The use of drugs to stay awake is believed to be common among college students, truck drivers, and night shift workers, and it can significantly improve the quality of life for people with narcolepsy. There are a few standard drug options for remaining awake and alert, though their effectiveness varies greatly between individuals.
Most Popular Drugs to Stay Awake
Caffeine and certain prescription medications are the most commonly used legal drugs to stay awake. They accelerate the functions of the central nervous system, providing a boost in both physical and mental energy.
Caffeine is a psychoactive stimulant found in some plants. Caffeinated beverages (like coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks) and caffeine pills are the most popular and accessible drugs used to stave off sleep and promote alertness. In fact, caffeine is the most frequently used psychoactive substance around the world.
Most caffeine pills contain a 200mg dose, about the same as the average 12-ounce cup of coffee. Most experts consider this an optimal dose, but caffeine affects everyone differently. In addition, as with most drugs, people can build up a tolerance to the effects with continued use.
While many people think of caffeine as a food product, it is a drug that carries a risk of side effects, addiction, withdrawal symptoms, and abuse. Side effects can include upset stomach, headache, insomnia, frequent urination, tremors, anxiety, irritability, muscle spasms, lightheadedness, and aggravation of ulcers. Serious side effects calling for medical attention include dizziness, accelerated breathing, chest pain, drowsiness, and disorientation.
Many people rely on pharmaceuticals made from amphetamines and similar compounds such as Ritalin, Adderall, Dexedrine, and Desoxyn to stay awake. This is an off-label (non-FDA approved) use for these drugs, which are approved for the treatment of attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Using these drugs to stay awake is widely regarded by medical professionals as an unhealthy, overly risky option, as they are highly addictive and prone to abuse. A study from Northeastern University found that three-quarters of prescription stimulant abuse results from students using the medications to stay awake and on top of class work.
Side effects from these medications can include insomnia, headaches, upset stomach, and loss of appetite, weight loss, nervousness, irritability, depression, and involuntary movements. Rarely, dangerous increases in blood pressure, paranoia, psychosis, and seizures can result.
Narcolepsy is an incurable but manageable sleep disorder that causes sporadic bouts of extreme fatigue and the sudden onset of sleep. People with narcolepsy bypass the first stages of sleep, non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and enter immediately into the deeper rapid eye movement (REM) stage. Narcolepsy can be quite disruptive to daily life, but fortunately, the use of drugs to stay awake in conjunction with medications for other symptoms and lifestyle modifications can help.
To remain awake, narcoleptics rely on prescription stimulants like those used to treat ADHD. A newer drug, modafinil, is gradually replacing older medications like Ritalin and Adderall. Modafinil has two key advantages over other medications: it is significantly less addictive, and it does not cause the mood elevations and crashes associated with traditional stimulants.
Natural Alternatives to Drugs
For people who experience side effects, are prone to addiction, or simply prefer avoid taking unnecessary drugs, there are alternatives to drugs for staying awake longer.
- Engage in brisk, aerobic exercise to stimulate your body and mind. Increased heart rate and blood flow and the release of adrenaline can help you stay awake for several hours.
- Take a 15 to 25 minute nap. A very brief, well-timed nap is refreshing. However, if you enter into deep sleep stages, you will wake up feeling more tired.
- Keep the air conditioner on low. Warmth lulls the body to sleep, and conversely, being just slightly too cold for comfort helps prevent the body from slowing down and falling asleep.
There are countless supplements sold to boost energy. However, "natural" does not necessarily mean drug-free; many such supplements contain high doses of caffeine. Some can even be dangerous, containing multiple stimulants. Because the FDA does not regulate supplements, there is no guarantee that they are safe or effective. In addition, many supplements can interfere or interact with prescription medications. Always check with your doctor before taking any supplement.
Preventing Sleep Debt
While pulling an all-nighter may seem the best option to finish a job on time or to study for an exam, lack of sleep diminishes productivity and performance. Sleep is the brain's natural way of refreshing itself, and as it becomes more sleep deprived, the cognitive processes are inhibited. Moreover, by staying awake all night, we incur what is known as a "sleep debt," the body's need to make up for missing sleep. After using medications to stay awake, you should try to get back into your regular sleep routine by getting a good back into a healthy sleep routine. Knowing how much sleep you need is an important step.