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This article has been written by experts and fact-checked by experts, including licensed nutritionists, dietitians or medical professionals. The information in the article is based on scientific studies and research.
It is designed to be honest, unbiased and objective, and opinions from both sides of an argument are presented wherever there is disagreement.
The scientific references in this article (marked by 1, 2, 3, etc.) are clickable links to peer-reviewed research material on the subject being discussed.
Waking up early may seem impossible to you, but lots of people do it every day.
Many surgeons start operating at 6 am. Morning TV anchors are on the air at 5 am or even earlier.
How in the world do people deal with such an early wake-up time?
There are many reasons why getting up early can be a problem. Some are lifestyle-related, and others have to do with the way the body works.
The good news is that even night owls can wake up early if they have to. Here’s how to do it.
If you regularly have difficulty forcing yourself out of bed and shaking off the cobwebs, you’re not alone – and it’s not because you’re lazy. It’s because of biology.
We’ll discuss that in more detail, after a quick look at some of the less-common problems that can make it impossible to get up in the morning.
Some people have difficulty waking up because of medical or mental health conditions that affect sleep quality.
They include acid reflux, sleep apnea (the middle of the night breathing problems that can be controlled with CPAP machines), chronic pain, stress and anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders like sleepwalking and night terrors. Some medications can also interfere with good sleep.
Other possible reasons that people can’t stop “hitting snooze”: sleep deprivation, which is a fancy way of saying that someone doesn’t get enough sleep, and sleep deficiency, which means the person doesn’t get enough quality sleep.
Medical or mental health causes that are causing sleep problems should be discussed with a healthcare professional. They may have suggestions that will help.
You may also need to see a sleep medicine specialist, who will conduct a sleep study to determine if medical issues are interfering with your sleep. That specialist is also the right person to see for treatment of sleep deficiency.
Stress relief strategies often help with sleep deprivation. They include exercise, meditation/mindfulness, or a schedule adjustment that prioritizes more sleep each night.
Now, let’s get to the biological reasons why most of us find it difficult to wake up early.
Ads often show people leaping out of bed in the morning after a good night’s sleep, eager to get a fresh start on a new day.
Those ads are largely fantasy. A new mattress or pillow can’t overcome the body’s natural sleep inertia, which occurs between sleep and wakefulness.
Sleep inertia is what causes the grogginess that you feel when you wake up. It happens because some of sleep’s effects linger even after you awaken.
Research has found that sleep inertia can last as long as several hours, and it’s hardest to shake off after a full night’s sleep. The issue is common among adults but even more common among adolescents; one study found that 91% of teens reported problems waking up in the morning.
The effects of sleep inertia are even worse among those who have serious sleep disorders. They’re said to suffer from what’s called “sleep drunkenness.”
Why don’t we fully wake up when we open our eyes? It’s because of a chemical called adenosine. Read on.
You don’t feel sleepy simply because it’s getting late.
You feel sleepy because of the two body processes that control sleep.
The first is commonly called the sleep/wake cycle, but it’s known to science as sleep/wake homeostasis.
Homeostasis means that two elements are in equilibrium. In this case, it refers to the balance between our sleep drive – the “need” for sleep – and our desire to stay awake. When we get tired, our body is falling out of sleep/wake homeostasis. Sleep restores that balance, easing our sleep drive and allowing us to wake up naturally.
That brings us to adenosine, the chemical we mentioned earlier. The body produces adenosine throughout the day, and it plays an important role in many metabolic functions. Here’s what’s important for this discussion, though: adenosine slows down the activity of nerve cell activity in the brain, making us feel tired.
Since adenosine is being produced all day, its levels in the body continue to rise the longer we’re awake. That causes our wake/sleep homeostasis to become unbalanced – and we get tired and fall asleep. Adenosine production slows dramatically while we sleep, restoring homeostasis.
There’s more to the story, though. Another body process is also intimately involved in the sleep cycle.
The second body process that controls sleep is the circadian biological clock, more commonly known as circadian rhythm.
There’s a “24-hour clock” in a part of the brain (known as the Suprachiasmatic Nuclei, or SCN), and it responds to light and dark.
When the sun comes up, the SCN goes to work. It triggers a rise in body temperature, the production of adenosine, and the release of hormones like cortisol that make us more alert and wake us up.
When it becomes dark, the SCN lowers body temperature and triggers melatonin production; melatonin is a hormone that helps us sleep. Early the next morning, sunlight causes melatonin levels to drop, making it easier to awaken.
In that way, the body’s natural circadian rhythm regulates sleep/wake homeostasis.
Unfortunately, you can’t do much to change your body’s internal clock; its operation is based on when the sun rises and falls where you live. That’s why we experience jet lag when traveling long distances, and it’s why people who work odd hours are likely to experience sleep difficulties. The body always operates on its normal circadian rhythm.
Here’s the good news, though: it is possible to alter your sleep drive. And that’s the key to being able to wake up early without feeling zonked.
Let’s be clear: no strategies are likely to turn a night owl into someone who loves getting up in the morning.
However, a few smaller changes can make it easier to wake up in the morning each day.
We were tempted to make this strategy #1, #2, and #3 on our list.
When it comes to sleep, the best gift you can give yourself is resetting your sleep schedule and rigorously sticking to it.
The first step is determining how many hours of sleep you need each night.
Once you know how much shut-eye you really need, you’re halfway home.
Now determine the time that you need to wake up, and figure out what time you’ll need to go to bed to get your optimal amount of sleep. Make that your new bedtime, and you should be able to wake up early each day going forward.
Don’t get frustrated; you can’t change your sleep habits immediately. But if you maintain the new schedule consistently, your sleep drive will adjust and you’ll be waking up earlier as a matter of course. You’re likely to have better sleep, too.
One final note: it’s human nature to want to sleep in on the weekend, but that could endanger your ability to wake up early when Monday rolls around. Don’t deviate from your new sleep routine by more than a couple of hours, and you’ll be good to go.
Your activity shortly before bed may be making it more difficult for you to fall asleep, and it may also be hurting the quality of your sleep. Both issues will make it harder to wake up in the morning.
Here are some changes to consider:
If all you have to look forward to when you get up is going to work or school, that could be a “good reason” to stay in bed.
Develop a pleasant morning routine that will get you excited about waking up. It could be having a cup of coffee while streaming an episode of your favorite show, enjoying one of your favorite breakfasts, or anything else that will provide an incentive to wake up on time.
While we’re talking about waking up on the right side of the bed, open the curtains as soon as you get up. Not only will bright light reinforce the circadian rhythm messages being sent by the brain’s SCN, but it will also help the body overcome sleep inertia and get your day off to a good start. Even better: have your coffee and breakfast outdoors in the sun.
Eating properly and getting regular exercise will keep your metabolism running smoothly, giving you higher energy levels during the day. That ensures your sleep drive will only kick in during the evening, allowing you to get a better night’s sleep.
We’ve mentioned that the body’s circadian rhythm triggers the release of the hormone melatonin at night. Melatonin doesn’t act as a sedative, but it does make sleep easier.
Most people’s bodies produce enough melatonin to promote restful sleep, but there are times when additional amounts can be helpful. Melatonin is available as a dietary supplement that’s safe for short-term use, isn’t addictive, and doesn’t produce hangovers.
Melatonin supplements are most commonly suggested for people who are suffering from jet lag or a sleep disorder known as “delayed sleep phase.” However, it’s often effective when used to combat insomnia as well. The usual dosage is 1-3 milligrams two hours before bedtime.
You’ll know within a week or so if it improves the poor-quality sleep that can make it difficult to wake up early.
If you try these approaches and still find yourself unable to force yourself to wake up in the morning, try this: move your alarm clock or phone far enough away so you have to physically get out of bed to shut it off.
It’s a last-ditch solution – but if you can’t find any other way to wake up early in the morning, it should do the trick.
Published: April 26, 2022
Last Updated: August 8, 2022
8 Min read
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