sunflower seeds, alert

Q. I’ve read in your column that some people eat sunflower seeds to stay awake when they drive. This works, and I have proved it.

I was a researcher at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for 20 years, studying drowsy driving among other safety issues. We heard from truckers, shift workers and other people who habitually dealt with drowsiness while driving.

These folks ate a number of different things to stave off drowsiness, including sunflower seeds, pistachio nuts, potato chips, lemon drops and ice cubes. An “authority” at a respected university published a widely circulated paper that stated, without any supporting research, that none of those things could possibly work.

Sunflower Seeds Worked

So when sunflower seeds worked for me, I sponsored research to compare the effects of sunflower seeds or an energy drink with an untreated control group in a driving simulator. The results showed the seeds were superior to the energy drink (which had a rebound effect with increased drowsiness after a time), though both were better than nothing.

NHTSA never published the study, but I still carry sunflower seeds with me: my cup holders have fresh seeds in one container and empty shells in the other.

A. Thank you for sharing your unpublished research. We’ve heard for years that separating sunflower seeds from their shells with the teeth and then eating them can keep drivers alert. Drivers need to be careful not to become distracted by anything they may be eating.

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  1. Judith Ronat M. D.

    Many years ago I read that long distance truck drivers drive shoeless to keep awake. It really works! So does singing.
    These methods do not involve eating which is a problem in our era of increased obesity!

  2. Cindy M. B.

    I have found out, through trial and error, that eating ANYTHING really helps keep one awake while driving. It’s the extra activity that does the trick, so it makes sense that difficult eating tasks (e.g., separating the seeds from the shells) would work best in keeping one awake. Also really crunchy, salty foods seem to work best. The nice thing about sunflower seeds is that they provide needed difficulty without being dangerously distracting — like, say, trying to fix a sandwich while driving…

  3. Gail

    I’ve tried different things to keep awake while driving and found that sunflower seeds worked better than anything else that I had tried. If I know I’m going to be on a long drive or late at night, I make sure I have sunflower seeds in my car. Works every time.

  4. toni A.

    I believe that adding nutritional yeast to your popcorn with or without butter wakes you up and generally provides a quick and steady source of energy.

  5. Pat R
    Palmyra, Virginia

    For years my husband has relied on popcorn to stave off drowsiness while driving. Because he’d rather not eat the products sold at gas stations/convenience stores, I make it for him. A covered wok is perfect for popping corn! I use organic virgin coconut oil (delicious taste), organic popping corn, and season the popped corn (while still hot) with garlic powder, thyme, and a bit of salt. I store the popped corn in plastic containers with lids that seal tightly, so the freshness lasts for about a week — just about right for two or three outings.

    I recall a friend saying he found munching on carrots to be effective.

  6. Mary

    A number of years ago I was driving from LosAngeles back to the San Francisco Bay Area. And I was getting sleepy even though it was not dark.

    I stopped en route and purchased some grapes. I don’t remember what kind they were.

    They really helped me stay awake and arrive home safely.

  7. Jim Slaughter
    Land O Lakes, FL

    I keep shelled sunflower kernels in my car. They give enormous quick energy and alertness besides satisfying any hunger I may have while driving. To me, eating the seeds ‘in the shell’ would be very distracting but then that is just my preference.

  8. CaptainP75

    But does the same benefit hold true for already-shelled sunflower seeds? And what about raw vs. roasted? Or those soaked in tamari? Do the anecdotes or research shed any light on these questions?

  9. Monica
    Hickory, NC

    Though cracking sunflower seed shells to find the seed to avoid drowsiness sounded goofy, I tried it. On 9+ hour trip with adequate rest but no seeds, I had to pull off the road twice for a short catnap. On the return trip with borderline adequate sleep and seeds,
    I felt much more alert. People laugh when I share it, but it worked on that trip. I will continue to test it and share the results.
    Caffeine consumption both ways amounted to less than one cup of coffee.

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