Healthy Mind

How To Make Waking Up in the Dark Suck Less, According to Sleep Doctors

Erica Sloan

Getty Images/David Prado
There’s nothing quite like the darkness of a fall or winter morning to make hoisting yourself out of bed in time for work feel like a feat. Even if you’re technically rising after the sun, the dimness of winter’s short days can make getting up tough because of the way our circadian rhythm (aka the body's 24-hour sleep-wake cycle) aligns with light. In fact, that connection to light is why several of the best strategies for how to wake up when it’s still dark outside revolve around boosting your light exposure in the morning and daytime, and then minimizing it at night.

Time of year aside, we’re biologically programmed to wake up when the sun goes up and to go to bed when it goes down, says psychologist and sleep specialist Shelby Harris, PsyD, author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. That happens by way of sunlight suppressing our natural production of melatonin (aka the sleep-promoting hormone) in the morning, and darkness ramping it up at night.

"The decrease of sunshine throughout the day during cold months causes the body to naturally produce more melatonin than usual." —neurologist W. Chris Winter, MD

But in the winter, when it’s likely totally dark or at least mostly dim when your alarm blares, you’ve lost that strong wake-up cue that the sun provides, and you’re essentially battling biology to switch your brain into alertness mode. Not to mention, the overall decrease of sunshine throughout the day during cold months causes the body to naturally produce more melatonin than usual, keeping you groggier longer, says neurologist W. Chris Winter, MD, sleep advisor for Sleep.com and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It.

And it doesn’t stop there: When you’re extra sleepy throughout the day, falling asleep at night can be more challenging because you're not getting the typical fluctuations in cortisol and melatonin production that mark a balanced circadian rhythm. And, as vicious cycles go, if you have trouble falling asleep, that often results in less total sleep, which just makes it even more difficult to wake up the next morning, no matter how light or dark it may be.

To that end, your most effective strategy for waking up more easily when it’s still dark begins the evening beforehand, by doubling down on sleep hygiene: “Try to avoid alcohol and exercise within three hours of going to bed and caffeine within eight hours of going to bed, and limit blue light for about an hour beforehand, too,” says Dr. Harris. These tactics may help you drift off more seamlessly—and, again, that brings on more good-quality sleep, which can set you up well to combat all those forces of nature that make waking up in the dark so tough.

Beyond ensuring you get a full night’s sleep, however, there are a few steps you can take to wake up more easily in darkness.

Read on for 5 tips from sleep doctors to make waking up in the dark less of a struggle

1. Stick to a clear sleep schedule.

The circadian rhythm thrives on, well, rhythm. Keeping consistent sleep and wake-up times creates a baseline pattern that your body will eventually get used to, even if that pattern goes against the body’s natural inclination to rise with the sun. “Once you’re on a schedule, you’ll have an easier time waking up, regardless of the weather, temperature, or lightness outside,” says Dr. Winter.

2. Up your vitamin D intake.

In cooler months, people tend to fall short on the daily requirement of vitamin D, since one of the main sources of it is sun exposure. And studies have shown that lacking vitamin D is linked with poor sleep quality—which will only magnify the struggle of waking up in darkness. To counteract that effect, Dr. Winter suggests eating more of the few foods that are rich in vitamin D, like salmon and eggs, or taking a supplement.

3. Use a sunrise alarm clock.

While you might not have the benefit of a real sunrise timed to your awakening in winter, you can certainly allow technology to spring to your defense: A handful of sunrise alarm clocks on the market, like the Casper Glow Light and the Hatch Restore, mimic the real deal, casting a warm glow over your bedroom that turns to a bright white light at your set wake-up time.

These wake-up lights can have a similar effect to real light on your circadian rhythm, prompting your body to cool it with the melatonin production, and, in turn, allowing for more of the alertness-boosting hormone cortisol to flood your system. According to a small 2014 study, in fact, using a sunrise alarm clock that starts lighting up your space 30 minutes before your designated wake-up time may shorten sleep inertia (which is the period of grogginess you feel immediately post-awakening) and usher you toward full wakefulness more speedily.

4. Incorporate a great scent into your morning routine.

If you’re a fan of bacon and you’ve ever woken up to the smell of it sizzling, you know the power of a good aroma to rouse even the snooziest of people from bed. Short of having someone prepare your favorite morning food or drink in the moments before you open your eyes, though, you might consider investing in a coffee maker or even a bread machine with a timer you can set to go off just before you need to get out of bed, says Dr. Winter.

Or, if you’re looking for a certain smell in particular, consider an olfactory alarm clock—because, yes, they make those. This one from Sharper Image has cartridges that release the scents of things like banana, peach, and cappuccino, so you can change your awakening smell with your mood.

5. Do some aerobic activity indoors.

Once you manage to get out of bed, the best shot you have of waking yourself up—no matter how dark it may be outside—is to get moving. “Working out indoors can allow you to stay warm and cozy, while giving yourself the extra boost of energy needed to start your day,” says Dr. Winter.

Like light, physical exercise also has the power to help regulate the hormones linked to your circadian rhythm, especially if you’re doing it at the same time each day, he adds. Not to mention, it can also spark the release of feel-good endorphins that’ll help keep any of those “woke up on the wrong side of bed” feelings at bay.

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