What’s the best time to wake up? Start asking that question in casual conversation, and you’ll probably hear something along the lines of “As late as possible!” more than a few times.
An answer that could be interpreted as an indication of laziness is probably about something a little more nuanced. Maybe what people really mean to say is, “Whenever I feel like I got enough sleep.”
But how much is enough? No matter how tired you are, if you don’t know how much sleep your body actually needs, it can be hard to tell if you’re getting enough — and equally difficult to pinpoint the wake time that’s best for you.
In this article, we’ll explain how calculating the amount of sleep you need and working with your natural circadian rhythm are the best ways to find the bedtime and wake time that will yield your best possible daytime energy levels.
Imagine a world without alarm clocks — and the corresponding obligations of life that make them necessary: school, jobs, meetings, events, etc. You could sleep as long as you wanted and wake up naturally. Sounds dreamy, right? But a world without alarm clocks is hardly science fiction.
Before the advent of electricity (and widespread uses of timepieces), most people’s daily activities were largely dictated by the rising and setting of the sun. And although the world has changed a great deal over the past couple centuries, human biology still bears the stamp of that cycle — in the form of an internal clock that is heavily influenced by light exposure.
It’s called your circadian rhythm, and it dictates the timing of your sleep-wake cycle (and daytime energy peaks and dips) over roughly 24 hours. This internal clock sets your ideal bedtime and wake time, and being strategic about light exposure is critical in making it work for you.
Getting natural light when you wake up is one of the most important things you can do to set yourself up to have optimal energy during the day and to have an easier time falling asleep and staying asleep at night. Exposing your skin and eyes to sunlight soon after waking increases your body’s production of serotonin, a precursor to the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Roughly 12 hours later, the serotonin gets converted into melatonin to help you fall asleep.
But it's not just about the light you're exposed to first thing in the morning. When it comes to melatonin production, one of the best things you can do as your body prepares for sleep in the evening is limit your exposure to light, especially blue light.
After the sun sets, darkness is a signal to your body to ramp up its melatonin production. The phase marker for this point in your circadian rhythm is referred to by the sleep science community as your dim light melatonin onset (DLMO), which also marks the start of your Melatonin Window in the RISE app. It’s during this time that your body is secreting the most melatonin it will all night. If you miss this window — by going to bed earlier or later — you’ll have more difficulty falling and staying asleep. Likewise, if you expose your eyes to light in the hours before bed, you’ll delay or miss this window altogether, again making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
For those of us living in homes filled with artificial lights and multiple screens that emit blue light, avoiding all light at night is probably not a realistic goal. But you can try to use less light, dimmer light, or a pair of blue-light blocking glasses, which we recommend putting on at least 90 minutes before you go to bed.
How you wake up informs how you go to bed and how well you sleep — and vice versa. Your days inform your nights, and your nights inform your days. It's a constant mutually reinforcing virtuous cycle of behavior.
Understanding sleep as it relates to next-day energy doesn’t have to be complicated.You don’t have to get deep into the details of sleep cycles, sleep patterns, or sleep stages — e.g., deep sleep, REM sleep, or non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. And it can be equally counterproductive to spend time trying to judge “sleep quality” (which doesn’t have an agreed upon definition).
The only thing you need to know is how many hours of sleep you need, which isn’t a number you need to work out on your own. Sleep need varies from person to person. Each individual requires a genetically determined amount of sleep that’s right for them. The RISE app uses data from your phone, along with proprietary, sleep-science-based models to learn your unique sleep biology and calculate your sleep need in hours and minutes.
At Rise, we put a lot of emphasis on knowing and meeting your sleep need, which is why the number we track most closely in the RISE app is your sleep debt. Sleep debt is the sleep you’ve owed your body, based on your personal sleep need, over the past two weeks. The lower your sleep debt (ideally below five hours), the better you’ll feel and function.
For many of us, the whole notion of “choosing” the best time to wake up might seem strange, even as a concept. Our wake times are pretty much decided for us. Whether it’s school or a job, a child, or a dog, external commitments usually dictate our mornings and our wake times.
Most of us do, however, have much more control over when we go to bed at night. So if you’re serious about having better days, then you need to find a bedtime that allows you to get all the sleep you need. If you use the RISE app, it will calculate your sleep need for you, so you can easily find the best time to go to sleep.
If you can’t choose your wake up time — for example, because of your work schedule — you need to be diligent about your bedtime (to make sure you're meeting your sleep need), and make sure your body is primed for sleep at that time. Good sleep hygiene is the way to ensure that.
First, do your best to keep a consistent bedtime and wake time (once you’ve found what works for you to meet your sleep need). An erratic sleep schedule can throw off your circadian rhythm, which can drain you of energy and undermine the benefits of meeting your sleep need. Next, look at your routines and environment to find opportunities to optimize your sleep hygiene — which includes both daytime and nighttime habits.
You’ve calculated your sleep need and the bedtime that will help you meet it. You’re being strategic about timing your light exposure and keeping consistent morning and bedtime routines. So why are you still having such a hard time getting out of bed in the morning?
If you’re embarrassed about how many times you hit the snooze button on a typical morning, rest assured, you’re not alone. It’s normal — and part of human biology — to experience lingering sleepiness that doesn’t feel good when you first wake up. It’s called sleep inertia, and it usually lasts from 60-90 minutes as your brain transitions out of sleep. In the RISE app, we call it your “grogginess zone,” and morning exercise and light exposure can help you escape it more quickly.
It can be helpful to think of sleep inertia as less of a battle and more of a wave you can ride, with a little planning. As you schedule your days, keep your grogginess zone in mind and avoid planning important tasks that require a lot of focus or A-game level effort first thing in the morning.
If you have a big presentation at 9 a.m., aim to wake up at least 60-90 minutes prior to give yourself the time you need to perform at your best. That’s not to say your grogginess zone can’t be productive. It’s the perfect time to do less-demanding tasks, such as checking your email or writing a to-do list.
Because of work, family, or school commitments, you may not be able to choose your “best time to wake up.” But you can choose to go to bed to get the sleep you need, helping you feel as good as possible when you do wake up. The good news is, your body already knows the way. By aligning your sleep schedule with your circadian rhythm — and using a tool like the RISE app as a guide — you can work to meet your sleep need to feel and function better every day.
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