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BERKELEY, Calif. — Scientists have discovered the secret to always waking up alert and ready to go each day. In a new study by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, results show that there are three key factors which control a person’s morning alertness and energy level: more sleep, exercise, and a good breakfast.

Moreover, scientists say these factors play an even bigger role in preventing morning grogginess than a person’s genes.

Specifically, the team found that exercising the previous day, sleeping longer or later into the morning, and eating a breakfast high in complex carbohydrates (and low in sugar) combine to help people reach peak levels of alertness and keep their energy up throughout the day.

The results come from a two-week analysis of 833 people, including sets of identical and fraternal twins, who all received a variety of breakfast meals throughout the trial, and wore activity trackers to record their sleep quantity, quality, timing, and regularity. Using twins allowed the team to account for the influence of genes on sleep behavior.

Along with these three healthy habits, study authors found that a healthy controlled blood glucose response following breakfast helps a person wake up more effectively.

“All of these have a unique and independent effect,” says study first author and UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Raphael Vallat in a university release. “If you sleep longer or later, you’re going to see an increase in your alertness. If you do more physical activity on the day before, you’re going to see an increase. You can see improvements with each and every one of these factors.”

Grogginess can be costly and dangerous

“Many of us think that morning sleepiness is a benign annoyance. However, it costs developed nations billions of dollars every year through loss of productivity, increased health care utilization, work absenteeism. More impactful, however, is that it costs lives — it is deadly,” explains senior author Matthew Walker, UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology. “From car crashes to work-related accidents, the cost of sleepiness is deadly. As scientists, we must understand how to help society wake up better and help reduce the mortal cost to society’s current struggle to wake up effectively each day.”

The researchers say examples of major sleep-related incidents include the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania, and even the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine.

Your breakfast menu is critical to staying awake

Walker, Vallat, and an international team analyzed data from the U.K. company, Zoe Ltd., which followed participants for two weeks in order to predict their metabolic responses to different foods. Each participant received prepared meals with different proportions of nutrients in their breakfast muffins.

The standard muffin had a moderate amount of fat and carbohydrates and the high-protein diet included muffins plus a milkshake. Participants also consumed high-carbohydrate and high-sugar (a glucose drink) breakfasts during the experiment. These volunteers also wore continuous glucose monitors to keep track of their blood glucose levels throughout the day.

Results show breakfasts with high amounts of simple sugar were the worst and led to an inability to wake up effectively and stay alert. On the other hand, the high-carbohydrate breakfast revved up alertness quickly in the morning and sustained it throughout the day. These meals included large amounts of carbohydrates, little sugar, and just a modest amount of protein.

“A breakfast rich in carbohydrates can increase alertness, so long as your body is healthy and capable of efficiently disposing of the glucose from that meal, preventing a sustained spike in blood sugar that otherwise blunts your brain’s alertness,” Vallat says.

“We have known for some time that a diet high in sugar is harmful to sleep, not to mention being toxic for the cells in your brain and body,” Walker adds. “However, what we have discovered is that, beyond these harmful effects on sleep, consuming high amounts of sugar in your breakfast, and having a spike in blood sugar following any type of breakfast meal, markedly blunts your brain’s ability to return to waking consciousness following sleep.”

Waking up refreshed means sleeping more

The study also found that people who get more sleep wake up more refreshed than their peers working on fewer hours of rest each night. According to the results, the perfect window of sleep is between seven and nine hours a night.

The team says this is the ideal number for ridding the body of “sleep inertia,” the inability to shift from sleeping to being cognitively alert after waking up. Researchers add that most people also need this much sleep to remove adenosine. This chemical accumulates in the body throughout the day and leads to the sensation of sleepiness in the evening.

“Considering that the majority of individuals in society are not getting enough sleep during the week, sleeping longer on a given day can help clear some of the adenosine sleepiness debt they are carrying,” Walker speculates.

“In addition, sleeping later can help with alertness for a second reason,” the researcher continues. “When you wake up later, you are rising at a higher point on the upswing of your 24-hour circadian rhythm, which ramps up throughout the morning and boosts alertness.”

Exercise plays a mysterious role in morning alertness

While exercise the day before appears to help fight grogginess, the team could not find the definitive reason for why it helps.

“It is well known that physical activity, in general, improves your alertness and also your mood level, and we did find a high correlation in this study between participants’ mood and their alertness levels,” Vallat says. “Participants that, on average, are happier also feel more alert.”

Vallat did note that exercise typically leads to better sleep and contributes to a happier mood.

“It may be that exercise-induced better sleep is part of the reason exercise the day before, by helping sleep that night, leads to superior alertness throughout the next day.”

“If you pause to think, it is a non-trivial accomplishment to go from being nonconscious, recumbent and immobile to being a thoughtful, conscious, attentive and productive human being, active, awake, and mobile. It’s unlikely that such a radical, fundamental change is simply going to be explained by tweaking one single thing,” Walker says. “However, we have discovered that there are still some basic, modifiable yet powerful ingredients to the awakening equation that people can focus on — a relatively simple prescription for how best to wake up each day.”

Your genes don’t really affect your ability to wake up in the morning

While following these three healthy habits can ensure every morning is a good morning, the team says your individual genes don’t really factor into this equation. In fact, results show genetics only accounted for about 25 percent of the differences in alertness across the study group.

“We know there are people who always seem to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when they first wake up,” Walker concludes. “But if you’re not like that, you tend to think, ‘Well, I guess it’s just my genetic fate that I’m slow to wake up. There’s really nothing I can do about it, short of using the stimulant chemical caffeine, which can harm sleep.”

“But our new findings offer a different and more optimistic message. How you wake up each day is very much under your own control, based on how you structure your life and your sleep. You don’t need to feel resigned to any fate, throwing your hands up in disappointment because, ‘… it’s my genes, and I can’t change my genes.’ There are some very basic and achievable things you can start doing today, and tonight, to change how you awake each morning, feeling alert and free of that grogginess.”

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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