9 Top Treatments to Help Avoid Sleepiness When Sleep Deprived

If you are not sleeping enough and are enduring the effects of sleep deprivation, you might be interested in learning some of the best treatment options and cures available for this condition. Fortunately, there are many options available that help. Many environmental factors can counteract the effects of sleep loss, working to activate our brain's arousal system. Some are obvious and others may surprise you. Hopefully, you will discover a way to address your sleep deprivation that will prevent serious consequences from a common complaint.



Sleep obviously eases sleepiness from sleep deprivation and it may be important to get 7 to 8 hours each night to feel rested
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This may seem too obvious to even consider, but the best treatment for sleep deprivation is also the easiest: sleep more. Sleep deprivation occurs when we do not sleep enough. This might occur chronically, with inadequate sleep over an extended period of time, or it may occur acutely, such as when we "pull an all-nighter." We each have individual sleep needs, and the average amount of sleep changes over our lifetime. Sleep that is of poor quality, such as those that may occur in sleep disorders like insomnia or sleep apnea, may also lead to sleep deprivation.

You may not need a great deal of recovery sleep to feel better. After acute sleep loss, a single night of 8 hours of sleep may be sufficient. In the setting of chronic sleep deprivation, sleep during the night may need to be lengthened, and additional naps during the day might also help. Younger people may take slightly longer to recover from prolonged sleep deprivation.



Activity including exercise may promote wakefulness during periods of sleepiness from sleep deprivation
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The next option to treat sleep deprivation is the opposite of sleep: activity. Brief periods of activity may help you to stay more alert, especially when you are experiencing minor sleep deprivation.

Research studies have shown that a five-minute walk can improve excessive daytime sleepiness as measured by multiple sleep latency testing (MSLT). Unfortunately, this increased alertness may be a transient benefit that comes and goes rather quickly.

However, if you are suffering from profound sleep deprivation, you may not find many benefits from being active. Depending on the level of activity, you may develop increased fatigue (as opposed to improved sleepiness) that may counteract the benefits of being more alert.


Bright Light

Sunlight or the use of a light box may promote wakefulness, especially in the darker winter months
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The exposure to bright light has important effects on your body's circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a pattern of body functions, including sleep and wakefulness, that is timed to the day-night cycle. There are some conditions such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and circadian rhythm sleep disorders that are helped by appropriately timed exposure to bright light. In addition, bright light may help you become more alert if you are sleep deprived.

The results of research studies are somewhat mixed in regards to how effective this might actually be. Some show that light is effective in shifting circadian rhythms, which might allow you to stay awake longer. (This is also called increased sleep latency.) In addition, some research suggests there is improved performance at night, especially with shift work, when bright light conditions are present.

Aside from normal ambient lighting such as you might get from overhead lights or natural light exposure like sunlight, it might also be beneficial to expose yourself to a light box.



Ambien noise in the environment may keep a person awake
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If you have ever found yourself turning up the radio to stay alert, you may wonder if this actually improves sleepiness or any of the other effects of sleep deprivation. There may be some benefit, but unfortunately, it is rather modest.

When we hear something, our brain responds by making us slightly more alert. This can be problematic when we have a noisy sleep environment, but it can be helpful if we are trying to stay awake.

We generally respond best to novel stimuli. In other words, we tune out background noise when we are exposed to it for long enough. For example, the sounds of air circulating through the ducts, the soft hum of a computer fan, or any number of other noises fade into the background din after awhile. New sounds, however, draw our attention. Noise, therefore, may be somewhat helpful in alerting us. If you sing along, it may be of even greater benefit.



Posture can impact the ability to fall asleep and lying down makes it more likely a person will doze off
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Surely it is harder to fall asleep when you are standing up, so posture clearly can have some beneficial effects on sleep deprivation. Indeed, simply sitting upright can have the same impact. This has to do with the activation of something called the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls automatic body functions such as heart rate and pupil dilation. As an unlikely example, it is the system that goes to work instinctively when you are attacked by a lion. Therefore, it is quite effective at increasing alertness and counteracting the effects of sleep deprivation.



Caffeine from a cup of coffee may help to relieve sleepiness related to sleep deprivation
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Aside from simply getting more sleep, the best single treatment for sleep deprivation may be caffeine. This naturally occurring stimulant is found in many common foods and drinks, including coffee, tea, soda pop, energy drinks, and chocolate. It is very effective in increasing alertness. There may be some minor side effects, such as headache in periods of withdrawal or tremor when used in excess, but caffeine is remarkably well tolerated. It is widely available and relatively inexpensive, making it a reliable and often used remedy for sleep deprivation. In general, caffeine is best used in small amounts consumed frequently and limited to before lunchtime and no later than 4pm.


Motivation or Interest

Motivation or interest may reduce the impact of sleep deprivation
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You might consider that you are more likely to stay alert and attentive if you actually care about the activities you are engaged in. A boring lecture or meeting at work may be just the thing to put you right to sleep. However, spending time with your loved ones or pursuing a favored hobby may keep you wide awake, at least in the short term. Indeed, studies have shown that people who receive incentives such as financial rewards are better able to stay awake. This improved vigilance persisted for the first 36 hours of sleep loss. However, it began to fall off over the next day; by the third day of sleep loss, the rewards had no effect in improving alertness. Therefore, these benefits may be helpful in acute sleep deprivation, but prolonged sleep loss may undermine their effects.


Group Effects

Scouts feel sleepy and fall asleep, despite being in a group in a public setting
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Finally, there is some belief among anthropologists that the effects of sleep deprivation may be lessened when they occur in the context of a group. You might imagine that a handful of sleep-deprived people are able to engage one another in ways to maintain alertness. This might be as basic as holding a conversation, in which multiple alerting prompts and responses occur. In addition, there may be a social element, such as having someone there to wake you up as you drift off. The impact may be most helpful when at least some of the members of the group are well rested. These group effects may be helpful in select situations, but the effects may wane as chronic sleep deprivation takes hold.

A Word From Verywell

Commit yourself to meeting your sleep needs. Try to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. If you find yourself feeling sleepy despite adequate hours of rest, consider evaluation by a board-certified sleep medicine healthcare provider. And always remember: Never drive drowsy. Don't start driving if you are sleep deprived and pull over if you feel sleepy while on the road. It is simply not worth the risk.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.