What Is Sleepiness?


Sleepiness is the desire to fall asleep. It is sometimes referred to as drowsiness and typically increases the longer we stay awake. To understand what is really meant by sleepiness, consider this extreme example:




Imagine that you didn’t sleep enough over the last several nights and you then had a delicious lunch with turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, and plenty of alcohol. It’s now two in the afternoon and you’re sitting comfortably in a big soft chair in a room that’s too warm. You’re reading a boring book or listening to an uninteresting television program. Your eyelids are getting heavy. A warm feeling comes over you. You are about to doze off. You are sleepy.



More specifically, sleepiness relates to the accumulation of a chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, within the brain called adenosine.1 Adenosine may build up between and within nerve cells and higher levels of it in the reticular activating system of the brainstem are associated with greater levels of sleepiness. (Interestingly, caffeine works by blocking the action of adenosine within the brain, leading to wakefulness. Alcohol enhances it and contributes to feeling sleepy.)2 Sleepiness may occur normally or be due to an underlying sleep disorder.



People feel sleepy every day, especially before sleep onset. The degree of sleepiness or drowsiness may increase the longer you stay awake. You’ll also feel more sleepy during times that you are meant to be asleep, such as during the night. This relates to the role of the circadian rhythm.3 Sleepiness may also be worse during periods of sleep deprivation. If poor quality sleep is obtained, you may feel more sleepy during the day.


Possible Causes


Too much sleepiness with an adequate amount of time spent sleeping may suggest a sleep disorder. Excessive daytime sleepiness, often measured by the Epworth sleepiness scale, is a common complaint among those with sleep apnea or narcolepsy.4 Each of these conditions leads to sleep fragmentation, which disrupts the restorative process of sleep. Some people have sleepiness without a clear cause as a result of a condition called idiopathic hypersomnia4.



Additionally, sleepiness may result from consuming foods rich in tryptophan5 (like turkey), drinking alcohol, or as a side effect to medications (including sleeping pills). After eating a meal, feeling drowsy is called post-prandial sleepiness.



Sleepiness or Fatigue?


It’s important to differentiate sleepiness or drowsiness from fatigue or tiredness.6 In the realm of sleep problems, fatigue is a common complaint of insomnia. People with fatigue often feel tired, but if given the opportunity, they are usually unable to take a nap. There are some ways to avoid sleepiness.

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