You know the feeling. Your eyelids begin to droop, you feel your head sink into your neck, background sounds become increasingly remote... and before you know it you’ve drifted into a blissful snooze, unaware of your surroundings. Particularly mortifying are the accidental snoozes that happen in professional settings – especially when you’re a political leader whose public faux-pas, heavy eyelids included, is immediately pounced on by social media meme-makers.
Joe Biden is the latest victim of the dreaded public doze-off. President Biden was caught on video seeming to fall asleep during yesterday’s opening remarks at the Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow, at one point shutting his eyes for 22 seconds, until he was woken by an eagle-eyed aide.
The 78-year-old’s supposed snooze might have been down to jet lag, but merciless Twitter users were quick to call him “Sleepy Joe”, the nickname bestowed on him by President Trump in the 2020 election. “America is in crisis, and Joe Biden is asleep at the wheel,” tweeted the House Republicans.
Yet President Biden wasn’t the only politician spotted heavy-eyed at the summit. Boris Johnson – who didn’t have the excuse of jet lag – was also pictured with his eyes shut yesterday, flanked by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Sir David Attenborough.
And heavy-eyed politicians aren’t solely a feature of Cop26. In 2018, for example, Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne was pictured snoozing during a speech by colleague Ken Clarke. He described the momentary lapse as “embarrassing”, pointing out: “I am sure everyone has experienced that feeling when you are really tired and you just feel yourself going.”
America is in crisis, and Joe Biden is asleep at the wheel. https://t.co/CnpGgIahyn
— House Republicans (@HouseGOP) November 1, 2021
Staying awake when you’re bone-tired can be a struggle, especially when you’re in back-to-back meetings, halfway through a 9-5 workday, or surrounded by world leaders at a key climate change summit. So how should you keep your eyes open when all you want to do is collapse onto your bed?
Rosey Davidson, sleep expert and founder of Just Chill Mama, says a “quick, tactical nap”, if possible before a crucial meeting, is a good way to stay awake. Keep it short, she says. “10 to 15 minutes is a really good tactical nap to improve your alertness. Ideally, you don’t want to sleep too much longer because if you sleep beyond 15 minutes, you can get a really groggy feeling called sleep inertia.”
Davidson says tactical napping can be combined with “tactical caffeine”. She suggests having some form of caffeine or sugar 30 minutes before you need to be on show, as that’s when the caffeine will take hold of you. The energising effects of the caffeine should last “a couple of hours”, she says. “If you have some caffeine and then have a nap, you wake up from the nap quite refreshed.”
“It doesn’t have to be coffee,” she adds. “It could be Diet Coke, it could be a chocolate bar or something. Sugar is also a stimulant, but that wears off quite quickly.”
Registered nutritionist Thalia Pellegrini says coffee consumption “really depends on how you individually respond to it – for some people, two or three cups of coffee a day is absolutely fine and it doesn’t affect their sleep.
“If you're going to have coffee, I tend to recommend having it in the first half of the day because it has that long half-life. Before two in the afternoon is the best time to have it.” Pellegrini advises against caffeine pills, which she says might increase anxiety.
Get natural light
“Often when we’re really sleep-deprived, we’re inclined to turn lights down or draw the curtains – we want it to be a bit darker instinctively,” Davidson says. “But actually the best thing for our circadian rhythm, our internal body clock, is to get out in the light.”
If you’re feeling jet-lagged, she says getting natural light is key to feeling more awake. Davidson suggests going for a brisk walk before a key meeting or work event if you want to stay awake. She also recommends taking frequent breaks to stretch your legs.
Pellegrini also emphasises the importance of resetting your circadian rhythm, particularly when you’re jet-lagged. “When it comes to circadian rhythm, you want to expose yourself to sunlight as soon as you can in the morning. So for example, Joe Biden might want to get outside and have some fresh air and get some sun on his face before he went into a long meeting – that helps to regulate our circadian rhythm, and that in turn helps to send the message to our body that it’s time to be awake rather than asleep.”
“In terms of how I support people to be energised throughout the day, one of the most basic things is to manage their blood sugar is to make sure that they’re eating regularly,” says Pellegrini. “[It’s important that] they’re not skipping meals, and that when they eat they eat plenty of protein and healthy fats, because actually when our blood sugar dips quite low, we can tend to feel more fatigued.”
She advises against using alcohol and sugar as stimulants throughout the day, as these tend to spike your blood sugar balance, leading to dramatic energy drops. “Coffee will give you that alertness, but it has a long half-life,” she says. “You want to be having it in the first half of the day. If you have it in the afternoon, it’s more likely to keep you awake at night, and obviously, that gets you into a cycle of more tiredness.”
Supplements and vitamins
Pellegrini recommends herbal remedies like nootropics to help improve alertness. “They are reported to boost brain performance, and there are all types of different nootropics.”
“They contain things like gotu kola and Panax ginseng. They’re both adaptogens which can help to stay energised as well.” Vitamin B can also help, she says.
Davidson advises performing some “gentle stretching exercises” before work, as “the feedback from the muscles goes to the central mechanism of the brain, and that tells us to wake up”.
She says “regular exercise” is also key to avoiding dips of energy during the day, and Pellegrini agrees. “Movement [is key] just for getting the lymphatic system moving so that you feel more energised,” she points out.
If it’s too warm, we’re more prone to tiredness, Davidson points out. She suggests adjusting your clothes to the temperature, partially unbuttoning a shirt or removing a suit jacket if you’re getting too warm, and drinking cold water.
“You could also pinch the skin on your wrist or your hand,” Davidson says. She suggests maintaining an internal monologue, reminding yourself to fight to stay awake.