The People's Perspective on Medicine

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?

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.

Sunflower Seeds to Stay Alert:

Q. I’ve tried different things to keep alaert 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.

Other Readers Chime In:

We had an earlier report on munching sunflower seeds as a way to stay alert.

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. 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 awake, 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.”


Rate this article
5- 14 ratings
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. .
Get the latest health news right in your inbox

Join our daily email newsletter with breaking health news, prescription drug information, home remedies AND you'll get a copy of our brand new full-length health guide — for FREE!

Screenshots of The People's Pharmacy website on mobile devices of various sizes
Join over 150,000 Subscribers at The People's Pharmacy

We're empowering you to make wise decisions about your own health, by providing you with essential health information about both medical and alternative treatment options.

Showing 21 comments
Add your comment

The common misconception equating coffee to caffeine prevents people from taking full advantage of caffeine when trying to stay alert. Coffee contains about 500 compounds (none of them smells like coffee) and some of them counteract the action of caffeine. This is why the coffee-induced alertness lasts shortly, and is followed by sleepiness. Caffeine-only pills keep me alert and in good mood for long several hours, while the coffee alertness lasts not more than one hour and ends with urge to pee, which further interferes with driving.

I recently purchased a Genesis G90 and discovered a safety feature that I had not heard of before–driver drowsiness detection. Driver drowsiness detection is a car safety technology which helps prevent accidents caused by the driver getting drowsy. This system provides a visual and audible alert. Sometimes it alerts me when I am not drowsy, but overall I think it is extremely positive. I would not consider a new car that did not have this feature (first started by Mercedes in 2009). In addition, I eat peanuts and lifesavers to help me stay alert.

I, too, have found out that eating definitely helps keep me awake on long car-drives. It breaks up the monotony of that dotted line rolling past like some kind of hyptontist’s watch! But most foods would be too fattening or filling to eat over long periods. The need to crack each little sunflower seed before eating it could stretch the eating time waaaay out and still not amount to too much food! “Distracted driving” can be lifesaving if you’re like me.

Whenever I have to drive a long distance, I take a pack of sunflower seeds and beef jerky. Between removing the shell of the sunflower seeds and chewing on the jerky, I stay awake.

Wow! I’ve been vindicated. Back in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s 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 times I’d be miles away from rest areas when sleepiness hit, and the seeds kept me alert and safe til I could get off and nap for 15 – 20 minutes. After the nap I’d be good to go. I firmly believe that the brain becomes concerned about safely swallowing the food along with all the digestive areas on high alert that food was coming that did the trick. Nothing else but the food worked at all.

You can buy sunflower seeds already shelled. Has that worked as well for anyone?

I do not know what nutrients the shell may contain but I do know that sunflower seeds contain a lot of tryptophan and have actually had a sleepy effect on me!

It works, as the seeds are full of mineral such as magnesium and iron. They also have other vitamins that stimulate you to be alert during driving, and the only other thing you need is water.

Amazing! I did this on a road trip back in the early 1970s, and it worked so I’ve been telling people ever since. They usually laugh at me. Now I feel vindicated. Thanks for publishing this research.

An easy way to eat pumpkin seeds is to eat them shelled. Hello Delicious Brands of Northbrook, IL packages certified, organic, raw, shelled pumpkin seeds that are tasty. Just pop them in your mouth, no peeling. And I don’t work for the company! I just enjoy their seeds.

I can’t thank you enough for this suggestion! Last Spring I had to drive from AZ to WI, and I fell asleep. I totaled both my van and the trailer I was pulling. The air bag broke several ribs when I plowed into a Ponderosa Pine, but I am grateful because it saved my life. I listen to books, eat all sorts of things, sing, etc. but I’ve never tried sunflower seeds. The closest thing that helped was hard candy. I suspect that manipulating your tongue around something in your mouth has a lot to do with your staying awake. I will definitely get a bag of sunflower seeds the next time I have to drive a long way. Again, thank you!

My uncle suggested sunflower seeds for alert driving about 20 years ago. It has become my favorite way to stay alert. My other favorite is to listen to audio books. As much as I love singing to my fave tunes, the audio books are more engaging.

The best thing I have found that works to stop me feeling sleepy whilst driving is to sing. Switch off radios/CDs and just start singing. You will immediately get oxygen to the brain. I’m not a good singer and sometimes I can’t think of anything to sing, so I just miaow along to any tune. Great fun.

I eat the shells … healthy, low cal snack.

I used to have to drive 16 hours straight to see my parents. I used an apple in the same way. I used the smell first to awaken senses, then the physical bite in my mouth and then the taste of tart and sweet. I could make an apple last the whole trip, invigorating me when all else failed.

We used to keep chilled crunchy apples available for long drives. I found celery good too.

The sunflower seeds keep me awake when the shell gets lodged in my gums. It’s very painful, and once I just swallowed the shells and seeds to my extreme displeasure during my next bowel movement, again very painful but I was wide awake.

I used to drive long distances in the evening when tired, eventually finding out that I was tired because of the blood pressure medicine I was taking. But in the meantime, found that what worked to wake me up almost immediately was eating a Snickers bar.

My sister was a truck driver and always had a bag of sunflower seeds with her. She claimed they kept her awake.

Staying awake while driving long distances has to be one of the major safety challenges on our roads. It’s not a problem when there is a passenger in the car or when one can take a nap. Many times, however, when drowziness is an issue it’s because no passenger is available, and there is no safe place to pull over and take a nap. I want to try the sunflower seeds. That would be an easy answer if they work.

Crunching ice, eating peanuts in shells, and chewing gum also work for me. But for passengers the noise can be irritating. I think the act of eating, chewing, manipulating the sunflower shell in your mouth to pop it open, get the seed separated, what serves to keep one alert. Carrying on a conversation works also for me.

* Be nice, and don't over share. View comment policy^