How to Wake Up Even the Groggiest Brain

Waking is the opposite of falling asleep — it's short, sharp trauma. Ko Backpacko/Shutterstock

We spend a lot of time worrying about sleep. Are we getting enough of it? Probably not. Why can't we fall asleep? Because we're worrying about it.

Yet our brains are naturally predisposed to slumber. During sleep is when the brain finally finds the time to sort through experiences, store the useful ones in memory, and spend some much-needed time with itself.

Now, picture your brain floating on a sea of dreams under a starry sky. Suddenly, someone unzips the sky, inserts a trumpet and delivers a deafening blast.


It's time to shower, commute to your cubicle, stare at a screen ... and work.

So, knowing that your brain doesn't want to be here, how do we convince it otherwise?

Why am I groggy? Blame sleep inertia

A close-up of a teenager sleeping
In many ways a brain in REM sleep resembles one that's awake. Juanedc from Zaragoza, España [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

First, you should know why you're so groggy in the morning, or even upon waking from a nap that went too long. Our brains typically tiptoe through three stages of sleep — all characterized by ever-slower breathing and a slackening heartbeat — before sinking fully into REM. At that point, the brain suddenly shows indications that it's wide awake, only perhaps operating in a different reality. Brain activity spikes. Heart thumps faster. Eyes twitch from side-to-side. (Hence, the "rapid eye movement" in REM).

More to the point, the brain has flooded your body with a powerful sleep hormone called melatonin.

And if that blasted alarm clock should ring out while you're in that fitful, drugged-out dimension — let's face it, it always does — you will wake up with a kind of hormone hangover. You'll wake up shaky and disoriented, your sensory motor skills seriously compromised. It's not a good time to perform surgery, or even drive a car.

That effect is called sleep inertia, and it normally lasts from about 30 minutes to an hour.

How to shake it off

There are a few things we can do to help the brain shake off its cobwebs faster.

One of them is the exquisite form of torture known as "cold water to the face."

"Cold triggers the stimulating hormone adrenaline," author and sleep expert Jacob Teitelbaum tells Today. And that adrenaline will push out any lingering melatonin with shocking efficiency.

You can go to the extreme and follow the example of Wim Hof, the Dutch world record holder nicknamed the Iceman for his ability to withstand extreme coldness, who is known for his advocacy of cold showers and ice baths, which are described in detail in the video below.

You could also just try drinking a tall, cold glass of water in the morning. The same principle of cold triggering adrenaline applies — though much less dramatic.

Coffee is another old standby for lighting the brain's lamp in the morning. While it doesn't work for everyone, people who drink it regularly might consider making it less sweet. Black coffee is bitter enough to challenge the brain — making it a new sensation for cream-and-sugar types. And the brain always gets up for new experiences.

You could also change your alarm clock's sound. The sounds you wake up to can affect how groggy you are in the morning, with melodic sounds creating much more alertness than those annoying beeps.

"Although more research is needed to better understand the precise combination of melody and rhythm that might work best, considering that most people use alarms to wake up, the sound you choose may have important ramifications," says doctoral researcher Stuart McFarlane of RMIT University in Australia.

Photo: StockLite/Shutterstock

Another simple hack? Chew gum. As British psychology professor Andy Johnson notes, the act of chewing gum is anything but mindless. It can stimulate blood flow to the brain, potentially jogging it back into the rhythm of waking life.

Speaking of jogging, the same idea holds true for physical activity. A fast walk around the house, or even around the block — just don't forget to get dressed — will minimize sleep inertia.

And while you're walking briskly around the neighborhood, consider saying hello to a complete stranger. Much like changing up your coffee routine, interacting even briefly with someone new challenges the brain.

Don't feel like getting out of bed to look for strangers to talk to? There's an app for that. Billing itself as a "social alarm clock," Wakie gets people from all over the world to call your phone in the morning.

Is that an Australian accent?

No, it's actually New Zealand. People make that mistake all the time.

"Our research shows that a one-minute talk to a stranger wakes your brain up with a 99 percent guarantee," the app's developer, Hrachik Adjamian tells TechCrunch. "When someone asks you questions in the morning your brain has to wake up to answer. Also you try to be kind, you try to turn on your social pattern of behaviour. After the call, you can't sleep anymore even if you had a short sleep."

If you've tried all of the above — you waterboarded your face with ice cold water, chewed through a pack of gum, weirded out strangers on the street, and talked to someone from New Zealand — there's really only one last thing to try.

Go to bed earlier. Let the melatonin flow — and let it ebb to its own natural clock. Let the brain do what it needs to until ...


Oh, not again.