How to wake up in the morning feeling great

From dawn simulators to a regular wakeup time, here are 16 ways to start the day well

Do you wake up to the sound of birdsong or an electronic ringtone? Perhaps you use a dawn simulator or an app that won’t stop beeping until you have walked at least 100 paces. It is increasingly unlikely that you groggily grope for the stop button on a traditional alarm clock. Instead, many people are relying on phone alarms or dawn simulators, which claim to more gently rouse you from slumber. Now the clocks have gone back and the days are shortening, it may seem harder than ever to get out of bed. So, what is the best way to wake up?

Is it a good idea to use your mobile phone as an alarm clock?

There is nothing wrong with using your phone alarm – unless its other functions are interfering with your sleep. Several studies have indicated that greater phone use, particularly in the run-up to bedtime, results in worse quality sleep. The main reason is the light from screens altering the timing of the brain's master clock, a cluster of cells that dictates the timing of all the other biological clocks in the body. Exposure to bright or blue-enriched light at night shifts its timing later, which means we feel tired later and our bodies are still in sleep mode when it is time to get up in the morning. Light also has a direct alerting effect on the brain, which makes it harder to fall asleep. If you do sleep with your phone, set it to night mode to filter out blue light and adjust the brightness setting to dim. Nick Littlehales, an elite sports sleep coach and the author of the book Sleep, says you should also switch it to silent and rest it on a soft surface to dampen any vibrations from incoming alerts.

Isn’t it better to wake up according to your body’s natural rhythms?

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need alarm clocks; we would simply go to bed when we felt tired and sleep until we were ready to wake up. However, the ubiquity of artificial light after dusk means that relying on when we feel sleepy to dictate our bedtimes isn’t very helpful. Our natural sleep rhythm has shifted later, yet most of us must wake up at a prescribed time to go to work or school, meaning our sleep is cut short. It also means that we often wake up when our bodies think it is still night-time, which increases feelings of “sleep inertia” – the grogginess you experience immediately upon waking. US researchers showed that when people were sent on a camping trip and denied access to their electronic gadgets, their circadian rhythms shifted about two hours earlier, which meant they felt sleepier earlier and got more sleep.

So, is it better to get up early or late?

That depends on your chronotype – your natural sleep-timing preference – which is hardwired in your genes. "It is not a choice and it is very difficult to change," says Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Why We Sleep. Some people are larks and predisposed to wake up early, others are late types who naturally sleep in; most of us lie somewhere in between. However, even night owls can become a little more lark-like if they reduce their exposure to light at night and seek out bright light from the moment they wake up, which pushes the master clock earlier. These innate sleep preferences also vary with age. Teenagers' sleep timing typically shifts about two hours later, while as we get older, we become progressively more lark-like. More important than when you prefer to get up is consistency in the timing of your sleep. If you go to bed and wake up later at weekends, you are effectively giving yourself jet lag – and when your alarm clock wakes you at 7am on Monday, your body will still think it's night-time. "The most important advice I can give people who are struggling with sleep, or want to get good-quality sleep, is to keep it regular," says Walker.


Is it possible to train yourself to get up at a certain time without an alarm clock?

Yes, provided you go to sleep at about the same time every night and wake at the same time each morning, says Lisa Artis, an adviser for the Sleep Council in the UK. “Your internal body clock will strengthen and you will start to wake naturally at a time that suits you. However, if not setting an alarm is going to make you anxious about sleeping in and missing a train or an important meeting, you should set the alarm,” she adds. “Otherwise, you will spend most of your time in bed worrying you won’t get enough sleep.”

Does it matter what sound you wake up to?

Much of this research has been in the context of emergency situations, such as waking from house fires. A study published last week found that children were three times more likely to wake up if they heard their mother’s voice compared with a high-pitched smoke alarm, and they also woke up faster. “Human beings are conditioned to hear voices; they’re not conditioned to hear beeps,” says Niamh Nic Daéid, a forensic scientist at the University of Dundee. Her own research suggests that just 20 per cent of children wake up in response to conventional smoke alarms – but when her team created an alarm that combined intermittent beeping with a female voice, this increased to 80-90 per cent. Research in adults also suggests that multi-pitched alarms and female voices are more likely to rouse you than a high-pitched alarm.

Should I hit the snooze button?

Tempting as it may be to set your alarm a bit early so you can enjoy dozing in bed, there are good reasons why this is a bad idea. For one thing, “interrupted sleep is not good-quality sleep”, says Walker. The impact on your heart is another. Although setting an alarm may be necessary – and even a good thing, if it encourages regularity in the timing of your sleep – if you are repeatedly exposed to it, “you are literally alarming your heart”, he says. “Set the alarm for when you need to get up, then turn it off and get up.”

Do light-emitting clocks work?

Dawn simulators are often marketed as a gentler way to wake up, the idea being that gradual exposure to light may cause gentle stirring, which means we experience less sleep inertia when we wake. There is little direct evidence for this, but several studies have found improvements in people's subjective alertness after being woken this way. In one such study, Dutch researchers compared people's responses to being woken by a dawn simulator with a light being switched on at the same time as an alarm going off. "We saw that there was a faster reduction of sleepiness if people had this gradual increase in light prior to waking up," says Marijke Gordijn at the University of Groningen. A study by Swiss researchers found that dawn simulation left people feeling and performing better all day. Exposure to light during the daytime may also improve the quality of your sleep. In a different study, Gordijn and her colleagues discovered that people who were exposed to more daylight had less fragmented and deeper sleep that night and reported feeling less sleepy the next morning.

Does that mean blackout blinds interfere with our sleep patterns?

If you have trouble waking up in the mornings, having some light coming in through the windows may help. On the other hand, particularly in summer when it is light before 5am, this night-time light exposure can result in disturbed sleep. "It really is a balance between having the blinds drawn so one gets good sleep, versus getting light as soon as one wakes up," says Nayantara Santhi, a circadian biologist at the Surrey sleep research centre at the University of Surrey in Guildford. If you do use blackout blinds or curtains, Santhi suggests opening them as soon as you get out of bed. Another option is to combine blackout blinds with a dawn-simulating clock.

Should I try an app that requires me to walk a certain number of steps or solve a puzzle before the alarm stops ringing?

If you really need that kind of a motivation to get out of bed, it suggests you’re suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. Walker says: “Most people – as long as they are sleeping in synchrony with their body rhythms and getting sufficient sleep – should be able to wake up for the most part naturally, and require very little nudging. A normal alarm should do it.”

If you wake up early feeling alert, should you just get up?

It depends how early it is. If it is 3am, you should do your best to get back to sleep because if you don’t, you’re likely to feel tired and irritable later. However, if you wake up at 6am raring to go, then getting up may be the better option – provided you have already had a decent amount of sleep (at least seven hours is recommended for adults). “If we wake naturally from a [90-minute] sleep cycle, we will feel more alert than if we wait for our alarm to disrupt us mid-sleep cycle, which leads us to feel groggy,” says Artis. If you are regularly waking in the middle of the night, though, it might be worth investigating why. “If it’s light, try using blackout blinds and heavier lined curtains to block out light. If it’s noise, use earplugs,” Artis suggests.

Is there an easy way to get back to sleep if you are woken up early?

Whatever you do, try to avoid turning on the lights. Bright light is a stimulant, like caffeine, so it will make it harder for you to fall back to sleep. And it will shift the timing of your circadian clocks, which could interfere with your sleep the next night – as well as making your other body systems work less efficiently. If a child has woken you and they need soothing, “try to do it in the dark or, if needs be, use a very dim light”, says Artis. Avoid looking at a clock. “Watching the sleepless minutes pass makes it harder to fall back to sleep, so turn the clock face so you can’t see it. And if your mind starts racing, try doing some simple relaxation or breathing exercises in bed,” she adds.

Is there a good way to wake up without disturbing a partner?

Sleeping with your partner can help to reduce stress and encourage feelings of security, but there is a downside: studies have suggested that, on average, couples suffer 50 per cent more sleep disturbances if they share a bed. It can be particularly difficult if individuals have markedly different chronotypes, or one partner snores. Besides earplugs, “you could try sleeping in separate rooms, or getting a bigger bed”, says Littlehales. “Separate duvets may also help.”

What is the best way to prepare for a late night or a night shift?

A strategic nap in the afternoon is a good strategy. "By taking a nap, you reduce the hours of continuous wakefulness, which is one of the two main processes that contribute to sleepiness, the other being the circadian rhythm," says Cassie Hilditch at the fatigue countermeasures laboratory at the Nasa Ames Research Institute in California. "Napping in the afternoon is recommended over napping in the evening, as the evening tends to be when we are most alert. In the afternoon, however, you can take advantage of the body's natural dip in alertness, which makes it easier to nap." Caffeine can also be strategically deployed to boost alertness – but only use as needed, to avoid building up a tolerance to it. And it should be avoided towards the end of the night shift, as "it has a long half-life so could interfere with recovery sleep the next day", Hilditch adds.

Does certain bedding or nightwear guarantee a better start to the morning?

“There are lots of claims about how certain bedding and pyjamas can help sleep but, honestly, I don’t think there is sufficient enough evidence to say if they do or don’t, so I would say it’s down to personal preference,” says Artis. You don’t want to be too hot or too cold, because both can affect the quality of your sleep.

Does the temperature of my house affect my ability to wake up?

It can certainly affect how easy it is to fall asleep in the evening – a room temperature of 16C-17C is considered ideal. “Your body temperature needs to drop to initiate and then maintain sleep,” says Walker. This is why bed socks or a hot-water bottle by your feet can help you to fall asleep: they cause the blood vessels in your skin to open up and shed heat. The opposite seems to be true for waking up, however. Body temperature reaches its nadir during the early hours of the morning, then rises progressively throughout the day. Several studies suggest that the reduction in sleepiness we experience after we wake up is mirrored by a transfer of heat from the extremities to the core. There is no research into whether stepping on to a cold floor increases the transition to wakefulness, but there is reason to think it might. “If you lower your skin temperature, it may help to wake you up,” says Gordijn. You don’t want your house to be too cold in the mornings, however, as your body is now trying to raise its temperature. Setting the thermostat to come on shortly before waking may aid this, says Walker; it may also help explain why people crave a warm drink in the morning.

So, a morning coffee is a good idea?

“There is nothing inherently wrong with needing a good cup of coffee in the morning,” says Artis. “But what you have to ask yourself is: why do you need it to feel awake and alert?” If you are only able to function with a shot of coffee inside you, the chances are you’re not sleeping properly, so you should try and examine why that is. “If you need caffeine to function before 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning, you are probably self-medicating a state of sleep deprivation,” Walker adds. – Guardian