The good news is the effort you put toward maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm will do more than improve your sleep and energy levels. It can also contribute to better overall health outcomes and decrease your risk for developing some potentially life-threatening disorders.
According to a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences, a disrupted circadian rhythm and inconsistent sleep have been linked to higher incidences of cancer, depression, and cardiac disorders.
Whether you’re motivated by the possibility of shorter periods of sleep inertia upon waking or better long-term health outcomes, taking the time to tweak your sleep environment is a good idea. Making your bedroom a sleep sanctuary will set you up for a good night’s sleep. At Rise, we have three guiding principles for an ideal sleeping environment:
If you’re keeping a regular sleep schedule and consistently meeting your sleep need but you’re still waking up feeling tired, talk to your doctor. It’s important to rule out or address any underlying medical issues or serious sleep disorders that could require medical intervention.
Sleep disorders — such as sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and restless leg syndrome — seem like the most obvious culprits. But other medical conditions can also disrupt sleep and cause chronic fatigue — from thyroid disorders and heart conditions to asthma and heartburn. A full medical workup is the best way to determine if you have underlying issues that may affect your sleep and energy levels.
Once you’ve done what you can to improve your sleep hygiene, do your best not to obsess or stress over morning grogginess or getting the perfect amount of sleep every night. Remember to look at sleep in two-week windows, and keep in mind that managing sleep debt is an ongoing process. Try not to think of waking up tired as a problem to solve. Instead, see it for what it is: the natural transition from sleep to feeling fully awake.
The RISE app is a simple, effective way to get yourself on the path to better sleep and better mornings.
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