If it’s nearly impossible to wake up feeling alert without a strong cup of coffee or sleeping in, you may look at early risers and wonder, How do they do it?
The truth is, they were most likely born that way.
“People are generally hardwired to be either night owls or morning larks,” said Josna Adusumilli, sleep medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.
It all has to do with the body’s inner clock — a 24 hour cycle, give or take — determined by genetics.
Khalid Ismail, sleep medicine physician at Tufts Medical Center, said, “Each one of us has a circadian rhythm that controls when you’re fully awake and engaged, and when you need to lie down and recharge your battery, basically.”
However, today’s technology tends to interfere with natural circadian rhythms, causing those who may have been born as morning people to lose their ability to fall asleep at a reasonable hour.
“The majority of people were morning people before electricity,” he said. “Nowadays, with modern lights on 24 hours per day in our houses, and our electronic devices — phones, laptops, iPads, TVs — there is too much stimulation that suppresses the production of melatonin, delays our sleep cycle, and makes us all not able to go to sleep until late.”
Ismail said it is important to note that most people who have trouble waking up in the morning don’t get enough sleep to begin with.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, just 10 percent of American adults prioritize sleep over other aspects of daily life, including fitness, social activities, and personal hobbies.
“We are a sleep deprived nation,” Ismail said. “The majority of US citizens are sleep deprived at all ages.”
Adjusting your work schedule to align with the hours you’re most alert is a better option than changing your sleeping habits, Adusumilli said.
“I would argue [it’s best] if you can control your schedule, to push everything later,” Adusumilli said. “I think if you have the chance to go with your natural body rhythm, you’ll feel more alert and more productive at work, and be more efficient during the day if you can start at a later time, if at all possible.”
For those sticking to the 9-to-5 lifestyle, these are the best ways to reset your inner clock:
Establish a consistent routine
Regularly sleeping for seven to eight hours per night is the best starting point, Ismail said. To ensure the best quality of sleep possible, limit exposure to light within an hour or two of bedtime and set a comfortable room temperature. Be sure to refrain from napping during the day or dozing off while watching TV in the evening, Ismail said. And if you ever wake up in the middle of the night from snoring, feeling as if you’re choking, or any bodily issues that interfere with your quality of sleep, Ismail recommends seeing a doctor.
Gradually shift your bedtime
When your body is used to a consistent amount of sleep each night, shift your bedtime back by 30 minutes every three to four days so you can wake up 30 minutes earlier with each shift, Ismail said. If you have trouble falling asleep earlier, melatonin — a hormone that brings on sleep when produced — is safe to take each night, and is available over the counter. “Just one pill before going to sleep for the first month is very safe and it will help pull the circadian rhythm backwards so that they can advance,” he said.
Limit caffeine intake after 2 p.m.
There’s a reason why you might need another cup of coffee later in the work day, and you can thank your body clock for that. “In the early afternoon, there’s a natural dip in the circadian rhythm,” Ismail said. “Right after lunch in that early afternoon period, for all of us, that is not our peak active brain time.” And while it’s tempting to get an energy boost, any caffeine after 2 p.m. may delay your bedtime. Ismail recommends having caffeine with lunch, instead of after your meal, to counteract the circadian dip without keeping you awake at night. Don’t forget that there is also caffeine in soda and in a dessert favorite, chocolate.
Expose yourself to as much light as possible upon waking up
Opening your blinds and letting sunlight in your room is a smart move when trying to wake up. “Light goes straight into the retina and helps program your circadian clock,” Adusumilli said. The more light, the better, Ismail said.
Don’t “catch up” on the weekends
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to make up for lost sleep over one weekend. “Sleep hours that you miss are like a debt you have to pay back,” Ismail said. It could take weeks to reverse sleep deprivation, and sleeping more on the weekends than weeknights will also reverse any efforts made to become an early riser. Adusumilli said, “You can’t cheat on the weekends and sleep in because that puts you back on your normal delayed circadian rhythm. It’s not going to be an easy fix.”
But for those working during normal business hours, it sure seems worth a try.
Abigail Freeman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.