Want to wake up refreshed and alert? This is what it takes

Are you one of those cheery morning people? Science knows why.

Are you one of those cheery morning people? Science knows why. Photo: Getty

Morning has broken and the birds are not singing in tune with your sluggish self.

It seems you’re just one of those people for whom the promise of waking fresh and alert is as distant as a lotto win.

In other words, there are those lucky people who greet the day bright as a button, and then there’s the rest of us who can’t remember it ever being that way.

Genetics, right?

Well, no. Scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, have ruled out genetics as a significant factor in determining who wakes up fresh and who does not.

In a new study, researchers found the secret to alertness is a three-part prescription that requires:

  • Substantial exercise the previous day
  • Sleeping longer and later into the morning
  • Eating a breakfast high in complex carbohydrates, with limited sugar.

They also found that a healthy, controlled, blood glucose response after eating breakfast was key to waking up more effectively.

How did they figure it out?

The researchers analysed the behaviour of 833 participants over a two-week period.

The participants wore wristwatches to record their physical activity. Their sleep quantity, quality, timing and regularity was also tracked.

Having a good morning start is something to train for. Photo: Getty

They kept diaries in which they recorded their food intake and, from the moment they woke up, their alertness levels.

Participants also wore continuous monitors to measure blood glucose levels throughout the day.

Twins – identical and fraternal – were included in the study to disentangle the influence of genes from environment and behaviour.

The good and bad breakfast

According to a statement from the university, the participants were given pre-prepared meals, with different amounts of nutrients incorporated into muffins.

They found that a breakfast containing high amounts of simple sugar was associated with an inability to wake up effectively and maintain alertness.

When given this sugar-infused breakfast, participants struggled with sleepiness.

In contrast, a breakfast containing large amounts of complex carbohydrates revved up alertness quickly in the morning. But to achieve this burst of alertness required a healthy body that efficiently disposed of glucose from meals.

Dr Richard Vallat, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow and first author of the study, said this prevents “a sustained spike in blood sugar that otherwise blunts your brain’s alertness”.

The sleep factor

The main finding was “sleeping longer than you usually do, and/or sleeping later than usual, resulted in individuals ramping up their alertness very quickly after awakening from sleep”.

When enjoying seven to nine hours of sleep, the body overcomes “sleep inertia”, the researchers said.

Sleep inertia is the inability to transition effectively to a state of functional cognitive alertness upon awakening.

Plus, as senior author Matthew Walker, UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology, explains: “When you wake up later, you are rising at a higher point on the upswing of your 24-hour circadian rhythm, which ramps up throughout the morning and boosts alertness.”

The role of exercise

Physical activity, in general, improves alertness and also your mood level. A high correlation between participants’ mood and their alertness levels was confirmed, Dr Vallat said.

“Participants [who], on average, are happier also feel more alert.”

He said it’s also known that exercise is generally associated with better sleep.

And it might be that morning alertness is acquired by the habitual adoption of all three factors.

The small role of genes

Comparisons of data between pairs of identical and non-identical twins showed that genetics explained “only about 25 per cent of the differences across individuals”.

Professor Walker, who runs one of the world’s pre-eminent sleep research labs, the Centre for Human Sleep Science, said: “We know there are people who always seem to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when they first wake up.

“But if you’re not like that, you tend to think, ‘Well, I guess it’s just my genetic fate that I’m slow to wake up’.”

He said the new findings offer a different and more optimistic message.

“How you wake up each day is very much under your own control, based on how you structure your life and your sleep,” he said.

Other researchers

Professor Walker and Dr Vallat teamed up with researchers in the United Kingdom, the US and Sweden.

They analysed data acquired by UK company, Zoe Ltd, that has followed hundreds of people for two-week periods in order to learn how to predict individualised metabolic responses to foods.

The Berkeley researchers continue their collaboration with Zoe Ltd, examining novel scientific questions about how sleep, diet and physical exercise change people’s brain and body health.

Topics: Sleep
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