Do you get sleepy behind the wheel?

Q: I sleep well at night, wake up refreshed and energetic, and rarely feel tired or take naps. But when I drive for an hour or more, I become so sleepy that I have to pull over and take a 45-minute nap or risk crashing.

After I wake up, I’m alert and good to go. My mother and brother have the same problem; we call it “auto-narcolepsy” because the only time it happens is in the car (whether I’m a driver or a passenger).

Long road trips can make drivers sleepy, leading to accidents. Photo by Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Long road trips can make drivers sleepy, leading to accidents. Photo by Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times/MCT

A: You are certainly not alone. Others also have reported that driving or riding in the car makes them sleepy. We recently heard from a long-distance truck driver that eating sunflower seeds helps him stay alert on 12-hour trips. The mental concentration needed to crack the shell, extract the seed and spit out the residue seems to be enough to maintain alertness. It may also help that the seeds are rich in fat and protein rather than rapidly absorbed carbohydrates.

Through the years, other readers have shared their success with sunflower seeds: “My mother wants to pass on her magic keeper-upper. Eating sunflowers in the shell while driving works like magic. The multitasking needed to consume them keeps you alert, but you need a cup to spit the shells into.”

With the increase of car travel over the summer months, you may find yourself behind the wheel for long stretches of time. How do you stay alert when driving on long road trips?

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist, and Teresa Graedon is an expert in medical anthropology and nutrition. They can be reached at peoplespharmacy

Follow ajchealthcare on Twitter.

32 comments Add your comment


June 29th, 2010
8:11 pm

Stop every 1 to 2 hours and walk around for a few minutes. We usually stop at every rest stop along the expressway just to stretch our legs and walk a little bit. This might extend an 8 hour trip into 9 hours or so, but its well worth it.


June 30th, 2010
6:48 am

Chew on a large wad of bubble gum. Your jaw will be sore the next morning, but it works like a charm. You will not go to sleep.


June 30th, 2010
7:30 am

Glad to hear the suggestions….There’s something about a long stretch of highway that almost lulls me to sleep everytime I embark on a journey..the only thing that helps me is good sing along music, frequent stops and a Red Bull or Monster energy drink. Hate sunflower seeds so I hope to hear other suggestions…


June 30th, 2010
8:04 am

I use Tootsie Roll Pops and Mountain Dew (Code Red) that gives me the caffaine and sugar high that I need…and I like them. Y’all be careful out there.

Dalton Fury

June 30th, 2010
8:58 am

I too have suffered from this for some time. I find that sugar and caffeine help. Although I try to omit coffee during the afternoon commute as it can cause insomnia later in the evening. Keep a bag of Jolly Ranchers in the glove box, or stop by a fast food joint for a bite of food or sweet treat. It is extra calories, yes, but far better than crashing into a ditch or oncoming traffic.


June 30th, 2010
9:05 am

Cold air conditioning straight to the face and loud radio. Either talk radio on something that interests you, country music if it irks you or rock out to whatever you listened to in high school.

Or pop in a book on tape and see if an engrossing mystery keeps your mind engaged.


June 30th, 2010
9:40 am

Cold air in the face does it for me too.

My wife doesnt like cold AT ALL so we are always fighting about that in the car but thats the only way to keep us ALL safe!


June 30th, 2010
10:50 am

I’m with Big George, except for me it’s usually Peanut M&Ms with my Mountain Dew. Also, I sing along with the radio or my iPod to fast and upbeat music (nothing soft or sleepy).

Johnny Nam

June 30th, 2010
1:16 pm

Strong mints, especially peppermint, do the trick for me. Chewable Mentos, or the “curiously” strong peppermint candy.

Carolyn H

June 30th, 2010
1:21 pm

I actually need diversity…I mix it up with eating my favorite nuts, skittles and/or fruit I have cut up for ease of handling. I listen to my favorite sing-along music (oldies but goodies for me), a good mystery or adventure audio book, maybe talk radio and cruise on down the road. I also use the cruise control because when I am engrossed in whatever I am listening to, I have a tendency to drive faster than I need to and definitely want to be safe and not get a ticket. I always allow enough travel time so I am never is a rush to get to my destination.


June 30th, 2010
4:06 pm

My husband has had this problem for years and scares me to death at times. The only thing that seems to help him is strong coffee, the radio turned up loud and me talking to him. It is the one time that my talking doesn’t get on his nerves. But, the best solution that I have found is for me to do the driving, especially if we are in the mountains.

eyes wide open

June 30th, 2010
5:54 pm

cold 100% grapefruit juice (sweet & tart helps) and anything crunchy (pretzels, nuts, etc.) or mints are good but then so is PROVIGAL (Rx created originally for military pilots) for those of us with extreme sleep issues…


June 30th, 2010
9:15 pm

Learn to nap in place while driving. I’ve been doing it for 40 years.
DON’T use cruise control
Open a window.

Dr. Stan--(The Black One)

June 30th, 2010
9:24 pm

A mere twenty years old in the military, I used to leave home, 82 East bound, Sunday evening about 11:00 for Savannah Georgia, Hunter Army Airfield; sleepy when departing and sleepy arriving. I stayed alert applying most of the remedies mentioned, coffee, juices, eating, air conditioning, and stops. For over two years, those things worked.

Waycross Georgia changed everything. I was cruising toward the middle of town around midnight, air conditioner blasting, eating, drinking, and singing. The traffic light could be seen at a distance. But at some point, reality lapsed into a dream. Dreaming, eating, drinking, singing etc…

By the grace of God, something awakened me. I slammed on the brakes screeching and sliding. My car had gone through the intersection and almost crashed into a building. 82 East had abruptly ended; you had make a right or left turn. I had missed my left turn and no one had been injured or killed..

A lesson learned. Today my wife and I travel long distances together. And after a good night’s sleep, we depart early in the morning. If she feels sleepy or hypnotic on our journey, I take the wheel… We have periodic stops. If night approaches, we find the best inn until day breaks.


Don't laugh - it works

June 30th, 2010
10:01 pm

I was once hypnotized, and the post-hypnotic suggestion was that I would not get drowsy while sleeping. I can drive for hours and hours on I-16, I-20 or any other insanely boring stretch of road and never get tired.

Pap S.

June 30th, 2010
10:01 pm

When I drive in the nude, everyone’s alert.


June 30th, 2010
10:27 pm

For those who get sleepy quickly and after a good night’s sleep, it may be an eye problem. You should go see your opthamologist


June 30th, 2010
11:24 pm

The reason my husband was sleepy while driving was sleep apnea. I can’t eat pancakes or I’ll get drowsy while driving. I drink water while driving; I have to make more pit stops, but it gives me a chance to stretch my legs.


July 1st, 2010
4:52 am

Sing!!! Turn off your radio and SING! I do this every night as I commute back and forth from Ga to Al for work. Along my journey there is nothing but, miles and miles of country roads and woods…therefore, I don’t worry about who can hear me!:) No one can hear my tunes, and I SING as loud as I can. Otherwise, someone would find me wrapped around a tree or tilted in a ditch! I often dance in my seat as well if I’m really feeling the groove! lol! I know it sounds crazy but I have to do what I can to stay alert! And most of all pray before you start your journey! That’s the real lifesaver! Be safe everyone!


July 1st, 2010
7:06 am

Crunching ice is the only thing that keeps me from falling asleep behind the wheel. The best kind is the soft ice that is easy to crunch and doesn’t hurt your teeth. I have been known fall asleep and drive off the road when going only 10 miles from home to work, so it is a real problem for me and this is the only thing that really seems to help. It also keeps me awake when I am a passenger in the car.


July 1st, 2010
7:41 am

Hey Lori, I also listen to music also (Iforgot to mention that) I like Lynyrd Skynyrd


July 1st, 2010
7:57 am

Curiously, in a supposed anti-incumbent year, most of the departing are not retiring but seeking higher office. We may recycle more than we replace. The bad news is that a frustrating 114 seats still have but one contestant. Two of them aren’t even incumbents, meaning they will affect state policy without being vetted by voters. And I have to think that we’d be better off if many had run instead for the Legislature — and cut down on the number running unopposed. Georgia’s problems are numerous. They aren’t going away. There’s too much stale thinking at the Capitol, on both sides of the aisle. New voices would be welcome.


July 1st, 2010
8:34 am

Another healthy option….an apple. Works like a charm for me every single time! Try to keep an apple or bring it in with your lunch and have it on the way home or for long hauls.

I have also noticed that since I changed my diet and reduced my carb intake this has started to happen a little less.


July 1st, 2010
8:47 am

Thank goodness for this article (and user comments and suggestions)! I’ve tried explaining to my husband that this is what happens to me when I’m driving long distances at night. He thinks I’m making it up to get out of driving!!!!!!!!!!!! Which is not true – I like driving (just hate parking lots on Atlanta highways!!!!!)


July 1st, 2010
10:20 am

Lately on the way home from work I’m exhausted! Cold A/C blasting and the windows rolled down seem to help. Once I’m out of the car I’m good, it’s just the boring, sloooow commute out of the perimeter area.


July 1st, 2010
10:30 am

I sometimes bring a ziploc of cereal and eat it one piece at a time.


July 1st, 2010
11:45 am

Talking to someone on my cell phone is the only thing that keeps me awake when I get sleepy on a long drive. Looks like I’ll have to start using bluetooth soon with all these new cell phone laws that are being passed.


July 1st, 2010
4:18 pm

For long hauls, eating a handful of Altoids, stopping and stretching your limbs, chewing gum and blowing bubbles (you look like a ten year old, but who cares, better than being in a ditch). Also, having great conversation with your ride partner. For summer riding, washing your feet, only if your wearing flip flops….sounds weird but has worked and helped me stay fresh and alert through many of road trips!! HAPPY RIDING!!


July 16th, 2010
10:31 am

Talk. If a person is available – in the car or not, that’s good. Even talking to the cat or the radio helps though (aloud).

Gum helps for a bit.


You might try some audio books. Sometimes the story can require you to stay more alert to not miss parts.

Assisted Living Facilities

August 5th, 2010
11:50 pm

I found that opening the window and making myself cold helps keep me awake. Warmth will put you to sleep.

Assisted Living Facilities

August 11th, 2010
12:37 am

Good tips everyone!

Drivin while Blind

September 15th, 2010
8:00 am

If I become sleepy behind the wheel I will await the next strait stretch of road and close my eyes for about 25 to 45 seconds. I find this very refreshing and gives me just enough “shut-eye” to continue my journey without pulling over for some rest or getting some coffee.

Its a real time saver.