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Research Supports Munching Sunflower Seeds

Eating sunflower seeds while driving proved better for staying alert than consuming an energy drink.

Have you ever had trouble staying alert on a long drive? Lots of people do, and they have devised a variety of ways to stay awake. Often, the method includes eating something.

Research on Sunflower Seeds to Stay Awake:

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.

This Strategy 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 the 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A. Thank you for sharing your unpublished research.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.

Do Crunchy Carrots Do the Trick?

Another reader suggests a twist on this technique.

Q. I was intrigued to read your column about sunflower seeds to stay alert while driving. I’ve used carrots for this purpose, and I always take a bag of carrots on a long trip. The crunching of the carrots keeps me awake and alert, and if it starts not to work, I know it’s time to get off the road.

I suspect sunflower seeds might work the same way, and I will probably try them on my next long drive.

A. Thanks for the tip. Crunchy carrots also sound like a healthy way to stay alert.

Many people have told us that shelling sunflower seeds with teeth and tongue requires enough concentration to combat drowsiness. On the other hand, manipulating them while driving might be dangerous. Chewing carrots might be safer in that regard.

We also appreciate your note about getting off the road when you are no longer alert. That might be the best safety strategy of all.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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