Waking up groggy in the morning is a common complaint for many, especially in this modern go-go-go society that runs on caffeine, sugar, and insufficient sleep. However, it seems that a lucky few are “morning people”–they feel legitimately refreshed upon waking, ready to start their day.
How do they do it? They may be born with it, or it could be something that can be created through lifestyle habits. A new study from the University of California, Berkeley found that if you want to feel less sluggish and more energized in the morning, the focus should be on three things: sleep habits, exercise, and what you eat for breakfast.
The study examined 833 participants for two weeks. This group included identical and fraternal twins to rule out the possibility of genes playing a role. Scientists were looking to see how environment and behavior factored in. During this time, the participants ate varied breakfasts and recorded what they ate in a food journal. They also tracked their exercise and sleep (patterns, quality, and quantity). Finally, they recorded how they felt upon rising every morning and throughout their days.
The secret sauce to being alert is in how the participants ate, slept, and exercised the day before. The participants who engaged in “substantial” exercise, slept longer and later through the morning, and ate a savory breakfast comprised of primarily complex carbohydrates (low sugar, with a controlled blood glucose response) tended to be less groggy the following morning. Scientists note that each factor improves morning alertness but packs a powerful punch together. In other words, if you want to be alert, you have to prepare for it by front-loading healthy habits.
“Many of us think that morning sleepiness is a benign annoyance. However, it costs developed nations billions of dollars annually through loss of productivity, increased healthcare utilization, and work absenteeism. More impactful, however, is that it costs lives — it is deadly,” according to senior author Matthew Walker, UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology.
Looking at breakfast, the research team joined forces with other researchers in the U.K., U.S., and Sweden to look at data of hundreds of people who ate curated breakfasts over two-week periods. In these studies, breakfast dishes were prepared to contain different micro and macronutrients – from high-protein to a mixture of fats and carbs, to high-carb and high-sugar. Participants used glucose monitors the whole time to measure the outcomes.
Findings showed that the main culprit and predictor of waking up groggy were having a high-sugar (simple sugars) breakfast the previous morning. They were less alert and more sleepy throughout the day. On the other hand, complex carbs (slow-digesting carbs) combined with some protein was the winning combination for maximum energy and alertness throughout the day.
What about the impact of sleep? We know that 7-9 hours of sleep a night is good for health. Still, this study showed that this amount is also needed to avoid “sleep inertia,” the inability to/difficulty transitioning from a sleepy state to an alert one. Sleeping a little extra in the morning really “ramped” up the participants’ alertness shortly after waking.
Interestingly, though researchers have also identified physical activity as an influencer of alertness, it’s unclear what it is about exercise that creates this effect. It’s been long-established that exercise improves brain function, mood, and sleep, but the specific mechanism for it creating more alertness is unclear.
As for the twins in the study, they served to show that genetics plays only a small part in grogginess/alertness (accounting for roughly 25%), further emphasizing the powerful majority influence diet, sleep, and exercise have on how you feel in the morning and throughout your day.