What does it mean to “wake up early”? It’s a common phrase, but the context it appears in can alter its meaning.
Someone known for waking up early, or being an “early bird”, might routinely wake up at an earlier time in comparison to the general population.
Waking up early might also mean in relation to when you currently wake up, allowing for a more comfortable gap before the start of daily obligations.
The question can also be a way of asking how to wake up at an appropriate time with less difficulty – for example, without having to rely on external cues.
While these meanings are different, the problems they ultimately refer to are the same. When our natural sleep cycle is not synchronised with when we want or have to wake up, then the waking up process is undermined.
The question “how do I wake up early” is really asking:
- How do I create a different, natural sleep schedule?
- How can I control when I wake up?
- How do I make waking up less uncomfortable?
Waking up early in relation to your goals, whether these are personal or dictated by external circumstances, is achievable for most people who are unhappy with how and when they wake up. In this article we will be offering practical advice on how to bring the time at which you want to wake up in line with when your body wants to wake up. This is what “waking up early”, in all of its contexts, actually entails.
Why waking up can be difficult
Waking up can be difficult when your inner clock is not in line with your external routines, e.g. you are a night owl but you have to get up early to work or go to school.
In order to understand this we must first understand what sleeping and waking periods are and how they are regulated by the brain.Sleeping and waking periods are controlled by two physiological processes – sleep/wake homeostasis1 and the circadian biological clock.2
First, the sleep/wake homeostatic process determines how much you feel you need to sleep, given how long you have been awake. This process helps us to know instinctively when our body needs sleep, and keeps the amount and depth of sleep we get consistent over time.
Second, our circadian clock is a timing system that allows us to anticipate natural environmental changes, for example to light and temperature. All of us are subject to individual circadian rhythms, which are largely determined by genetics – in the case of sleep, the genetic component that defines your circadian rhythm is known commonly as a chronotype.
These two processes work in parallel to determine our natural sleeping and waking patterns – and there is also evidence to suggest that the processes affect each other.3
What this means is that the time you wake up does depend on your chronotype, which is not something we can easily change. Some people are just naturally disposed to waking up early.4 However – you can change your circadian rhythm and sleep/wake homeostasis, with improved sleep hygiene, by forming new habits, and with the help of technology, tools, and supplements.
How these processes line up with social obligations is what makes waking up difficult. While most of us will naturally arrive at a fairly healthy state of balance, many find it a struggle. A common situation is one in which sleep and wake times are different on days without external obligations. On these days, we are allowing homeostasis and circadian timing to determine sleep and wake times – they are “natural”, and lead to adequate rest. This is in contrast to other days, where sleep and wake times might be regulated by alarms and/or medications. This results in what is known as “social jet lag”,5,6 something you may well be experiencing if you are struggling with waking up early.
Given the amount of control we have over sleep and waking processes, it’s important to set sleep goals that are realistic and achievable. Unfortunately, unless you happen to have a chronotype that enables this, it is hard to wake up consistently at a time we collectively consider early – 4.30am gym sessions might seem like a great idea in principle, but in practice most of us are unlikely to be able to maintain this in the long term. Instead, you can aim to gradually change your sleep habits until they align more closely with reasonable external expectations.
Start with how and when you fall asleep
In order for your natural waking up period to coincide with external circumstances, you have to fall asleep at a time that allows for enough sleep – this makes sense if you want to maintain a healthy sleep/wake homeostatic balance.7 For many people, the problem of waking up early starts with when they fall asleep.
The period in which we fall asleep is an important one, but it’s also a time of day that’s easy to neglect. Sleep hygiene is a term referring to behavioral changes that affect sleep, including caffeine and alcohol consumption, stress management, exercise, and sleep timing consistency. Learning about these small changes we can make to daily habits can have a significant impact on our ability to fall asleep at a time of our choosing.
Alongside sleep hygiene there are other layers we can add to the period in which we fall asleep, with good evidence to support their efficacy – for example meditation,8 stretching9 or journaling.10
Strengthening your sleep routine gives you greater control over when you fall asleep. While you work on your routine, you can try adjusting your schedule by small increments (for example, fifteen minutes) until you are consistently falling asleep at an appropriate time.
Matching sleep habits with waking habits
Changing the way you fall asleep will lead to changes in how and when you wake up. However, waking up is another routine we can optimise. Again, this is helped by an understanding of what happens to our bodies during the waking up process.
Waking up naturally typically occurs during a period of non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep.11 Blood pressure and temperature increase, as do levels of serotonin and cortisol. It is normal to feel tired and groggy just after we wake up,12 but we can make this period less uncomfortable by creating a routine designed to encourage a natural waking up process and take away the stress that waking up can sometimes add to our day.
Just like when we fall asleep, having a consistent waking up time is important if we are not to disrupt our circadian rhythm.13 Greater sleep variability is linked strongly with poor sleep and other adverse health outcomes,14 and is one of the first things we need to address when we are trying to improve our sleep.
Light is also an important factor in how we wake up. It has been shown that exposure to bright, white light in the morning can increase alertness15 – which makes sense given the way circadian rhythms have evolved to anticipate changes in light intensity. While most of us can’t change the natural light we are exposed to each morning, products like sleep lamps or light boxes can be used to mimic the gradual increase of natural light.
Snoozing is something we should try and avoid when trying to develop a positive waking up routine. It is normal to want to go back to sleep during a waking up period, but if you do go back to sleep you are likely to wake up again during a different sleep phase, and will end up feeling less rested. It also disrupts your circadian rhythm, which needs consistency to be under control.
Using B • SYNC ON to adjust the time you naturally wake up
Alongside our greater understanding of sleep comes innovation in sleep tools and technologies.
B • SYNC ON is a scientifically tested supplement designed to improve the waking process. B • SYNC ON works by providing the body with a delayed release of Vitamin B5, B12, Zinc and a low dose of caffeine, which is only released seven hours after it is taken.
Caffeine when taken at the wrong time of day can have a negative impact on sleeping and waking. However, the introduction of a small amount of caffeine after a full night’s sleep encourages the natural physiological transition between sleeping and waking, and a delayed release ensures that there is no negative effect on sleep quality. Combined with supplements shown consistently to aid with sleeping and waking up, the small amount of caffeine in B • SYNC ON has an elevating effect on mood and cognition immediately upon waking.16
B • SYNC ON can be used alongside sleep habits and to bring your natural waking up time in line with where you want it to be. Our clinically-proven formula specifically targets the waking up process, helping people to meet sleep goals, including waking up early. Learn more about B • SYNC ON here.
Identifying disorders and seeking medical advice
If you are struggling consistently with waking up on time and feeling as if you are getting adequate rest from sleep, despite a healthy routine, then it is possible you are suffering from a medical disorder that inhibits the natural sleep process. It is important to differentiate between sleep problems that require clinical attention and normal sleep disrupted by factors we can control.
Circadian rhythm disorders17 are a group of sleep disorders that affect the timing of waking and sleeping. Other disorders, like sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome and narcolepsy, all affect sleep and can be profoundly debilitating without clinical intervention.
If you suspect you are suffering from a sleep disorder, then you should try and record your sleep trends, either by keeping a sleep diary or by using wearable technology (for example, a fitness tracker that records sleep patterns). You should also aim to speak to a healthcare professional as soon as you can.
Building and optimising your sleep routines
There are many factors that influence sleep.18 Taking control of these factors is what is needed to change when we sleep and wake up, and most of us can control these factors to a significant degree.
In order to wake up early, we must adjust our natural waking process to bring it in line with external demands. Doing this involves changing habits around every part of the sleep process, including improving sleep hygiene and adjusting the external cues that signal to the body that it is time to wake up. These changes, supplemented with the latest tools and technologies, can be used by most people to meet their sleep goals.
If you’re struggling to wake up in the morning, learn more about how B • SYNC ON could help, here.