How To Stay Awake When You Need To: 13 Tips To Keep You Alert

how to stay awake

Sleep is often the first casualty when life gets hectic. Whether it is because of impending deadlines, a long road journey, or a young child who needs attention, we’ve all had to burn the midnight oil now and then. While everyone has their little tricks to stay awake, it can still be challenging to be alert in the face of exhaustion and sleep deprivation.

What follows is a mix of both steps to keep you awake in the moment and ways to prepare your body for a period of intense work or activity, skimping on sleep. Use the first 8 tips if a project deadline, an unwell child, or any other sudden reasons call for you to stay awake and not nod off. The latter sections focus on steps that can slowly train your body to manage new demands of wakefulness.


1. Exercise To Feel Alert And Alleviate Fatigue

A little walk around the house or office or a quick exercise session can work wonders for a flagging spirit and shoo away any drowsiness. If you can step outdoors that’s even better. The hit of cool fresh air should help wake you up. Some yoga or breathing exercises at your desk can work well too.

As one piece of research found, when you exercise at your peak level of sleepiness, it can partially ease your subjective or perceived fatigue.1 Plus there’s the fact that exercise helps stimulate the release of endorphins or feel-good neurotransmitters in the body. This can help you feel more upbeat and positive, easing stress and reducing how tired you feel.2


Also, if you generally lead a sedentary life and struggle to stay awake or energized, know that a little exercise can boost your energy levels by about 20 percent. It can also cut your fatigue by as much as 65 percent.3

2. Use Bright Light To Signal Wakefulness To Your Body

When you’re feeling very sleepy but need to stay awake, a little exposure to bright light can help. Bright light is said to help kickstart the hypothalamus, the part of your brain that’s responsible for managing your body clock and circadian rhythms that dictate sleep and wake cycles. For context, 10,000 lux is an intensity you can get from a light box, an artificial source of bright light, while a bright sunny day outdoors delivers around 50,000 lux, sometimes more.4 The bright light tells your brain it is time to wake up and be alert.


3. Have Protein-Rich, Wholesome Snacks To Prevent Tiredness

[pullquote]Try a snack of yogurt and nuts or berries, granola, a little peanut butter on wholegrain crackers or with apple slices, carrots with a cheese or hummus dip, sliced turkey on wholegrain bread or in a salad, or hard boiled eggs with a dip. These are all great nibbles that combine carbs for energy and protein to stop sudden dips in blood glucose levels and the resulting fatigue.[/pullquote]

What you eat could make you sluggish and sleepy or keep you awake and alert. Protein-rich foods keep you satiated, and if they are low fat, they won’t slow you down or make you feel sleepy and heavy. Whole grains, for instance, release energy slowly; fresh fruit and vegetables are a carbohydrate source that doesn’t burn up too fast; and lean proteins like turkey release energy slowly and keep you feeling full and energized for longer.


Keep a stash of nutritious snacks at hand and have them when you need a boost, avoiding huge gaps between meals. That can only cause your sugar levels to dip and make you feel more tired and drowsy.5

4. Chew Gum For A Natural Pick-Me-Up That Activates Your Brain

Certain flavors tend to wake you up. Think of a minty toothpaste, for instance. So how do you tap that without loading up on more calories or brushing your teeth multiple times a night? Just chew some sugar-free gum! A trick so easy and fuss-free, this can be done in the middle of a late night project at work or during meetings that run into the wee hours. You don’t even have to leave your seat!


When you chew, it activates your brain and boosts circulation. Research shows that chewing gum can help reduce both self-rated sleepiness as well as physiological measures of sleepiness. Studies have also found that chewing gum can even fix daytime sleepiness.6

5. Use Energizing Oils Like Rosemary, Citrus, Or Peppermint To Feel Alert

Aromatherapy and certain fragrant essential oils are known to put you at ease or energize you. Keep some at your desk or at home for use when you need to stay awake. Rosemary oil can make you feel alert and refreshed while simultaneously relaxing you.7 People using the oil may even do better on cognitive tests as per some studies, which means you should do better at whatever task is keeping you up late.8


Other beneficial oils are citrus oils and peppermint oil. You can keep diffuser reeds or an aroma candle near you or dab some diluted oil onto a handkerchief or on your wrists or temples to inhale the vapors.9

6. Use Caffeine In Small Doses To Keep You Awake

Caffeine is that universal go-to for staying up late – popular with both the stressed-out executive and the harried mom of two. From a good old cup of coffee or tea to energy drinks, caffeine takes different guises today. The trick to using caffeine to keep you awake, though, is not to chug down a huge amount in one go – that could even make you anxious and negative. Low quantities of caffeine can boost your mood and pep you up without the adverse effects.10


Plan when you’ll take those coffee breaks and have no more than half a cup at a time. And be sure you don’t have more than 400 mg of caffeine per day – that’s about 3 to 4 cups worth. And avoid having anything stronger than 200 mg of caffeine in one go.11

7. Stay Hydrated To Avoid Headaches And Confusion When You Are Sleep Deprived

When your body is dehydrated, you feel more tired. It may even leave you with a headache. Combine these two effects and all you’ll want to do is hit the sack. Researchers have discovered that dehydration as minimal as 1 percent below optimal levels can cause you to experience fatigue, lose focus, have headache symptoms, and see a dip in mood.12 Avoid dehydration by sipping on water or some juice at regular intervals.

8. Use Deep Breathing Techniques To Keep Your Mind Alert

Give your body the oxygen it needs by breathing deeply. This improves oxygen supply to the various parts of your body, fixes ebbing energy levels, and leaves you less stressed out. Deep breathing techniques like pranayama or yogic breathing can help ease anxiety, stabilize blood pressure, relax you, and increase energy levels. Here are some techniques you could try13:

  • Complete Belly Breath: Sit with one hand on your abdomen, relaxing the muscles within and inhale deeply. Feel the air fill into the lower section of your lungs as your belly rises. The lower part of your lungs too will expand. Breathe in further and feel your rib cage rise and expand outward. Pause for a second before you exhale gently, first emptying air from the top of your lungs, then the bottom. As you near the end of exhaling, let your abdominal muscles contract so they push the remaining air from the bottom section of your lungs.
  • Energizing Breath: Boost your energy with this breathing that can instantly energize the mind and body. Relax your shoulders and breathe in and out deeply from the abdomen a few times. Next, alternately exhale with force through your nose and inhale deeply but quickly with one inhalation per second. This breathing is purely from the diaphragm and your belly alone will move in and out. The chest, neck, shoulders, and head should stay still. Do 10 such breaths followed by normal breathing and a break. You can do another round of 20 breaths followed by another break, before ending with 30 breaths and normal breathing. But avoid this method if you are pregnant or have epilepsy or seizures, hypertension, gastric ulcers, vertigo, hernia, glaucoma or a panic disorder.

9. Get In Vitamins To Avoid Fatigue From Deficiency-Linked Anemia

Don’t let fatigue do you in when you’re trying to stay awake. If you have a vitamin B12/folate or iron nutrient deficiency, it can cause you to feel unduly tired. Some people even develop deficiency-related anemia which can make fatigue worse. If you have a balanced healthy diet in general, with adequate levels of protein, complex carbohydrates, and fresh fruits and vegetables, you should be able to get the necessary amounts of these nutrients.14

Get in more folate by eating cod, salmon, dairy products, eggs, meat, broccoli, asparagus, chickpeas, brussels sprouts, peas, or brown rice.15 Good dietary sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables like kale or watercress, brown rice, beans, nuts, seeds, pulses, fish, meat, eggs, tofu, and dried fruit.16

10. Take A Nap When You Are Trying To Stay Awake (Yes, Really!)

Having naps can be a great way to help you feel refreshed. Long, deep slumber can sometimes make you feel groggy even when you wake up, but a power nap can genuinely help you stay awake later in the day. If you struggle to stay awake even during the day, an afternoon nap can help you tide over that midday slump or daytime drowsiness.

Researchers have even found that in night-shift jobs like those of air traffic controllers, a 40-minute nap on their shift helped improve both their alertness as well as their performance. If you have been working or staying up without sleep for more than 16 consecutive hours (when your body’s circadian rhythms signal the next phase of sleep), you may do well to take a short nap to get over any tiredness. Just remember to keep it short – 20 to 30 minutes should do.17

11. Prepare Your Body In Advance By Modifying Your Schedule Slowly

Before any impending periods of long wakefulness or night shifts coming your way, prepare your body. Slowly alter your sleep and waking time so your body’s own circadian rhythms realign to the new time. Supplement this with exposure to bright light so your body feels more alert during the night.18

12. Sleep Well Leading Up To When You Need to Stay Awake

If you’re gearing up for a stint of wakefulness, you need to ensure there’s no sleep deficit to bog you down. So if you’re expecting to have to work late on Thursday and Friday some week, be sure to get a good restful night’s sleep on Monday through Wednesday. Even fit in a nap on Thursday afternoon if you can. That way your body won’t already be struggling with a sleep deficit and you’ll be able to run longer before exhaustion and sleepiness kick in. Seven to nine hours of sleep is a good amount to aim at every day. This proper sleep in advance can help you recover better from sleep deprivation after the period of staying awake is done.19

13. Avoid Alcohol To Prevent Sleep Deficit

Not drinking alcohol on the job or when you’re trying to stay awake is a no-brainer. You’re probably well aware of how drowsy it can make you. What’s worse, if you’ve been drinking alcohol for a day or two before your late night, it could make you sleep deprived even before the night begins. That’s because drinking alcohol can cause disturbed poor quality sleep. It wakes you up before you’re properly rested and messes with your body clock and rhythms. It could also cause you to wake up more often to go to the bathroom. Plus, if you’re already susceptible, it can worsen breathing problems and cause sleep apnea. Avoiding alcohol could mean the difference between a sleep deficit and good sleep, with no sleep deprivation in the lead up to when you need to be awake.20

Additional Tips For Staying Awake While Driving

If you’re planning on driving a long distance and covering ground at night, it becomes crucial to get your sleep plan worked out in advance. In addition to the tips already mentioned, follow these to avoid risking your life (and of others) when you’re trying to stay awake and alert while driving.21

  • Sleep well before you begin your drive.
  • Try and take pit stops on the way to grab a bite and even stop for naps if you need to.
  • Don’t be in a tearing hurry. It could be distracting, cause you to take unnecessary risks, and get you in serious trouble.
  • Try taking turns driving and sleeping if you have a companion who can drive. If they don’t drive, have them watch you to spot signs of fatigue.
  • Do not drink alcohol for the 2 to 3 days leading up to the drive.
  • Be careful of medication that can be sleep inducing and do not take it if you plan to drive.
  • If you can, always avoid driving during hours that are your usual sleep time.
  • Play loud music! It has been known to work as a short-term deterrent to drowsiness.22 Singing along may also help you feel less tired and more energized.23
  • When all else fails, use a cup of coffee to help improve your alertness.