Most people will have heard of sleeping pills or even experienced their effects. For short term or severe symptoms they can be a valuable aid to restoring sleep. Staying alert has been more of a challenge for scientists who seek to maintain physical strength and cognitive awareness for longer periods of time.
In most situations the natural and best answer is to have more sleep, but in some cases this is not possible. In some challenges such as military operations, sporting feats such as long distance sailing and other situations there is little or no opportunity to sleep.
Need to Sleep
The body and mind cannot do without sleep and if it doesn’t have sufficient rest it will underperform and eventually fall asleep whatever the danger or situation that prevails at the time…This will differ from individual to individual and some people claim that they need little or no sleep but the fact is, everyone sleeps.
Ways to Enhance and Develop Alertness
The first and probably the best is to train the mind and body to have sufficient rest. This may include having enough regular night time rest or dividing sleep into different patterns.
There have been a number of studies that have explored the advantages of working with the body’s natural sleep cycle which is believed to divide into 90 minute periods. Waking up at the end of this 90 minutes, it is suggested, will give improved refreshment meaning that three hours, six hours etc is better than any figure that cannot be divided by 90 minutes.
Other studies have shown that by training the body to do with less sleep there can be less need for sleep. Again this might be a short term help and useful in times of challenge but is not a longer term solution.
Coffee is still the prime stimulant and pick-me-up and there is evidence that it provides the ‘lift’ needed to go that extra mile. Combined with napping, this is the current favourite for most people who need to stay alert from time to time. Overuse of caffeine can negate its affects and it is advised that caffeine will also prevent sleep so it is important not to use in the hours preceding bedtime.
Modafinil is a strong prescription only drug used for the treatment of Narcolepsy which is a condition where the sufferer falls asleep very quickly, frequently and sometimes for long periods of time.
Jet lag is a problem usually related to travelling and usually sleep readjusts over a couple of weeks. Melatonin, although only available on prescription in this country, is widely used in some countries to help adjust the body clock. As jet lag is usually only short term it is advised to try and find natural ways to help adjustment.
Research is also being undertaken into the use of vitamins and nutrition to enhance alertness. There is certainly evidence that levels of fitness and motivation influence alertness so it makes sense to pay attention to diet, exercise and mental stimulation.
Unfortunately, it looks as though it will be some time before there is a miracle pill that will keep us awake and performing at our peak. The simple fact is, the body needs sleep and it is not going to give up that requirement.
Working with the body and its needs is the best way to enhance performance. An awareness of the symptoms of fatigue and an appreciation of the feeling of being well rested and alert are important if we are going to find the right balance between sleep and waking. When lack of sleep and continued daytime drowsiness become a problem it is important to visit your GP who will be able to assess the severity of the problem and offer advice and support. Self prescribing is not advised as it is dangerous to go without sufficient sleep for long periods.