Instead of starting every day with a morning routine and open mind that productively preps you for what's ahead, on the days when you wake up before your alarm, you're likely not thrilled. According to sleep doctors, waking up before your alarm clock on a regular basis could be due to a number of conditions. Below, learn what your body may be trying to tell you.
- Jade Wu, PhD, board-certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist, sleep advisor at Mattress Firm, and author of Hello Sleep
- Janet Kennedy, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of NYC Sleep Doctor
- Vishesh K. Kapur, MD, MPH, board certified sleep medicine physician, director of sleep medicine for the division of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at UW Medicine, and founder of the UW Medicine Sleep Center
Read on for some possible reasons you’re beating your alarm to rise out of bed. Then, get expert guidance on how to fall back asleep after waking up before you want.
6 reasons you could be waking up earlier than your alarm, according to sleep experts
1. You’re getting enough sleep
If you’re waking up mere minutes before your alarm, this could mean your wake time is aligned with your natural circadian rhythm. This best-case scenario of simply having gotten enough sleep may be the case if you wake up feeling well-rested.
Waking up much earlier than an alarm could mean you’re simply trying to sleep for longer than what you need. Throughout the day, the need for sleep builds; the homeostatic sleep drive, which regulates the need for sleep, accumulates as you go about the day; it’s highest before you fall asleep, and lowest after you wake up after a night of rest. “It’s possible that you’re waking up earlier because you’ve fulfilled your sleep need,” says Vishesh K. Kapur, MD, a board certified sleep medicine physician who is founder and director of the UW Medicine Sleep Center and Director of Sleep Medicine for the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine. In this case, it could be worth trying to shift your routine to go to bed and wake up earlier to hit that sweet spot.
That said, he caveats this is likely only plausible for folks who regularly get at least seven hours in bed, given that adults generally need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. (And, he adds, “that’s unusual in our society because most people are not giving themselves enough time in bed.”)
2. Sleep disorders, like sleep apnea and insomnia
Earlier-than-ideal rising could also be an effect of a sleep disorder. One possibility is early-awakening insomnia, which, according to sleep psychologist Jade Wu, PhD, sleep advisor for Mattress Firm, is one of the tougher forms to treat. In this case, “people want or need to sleep more, but something is waking them up early, and they’re having trouble getting back to sleep before their night is really done,” she says.
According to Dr. Kapur, the breathing pauses that come with obstructive sleep apnea, could also be the culprit of waking up earlier than you want. If you suspect you may be dealing with a sleep disorder, it's best to see the care of a trained professional.
3. Mood issues like depression, anxiety, and stress
Mood disorders, which encompass depression, anxiety, and stress, can be at play here, too. Disturbed sleep and depression are especially closely linked. “Waking up too early in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep is kind of a classic presentation for depression,” says Dr. Kapur. Certain SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), medications commonly prescribed as antidepressants, may have a negative effect on REM-stage sleep, the last stage of sleep that takes place closer to most peoples’ morning. A possible result? Waking up before your alarm.
Anxiety and stress, which affect sleep, may also lead to early rising. According to Dr. Wu and clinical psychologist and founder of the NYC Sleep Doctor Janet K. Kennedy, PhD, the sympathetic nervous system activates the body’s fight or flight response when you experience stress, which keeps you activated and ready to handle perceived threats. This is the opposite of the relaxed, soothing state that welcomes sleep. If you regularly operate in this mode during the daytime, it can carry over into the nighttime, too, making it tougher to get to sleep and stay sleeping.
4. Alcohol consumption
According to Dr. Kapur, drinking alcohol can disrupt your sleep, which may contribute to waking up earlier than your alarm. Often alcohol can lead to disturbance in the middle of the night rather than toward the end, but this varies from person to person, depending on how “your body metabolizes it,” he says.
5. Jet lag
Factors that throw off your circadian rhythm, like jet lag or sleeping late on the weekends (which is akin to giving yourself jet lag), can also contribute to this. "If your circadian rhythm is confused, then it might wake you up extra early, even when you don't need to because it thinks it's already daytime when it's not," Dr. Wu says.
"If your circadian rhythm is confused, then it might wake you up extra early, even when you don't need to because it thinks it's already daytime when it's not." —sleep psychologist Jade Wu, PhD
Aiming for a consistent bedtime when possible could be helpful.
6. Environmental factors
Environmental factors like light, sound, temperature—even the comfort of your sleep surface, Dr. Kapur says—can contribute to a pre-alarm wake time. Practicing good general sleep hygiene habits can help. To address these, he suggests keeping a sleep log and trying out different remedies to see if you’re able to sleep longer in the mornings. For example, try wearing an eye mask if light pollution is an issue. Here are some key environmental factors to consider:
Light: Light, artificial and otherwise, has a powerful effect on the circadian rhythm; keeping the room where you sleep dark signals that you should remain asleep. To create darkness, wear an eye mask or install blackout shades in your room.
Sound: Noise pollution, which may be more common in cities, can negatively affect your sleep, too. To combat this, Dr. Kapur suggests wearing ear plugs.
Temperature: Cool temps—specifically between 60°F to 67°F—are key for restful, fulfilling sleep. Like light, temperature affects the circadian rhythm. To combat overheating, opt for bedding, mattresses, and sleepwear in breathable fabrics that “prevent you from being enveloped in your own heat,” Dr. Kennedy says. Think: natural fibers like cotton, linen, and bamboo.
How to fall back asleep if you’ve woken up too early
Waking up before your alarm can be a stressful event in and of itself. When this happens, the very idea of missing out on sleep can make it harder for you to get back to bed, Dr. Kennedy says. This negative cycle can keep you from sleeping well and lead you to accumulate sleep debt.
It sounds tough, but try not to worry if this happens because stressing will make falling back asleep tougher. If you find yourself in this situation and unable to fall back asleep after a couple minutes, Dr. Kennedy suggests getting out of bed and trying to do a quiet activity to calm down, like reading a book. Go in a different room and think about a detailed memory or scenario to distract yourself, “really challenging yourself to remember details to take your mind away from the anxious thoughts that keep you awake,” she says. Avoid your phone, which emits blue light that can keep you awake. When you feel ready to sleep, try again.
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