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Subway sleeping can be dangerous, but some can't resist

by Mark Miller 6 min read

Napping on the subway

This couple looks like they’re getting a pretty good sleep on the New York subway, but anecdotal evidence says sleeping on trains isn’t restful and can be dangerous. (Wikimedia Commons photo/Eric Skiff)

Many people fall asleep on their commute on the subway, but sleeping on trains isn’t restful and can be dangerous. In New York City, half the subway crime victims were asleep when they were victimized.

In New York, police announced they would awaken sleeping commuters to protect them from crime.

The Internet is full of warnings about falling asleep on the train and also advice about how to fall asleep (or stay awake) on a train or bus. It’s kind of conflicted.

So Damn Sleepy

Elle magazine had an article [1] in April 2016 titled Why Does the Subway Make Me So Damn Sleepy? Kristina Rudolfo, the author, posed this question to clinical psychologist Michael Breus, The Sleep Doctor, who told her:

I think that people who have this situation fall into two different categories. One is people who could have Sopite syndrome, a neurological disorder that relates symptoms of fatigue, drowsiness, and mood changes after long periods of motion. The other is people who are sleep deprived, and when they get into this particular environmental situation where you’re relaxed enough and not having to pay attention to something—there’s motion, consistent sounds, and there’s no real safety threat—you become sleepy. I mean, I can’t count the number of patients that say, “I can’t go to a movie because I fall asleep,” or, “I get into a vehicle, and I’m asleep in five minutes” type of thing. A lot of the time I’m trying to discover, are they sleep deprived and that’s what’s causing this?

Dr. Breus explains the chemistry of sleepiness, and says when you feel the urge to sleep your body has a buildup of nerve chains, called adenosine. The brain has receptors where the adenosine latches on. Dr. Breus told Elle:

When you have enough of them (adenosine), you start to feel sleepier and sleepier. When you’re moving around, you may not notice how sleepy you are, but then once you’re stable, that overall level of sleepiness can hit you pretty hard. Interestingly enough, when you look at the molecular compound of adenosine, and you look at the molecular structure of caffeine, they’re almost identical. So the caffeine cell actually fits quite nicely into the adenosine receptor and blocks the adenosine. This is why caffeine makes you feel less sleepy. It doesn’t mean that you have any less sleep need or sleep drive, it’s just being blocked by the caffeine in the adenosine receptor.

Rudolfo asked the doctor if falling asleep on trains induces sleepiness like a baby being rocked in a cradle. He said yes, but added if you have had enough sleep you shouldn’t feel drowsy from it.

If you are on a train and can't get coffee, you might consider getting in the habit of taking along a box of Viter Energy Mints, which have invigorating caffeine and B vitamins. They are great even if you can get coffee. Taking your caffeine in mint form means fewer bathroom runs and fresher breath.

Each mint has 40 mg of caffeine and tastes great. They are available in the Viter Energy Mints store [2] or at Amazon [3].

Is catnapping on trains time well spent?

At the request of The New York Times [4], Dr. Carl Bazil tried to find out if these catnaps on trains are worthwhile. He is the director of the Epilepsy and Sleep Division at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.

'It looks like it is definitely possible to get small amounts of restorative sleep on the subway, but only very small amounts,' Dr. Bazil said. He added that some studies show 'even a brief nap that includes Stage 2 sleep can improve performance.'

Sleep’s five stages

He assessed the eye movements and body postures of sleeping subway riders for the article. Sleep has five stages, and the riders all appeared to be in Stage 1, the least restorative. The nappers clutched their pocketbooks and backpacks tightly, and their eyes came open when the door opened.

He wired up another commuter, Dr. Brandon Foreman, for the Times story to assess his sleep. Foreman got 10 minutes of sleep on a 23½ minute train ride—3½ minutes of it in Stage 2 sleep. So Dr. Bazil concluded it’s possible to get a little restorative sleep on a subway, but only a very little. But he said some studies have shown that a brief nap in which the sleeper reaches Stage 2 can improve performance, the Times says.

Dr. Foreman, however, said he didn’t feel rested as he might if he took a nap on a bed.

Dr. Breus of the Elle story suggested standing on the train instead of sitting if you don’t want to fall asleep. He also said you could engage in conversation.

What about long commutes?

The website Dreams [5] considers some important points:

We’ve all been there, you’ve got a hefty 2-hour commute ahead of you, you barely had six hours sleep last night and you’re consequently in need of some serious shut eye. However, a crafty nap while you travel on public transport isn’t the easiest of tasks and if you’re like many others, you’ll find falling asleep in public a vulnerable venture. But if you’re ready to throw caution to the wind, pass the time and catch some zzz’s, here are some handy tips for how to get to sleep on public transport.

The article advises:

  • Find a nice spot, where you won't be bothered.
  • Block the light.
  • Use earplugs to filter out noise.
  • Support your neck so you don't get hurt. Roll up your coat or jacket and place it against the window and lay your head on it.
  • Stay warm enough in air-conditioned trains by keeping a sweater with you. Conversely, if the train is too warm, dress lightly.
  • "Be wise," the article states:
By be wise, I mean remain travel savvy at all times. For example, research beforehand the estimated time of arrival and ensure to set an alarm 10 minutes prior to that so you don’t miss your stop. Also, as you would on public transport normally, ensure to keep your belongings close to you throughout your doze. This will help you avoid any unnecessary stress and worries which will only hinder your sleep.

Sleeping on trains

In the forums [6] on DigitalSpy.co.uk, commenter soulboy77, under a thread about falling asleep on the train, noted you can be robbed if you fall asleep on the train:

My friend’s husband fell asleep on the train, missed his stop and woke up at the end of the line minus his smart phone and Sony PS which he had put down beside him.

Doctors in Asia say napping on the train is a bad idea.

Kiko H Fan wrote:

Yes. I had pissed my tights, all down my leg, nice wet patches on the seat, my skirt and the floor. Then, when I finally woke up, some 10 miles after my stop, my purse had been stolen, meaning I had to spend the next day hungover and cancelling cards.

Schmiznurf seemed somewhat hostile about the question, writing:  “No I have not, because i’m an adult who doesn’t fall asleep against my will like a child or old person.”

Cops to wake up subway nappers

A while back New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton said metro police will wake up sleepers on the subway to protect them from crime. The New York Daily News reported [7]:

“Subways are not for sleeping,” New York’s top cop said during a news conference at 1 Police Plaza that also featured Mayor de Blasio. “I know people have gotten out of work and are tired, but we are going to start waking people up. If you are sleeping on the subway, you make yourself a very easy victim and much more susceptible to a crime. Why would you put yourself at that risk?”

He said 50 percent of the crime victims on the New York subway were sleeping, and offenses included not just pickpocketing but sexual assault.


[1] https://www.elle.com/beauty/health-fitness/news/a35632/why-we-fall-asleep-on-trains/
[2] https://www.goviter.com/collections/viter-energy-mints
[3] https://amzn.to/3jb7Gwg
[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/08/nyregion/to-sleep-on-the-subway-maybe-but-to-dream-poor-chance.html
[5] https://www.dreams.co.uk/sleep-matters-club/how-to-sleep-like-a-baby-on-public-transport/
[6] https://forums.digitalspy.com/discussion/1879483/have-you-ever-fell-asleep-on-a-bus-or-train
[7] https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/bratton-warns-new-yorkers-no-sleeping-subway-article-1.2519090

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