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Do Sunflower Seeds Keep You Alert Behind the Wheel?

Consuming sunflower seeds in the shell may help drivers stay alert. Have you ever tried this tactic on a long drive?

How do you stay alert when you are driving? Some people listen to the radio or to audiobooks. Others sip on a travel mug full of coffee. One interesting tactic that some readers use is munching on sunflower seeds. Keep reading for a few entertaining reports.

Sunflower Seeds to Stay Alert:

Q. I’ve tried different things to keep alert while driving and found that sunflower seeds worked better than anything else. If I know I have a long trip or will be driving late at night, I make sure I have sunflower seeds in my car. It works every time.

A. To our surprise, we found that Israeli scientists have published research comparing energy drinks to sunflower seeds for combating driver fatigue (Accident; Analysis and Prevention, Sep. 2009).  Both approaches worked equally well, although manipulating the sunflower seeds to shell them could get in the way of quick driving maneuvers in the simulator.

We heard previously from an individual who sponsored similar research, although it was never published. In that study, energy drinks helped at first and then led to a slump.

A Correction From an Alert Reader:

Q. Some time ago, you wrote about eating sunflower seeds to keep awake while driving. You didn’t explain the technique correctly.

I use this tactic myself as someone who easily gets sleepy behind the wheel. I learned about it while spending a lot of time in Israel, where it is a common practice.

An experienced Israeli does not use his hands on the sunflower seeds other than to pop a new seed in his mouth or remove the old shell for discard. Or, even better, spitting out the old shell! The activity that keeps one awake is the act of manipulating the seed inside the mouth with one’s tongue and shelling it WITHOUT USING ONE’S HANDS. It takes a little practice!

Eating seeds like this one at a time also has the advantage of ingesting very few calories for the time spent shelling the seed inside one’s mouth. It’s better than candy.

Better Than Candy:

A. Thank you for the detailed explanation. Others have also used a somewhat similar strategy to stay alert while driving. Another way in which sunflower seeds are better than candy is that their nutrients are absorbed more slowly, leading to a more gradual rise in blood sugar. For some people, a rapid spike in blood sugar from eating candy soon results in a crash and feelings of fatigue or sleepiness.

One reader wrote:

“Wow! I’ve been vindicated. For decades, I drove thousands of miles for work. Drowsiness was a big issue. The only thing that worked was eating something, and my go-to became, ahem: shelled, unsalted sunflower seeds! I kept them in a cup and tipped a few into my mouth when I needed to stay awake while driving. This way seeds were not handled, keeping germs away and oil off the driving wheel.”

Many Other Readers Chime In:

Q. A while back you ran a suggestion of eating sunflower seeds to stay awake while driving. Something about removing the shell with your teeth and tongue apparently helps alertness.

I want to second this idea. I used to drive 800 miles between Sacramento, CA, and Spokane, WA, and I had to fight sleep constantly. I tried mints, candy, chewing gum, soda pop and coffee without success. Then I started eating sunflower seeds, and my problem was solved!

A. Many others also endorse this tactic. Someone who chews on sunflower seeds while driving should keep a container handy for the shells. Regardless, we recommend avoiding anything that will lead to excessive distraction while driving.

AWC suggested a different tactic:

“Chewing sunflower seeds actually has helped me a lot, but I also found that having a passenger in the car with you helps with staying alert, because of the fact that you are talking, and they can help pay attention too.”

RMD also took a different approach:

“I find it amazing that everyone has a method for staying awake when they get sleepy while driving, instead of the obvious, which is to stop and take a nap.”

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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