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Here's how to feel more alert in the morning

Study finds that people were more alert if they had done more physical activity the previous day, slept for longer, or eaten a breakfast high in carbohydrates

14 February 2023

By Emily Reynolds

Sometimes we wake up feeling alert, alive, and ready to face the day – while other mornings we struggle to pull back the duvet and get out of bed.  The reason is often clear: a late night making us less alert, or a calming bedtime routine giving us a good night's sleep. Now a new study, published in Nature Communications, finds that there are a number of factors that impact both how we wake up and how alert we feel for the rest of the morning – and the good news is that they are almost all things we can control.

Participants were 870 adults from the UK and 95 from the United States. Most participants were twins, which allowed the researchers to explore the genetic contributions to our morning alertness and determine whether changeable or innate factors were more important.

First, participants completed various baseline questionnaires, including measures of how well they normally slept, how much caffeine and alcohol they consumed, and how much exercise they got. They also indicated whether they had ever received a diagnosis of depression or anxiety.

The study then took place across the course of two weeks. Every day for breakfast, participants consumed standardised test meals which differed in nutritional composition – for example, some were higher in carbs, some in fat, some in protein and some in fibre. At several points each morning after breakfast, they rated how alert they were. During the day and night, they also wore physical activity monitors, to gauge how much physical activity they got and how long they slept. Participants also recorded other dietary intake each day on an app.

Various factors influenced how alert participants were in the morning. Sleeping longer than normal and waking up later were both associated with higher alertness the next morning. The team suggests that this may be because sleeping later in the morning means you wake up "further away from your circadian nadir" – when you are least awake – and closer to your circadian assent – when you become more alert.

More physical activity the prior day also predicted higher levels of alertness the following morning. Physical activity is known to benefit sleep – but this effect held even after taking into account how long people slept, suggesting that being active benefited alertness beyond simply improving sleep. Finally, what participants had for breakfast was also linked to morning alertness. Food with a higher carbohydrate level was associated with greater alertness than high protein food and food full of sugar.

Overall, then, participants reported higher morning alertness on days where they had slept longer, had a breakfast high in carbohydrates, and/or had done more physical activity the day before.

There were also differences between participants in their general levels of alertness, so the team looked at the factors could explain these overall differences. They found that age, sleeping frequency, and other controllable factors impacted alertness. However, by comparing twins and non-twins, the team also found that genetic factors were not as important.

The team notes that in both of their analyses, the factors that influenced alertness were highly modifiable (with the exception of age), meaning that we have a fairly high level of control over them. This means that with small changes to our lifestyle, we could start feeling much more alert in the mornings.