How to Stay Awake in Your Most Boring Meeting

Nodding off during the day can be embarrassing. Discover why this happens and how to prevent it.

It happens all the time and it happens to everyone, at least now and then: falling asleep in inappropriate places or at inopportune times. If you’re with friends, it can be funny. But sleeping in a meeting or in the middle of an important lecture can be mortifying.

The problem is more widespread than you might imagine. A 2009 survey conducted by state health departments in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults fall asleep unintentionally during the day. In fact, the CDC describes the lack of sleep among modern Americans as a public health epidemic.

“When you fall asleep in any situation you don’t want to, it’s a sure sign that you’re significantly sleep-deprived,” said Ilene Rosen, MD, program director for the University of Pennsylvania Sleep Fellowship.

More problematically, nodding off outside the bedroom could be a sign of a serious sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, or narcolepsy, said Sterling Malish, MD, director of the Good Samaritan Hospital Comprehensive Sleep Center in Los Angeles. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, see a doctor. Falling asleep inappropriately could have serious consequences — for instance, if it happens when you’re behind the wheel. And if you’re chronically sleep-deprived, you’re also more susceptible to chronic conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, cancer, and obesity.

Most adults need seven to nine hours of quality sleep every night, said M. Safwan Badr, MD, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

“Sleep is like the federal budget,” Dr. Badr said. “It’s a debt that has to be paid. And the interest is your health.”

What Makes People Fall Asleep Easily

  • You’re warm and you’ve just eaten. “A high temperature and a full belly are stimuli that make you relaxed,” setting the stage for falling asleep, Badr said.
  • You’re overloaded. If you have too much to do, you may not be making enough time for sleep. It’s better to scale back and do a few things well than be chronically sleep deprived.
  • You’re in a moving car or train. Think how easily babies fall asleep in cars. Adults often respond the same way, said Dr. Rosen. Research published in the journal Current Biology in 2011 found that men who took naps in a bed that rocked fell asleep faster than those who were in a stationary bed — the swaying motion promotes brain wave patterns that foster sleep.
How Not to Nod Off

  • Go to bed earlier. It’s better to go to bed earlier than to sleep later. That’s because the hormones that regulate sleep are highest between midnight and 7 a.m. Also, it’s lighter in the morning, signaling your body to wake up. Dr. Malish suggested moving your bedtime up in 15-minute increments.
  • Stand up. “If you’re falling asleep on trains or the bus or in a lecture hall, get up and go to the back where you can stand,” advised Rosen. It’s harder to fall asleep while standing.
  • Take a nap. A 20-minute power nap can help you stay awake during the day. Just don’t take a nap too late in the day because it will disrupt your nighttime sleep and set you back to being sleep-deprived.
  • Drink some caffeine. Just remember that it can take eight hours for the caffeine to wear off, so you could be lying awake in bed at night. Also remember that too much caffeine can have its own side effects, such as anxiety and a fast heartbeat.

Beth W. Orenstein