How To Wake Up Early Without Losing Sleep

We’re not telling you to wake up at 4 a.m. to start your day. However, here are a few things you can do to get up just a bit earlier.

A sun cresting over the hills stretching its arms

A push to wake up earlier can seem like a capitalist scheme to shame late-sleepers into thinking there’s something wrong with them. If you’ve ever seen those lists of people who wake up at 4:30 a.m. to do things that seem more appropriate for daylight hours, you know what we mean. Comparisons like these can feel like we’re not being productive enough. 

Western society tends to glorify hustle culture, and social media trends, including “that girl” and hashtag “girlboss,” may have made their way back onto your For You page.

The reality is that people on platforms like TikTok are sharing the best version of themselves. (Although others are sharing more realistic mornings.)

You don’t have to wake up earlier to be “productive” or feel “empowered,” although there are times when you might want to work out, read, meditate, or just have a less hectic morning. 

If you want to wake up a bit earlier for whatever reason — not because you feel judged by society for hitting the snooze button one too many times — here are a few tips that might help.

Prioritize sleep if you can

Waking up early can be tough —  especially when it’s hard to prioritize sleep due to work schedules, childcare, lifestyle choices, or sleep disorders or disruptions. 

When trying to get up earlier, the goal is to still get the same amount or more sleep — not short change yourself just to get stuff done. 

Not getting enough sleep can cause exhaustion and sleep deprivation, which are dangerous in their own right. Inadequate sleep and shift work have been linked to a greater risk of accidents, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. 

Of course, getting an adequate amount of sleep can be a privilege and sometimes not within your power to control, especially if you are a caregiver, student, or working multiple jobs.

It’s also important to know that although sleep is a necessity, there are racial and ethnic disparities when it comes to sleep health and disorders. BIPOC are more likely to experience shorter sleep duration, less deep sleep, inconsistent sleep timing, and lower sleep continuity. 

According to a 2022 JAMA Network study on racial and ethnic disparities in sleep duration, having a healthy relationship with sleep is more difficult for people who face systematic racism. They are more likely to face income inequality, racial segregation, limited access to health services and resources, and exposure to social and environmental factors such as light, noise, and air pollution. 

Keeping that in mind, you should assess your lifestyle and see if you can make changes that still prioritize sleep but do allow you to get up earlier. 

According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep per night. But in reality, people have different sleep needs, depending on overall health, sleeping patterns, and daily activities. 

If waking up early or adding morning habits into your routine is one of your life goals, changes don’t have to be drastic. Overall, make sure you do what’s best for your body. 

The mental health effects 

Waking up earlier in the morning may have some benefits, including a possible impact on your mental health. 

“Research has shown that individuals that wake earlier experience lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, especially when rising early is coupled with spending that extra time in the morning engaged in meaningful tasks and activities,” Long said.

In one 2021 study of 840,000 people published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers found that people with a genetic tendency to wake up earlier — known as an early chronotype — were less likely to have depression than those with other chronotypes.

Of course, there are many factors that contribute to depression, and it’s not clear if trying to change your natural habits can help alter your mood. However, the authors note that a clinical trial conducted in 2019 found that extreme “night owls” (people who stayed up late and tended to sleep in) had a reduction in depression and stress during the study when they shifted their sleep cycle up by two hours. 

How to prep the night before for new morning habits:

How you feel in the morning — including alertness and productivity — has a lot to do with sleep quality. By implementing better habits and hygiene at night, you can have better mornings. 

Optimize your environment: Light exposure during sleep can reduce sleep quality; suppress levels of melatonin, the hormone the brain produces that helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms; and activate the sympathetic nervous system. 

The Sleep Foundation indicates that having low levels of light and closing your eyes isn’t enough. Since light plays a role in the body’s circadian rhythm, sleeping in pitch darkness can avoid sleep disruptions, such as waking up. 

However, not everyone has access to a private, quiet, and dark space. Instead, using an eye mask can block out light and has been shown to improve sleep quality and alertness the next day. Additionally, blackout curtains, or light-blocking curtains, can be used to prevent light from entering the room, including sunlight in the early morning, depending on your wakeup schedule. 

Other bedroom hygiene practices include using air purifiers to improve air quality, comfortable bedding, the right pillow, and white noise machines to block out distracting sounds. 

It’s also a good idea to check with a healthcare professional to address insomnia, sleep apnea (a disorder where the throat relaxes too much at night and the most common symptom is snoring), or any other health condition that may be interfering with your ability to get a good night’s sleep.

Cut down screentime before bed: Dr. Anya Malcolm-Gibbs, a clinical psychologist based in Virginia, told BuzzFeed News that screentime can affect sleeping patterns, including circadian rhythms. 

“I would encourage sleep hygiene in order to get to bed early to wake up earlier. This may mean cutting off electronics (blue lights) around 8:30 p.m. to begin winding down,” Malcolm-Gibbs said. “Avoid turning to your electronics such as your cellphone, which could potentially disrupt your sleep cycle and prevent you from falling back asleep. Your circadian rhythm is regulated as you rise with the sun, which has been proven to improve your mood, and make you feel alert and focused. Remember, early to bed, early to rise!” 

Using electronic devices, specifically ones that emit blue light before sleep, can result in sleep loss, irregular sleep patterns, and poor sleep quality. Blue light — which comes from any screen — stimulates your brain and can suppress the amount of melatonin produced in the body. 

Additionally, the content you see can stimulate your brain.  

Limit caffeine and large meals late in the day: The body’s circadian rhythm can be delayed as a result of caffeine, including coffee and energy drinks. Consuming caffeine within six hours of bedtime can result in one hour of reduced sleep. In general, caffeine affects sleep by reducing sleep time and worsening its quality. Additionally, caffeine consumption can lead to increased worrying at night, difficulty falling asleep, increased awakenings at night, and daytime sleepiness. 

The cycle of caffeine intake can be hard to break — when you’re tired, you might drink more caffeine during the day to increase alertness. 

In addition to caffeine, be wary of what you eat before bedtime and what time you eat. According to a study published in the journal Appetite, people should try to limit protein, fat, and carbohydrates in the evening (after 8 p.m.) or at least four hours before bedtime. Eating large meals before bed can lead to digestive issues, acid reflux, and heartburn — all of which affect sleep quality. 

Alcohol is also notorious for disrupting sleep — a drink before bed may seem like it helps you to sleep, but research suggests it interferes with sleep quality and may lead to early waking (as in, too early.)

Be consistent: Maintaining the body’s internal clock, or a healthy circadian rhythm, means waking up and getting to sleep at the same time every day. 

Amanda Long, a clinical psychologist based in Illinois, tells BuzzFeed News that adjusting your schedule, even by sleeping and waking up 15 to 20 minutes earlier, can help maintain a consistent schedule. 

“One tip that I would suggest is rearranging your sleep schedule in order to still get the recommended amount of sleep per night,” Long said. “Sufficient sleep is essential in providing the energy needed to effectively manage stress and regulate emotions. Practicing good sleep hygiene habits can also help you shift your sleep schedule in a healthy manner.”

When the circadian rhythm is disrupted by not getting enough sleep or sleeping during the day, physical and mental issues can occur. To avoid disruptions, calculate your bedtime and wake-up time by counting the amount of hours you need to sleep. 

“Those who wake up earlier have a better quality of sleep, because as a result of waking up earlier, they are more prone to falling asleep earlier,” Long said. “This helps to promote improved mood and concentration, along with lowering the chances of other chronic diseases. Sufficient sleep is essential in providing the energy needed to effectively manage stress and regulate emotions.”

Find a reason to get out of bed in the morning: Waking up in the morning and not returning to bed can be the hardest step. Sleep inertia, or the state between sleep and wake, can impair performance and makes us want to return to sleep. To fight sleepiness, it’s helpful to have something to look forward to in the mornings. 

“This could consist of having a healthy meal in mind, playing your favorite song, meditating, or saying words of affirmation to get your day started on the right foot,” Long said. “The right routine can make waking up early seem less daunting.” 

Consider trying melatonin to reset your body clock: Melatonin, which is available as a prescription in some countries or as an over-the-counter supplement in the US, is not that useful to treat insomnia (at least in people under 65) or other chronic problems. 

However, supplements are safe for short-term use to relieve temporary sleep issues related to jet lag, shift work, or being a “night owl,” according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Your body naturally produces melatonin at levels close to a 0.3-mg dose, and supplements are available in 1 to 10 mg doses. 

The length of time someone should take melatonin can vary based on their specific needs, according to Malcolm-Gibbs. “In my experience, it is usually recommended for short-term relief of insomnia, usually up to 4 weeks,” she said. “If symptoms persist, persons should consult a healthcare professional to assess underlying conditions including mental health difficulties.”

You generally take melatonin 30 minutes to two hours before you want to go to sleep, at the smallest effective amount. Many studies of melatonin use a 2 to 5 mg dose. More is not necessarily better, and it's possible that a low dose is better than a high one, according to AASM. (Keep in mind that the listed dose of melatonin often doesn't match what's actually in the supplement, according to a 2017 analysis of 31 brands.)

“I actually would not feel comfortable recommending a dosage or specific instructions around taking melatonin, because it can affect users differently,” Long said. “I would encourage consulting with a healthcare provider to determine if melatonin is the right option for a sleep aid.”

Although considered safe, melatonin can have side effects and interact with other medications in a way that’s unsafe

Short-term side effects of melatonin include daytime drowsiness, headaches, and dizziness, and it's not recommended for young children. (Make sure to keep melatonin locked away like any medication because it’s been linked to overdoses and deaths in children.) 

Get some sun, or mimic natural lighting, as soon as possible: Just as light affects circadian rhythms at night, bright light in the morning shortly after waking upcan make you feel more alert: “There are light simulation gadgets that will mimic natural light and brighten gradually, which can be extremely helpful during those dark winter months,” Long said. “As a result of the sunlight, our bodies will naturally stop producing melatonin — a hormone that plays a role in our sleep wake cycle, prompting you to wake up. This method can feel more natural than using an alarm clock, while allowing you to wake up in a more relaxed state.”

Light therapy lamps are used to improve mood for people with seasonal affective disorder, but they can also replace that sun exposure as soon as you wake up — making it easier to stay awake. Additionally, sunrise alarm clocks can be set to specific times to mimic sunlight in the morning. 

If you can’t afford a sunrise alarm clock or light therapy box, make sure you flip on your regular lamp or other light sources to make sure you don’t slip back into a slumber.

“Besides using an alarm clock or smart device with a light alarm feature that simulates a natural sunrise, I believe that waking up early is hugely dependent on what time you go to sleep and the quality of that sleep,” Malcolm-Gibbs said. “A person has to go to bed early and have a good night's rest in order to wake up early. If the [tips] are followed, it can allow a person to reset their body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, to align better with their desired wake-up time.” ●

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