Why do we sometimes wake up early? It can be very frustrating to find yourself wide awake well before you intend to get up. Of course, some of us are naturally morning people (depending on our chronotype), but if you are bothered by your early risings, this probably isn’t you.
Note that there is no inherent benefit to being an early bird. Some people believe the early morning is the best time to be productive, but your productivity (not to mention your physical and mental health) will suffer if you are dealing with sleep deprivation.
If you’re waking up earlier than you’d like, there are a variety of reasons why this might happen. Some are related to external factors, such as environmental disturbances, while others are more internal, such as your personal circadian rhythm. We’ll explain each of these potential causes of your unintended early morning rises in detail and what you can do in these situations to avoid waking up earlier than you’d like.
Read on to learn why you may be waking up early, how to improve your sleep hygiene so you can stop waking up early and keep your sleep debt low, and how the RISE app can help you wake up at the right time for you.
Note: If you want to know how to wake up early we've also got you covered
When you wake up earlier than you intend, you’re likely not meeting your individual sleep need, which is a genetically determined trait, like height or eye color. When you don’t get the sleep you need, you accrue sleep debt, which is a tally of how much sleep you've lost out on recently. In the RISE app we calculate this over your last 14 days. Sleep debt leaves to you feeling drowsy and not functioning throughout the day the way you’d like (and precipitates an almost endless list of impacts to your health and wellbeing), which is probably why you want to stop waking up early to begin with.
Let’s start by looking at some reasons why you may be waking up earlier than you’d like and discuss possible solutions.
Your circadian rhythm is an internal clock that determines your ideal sleep and wake times, as well as your energy peaks and dips, during a roughly 24-hour period. Circadian misalignment can occur when you’re sleeping or waking at the wrong times for your chronotype (are you naturally an early bird, night owl, or something in between?) or if your sleep and wake times are inconsistent. This can contribute to all manner of physical and mental health issues.
Circadian misalignment can take many forms. Here are some common causes and how to handle them:
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It is possible to keep your circadian rhythm aligned with proper sleep hygiene (more on this later). However, if you’re still struggling with circadian misalignment even when following good sleep hygiene practices, consider talking to your doctor about a potential circadian rhythm disorder or other sleep disorder.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by your brain that promotes sleep. The peak rate of melatonin production happens at night during an hour-long phase we call your Melatonin Window. Going to bed during this window gives you the greatest chance of falling asleep quickly and staying asleep throughout the night. If you are waking up earlier than you’d like, it’s possible your melatonin cycle was disrupted. The most likely culprit is exposure to light.
Bright light, such as sunlight, and other late blue light exposure (say, from all of our electronic devices) inhibits melatonin production in addition to triggering the release of cortisol, norepinephrine, and serotonin, each of which contributes to feelings of wakefulness. Even if your eyes are closed and you have blinds and/or curtains on your windows, the optic nerve can still sense daylight. If you want to keep sleeping after the sun comes up, you’ll want to use an eye mask to block the influences of light on your sleep. Related: Sleeping with the lights on can be hazardous to your health
Sleep pressure also plays an important role in waking up early. Sleep pressure builds during your waking hours (thanks to the drowsiness-inducing compound called adenosine) and gets cleared when you sleep, but most of the clearing happens during the first half of the night. This leaves us particularly vulnerable to sleep fragmentation and early waking during the second half of the night.
This reduced sleep pressure is why early morning environmental disturbances (e.g., sunlight coming through a window) can make it particularly difficult to fall back asleep, since they happen after most of your sleep pressure has been cleared. We’ll cover ways to combat environmental disturbances momentarily.
Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is a steroid hormone that peaks in the early morning to help you wake up. Too much cortisol is associated with poor sleep. The problem can go both ways: stress makes sleep more difficult, and poor sleep makes stress more prominent, potentially creating a vicious cycle. If you wake up too early and find yourself worrying, ruminating, or otherwise stressing out, falling back asleep will be nearly impossible.
There are many ways to try to release stress from the day before going to bed. These include deep breathing, meditating, mindfulness exercises, journaling, exercising (early in the day), reading a book, talking to a loved one, and/or any other activities you find to be relaxing. Do what you can to limit or avoid known stressors. If you find yourself awakened by stress in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, try a sleep reset.
Pregnancy is known to interfere with sleep in a variety of ways. In addition to hormonal changes that interfere with circadian rhythm, pregnancy can make acid reflux, restless legs syndrome, and nighttime urination more likely, each of which contributes to fragmented sleep and potential early morning awakenings.
For women who are pregnant, it may be beneficial to nap during the day when not getting sufficient sleep at night. Make sure to nap during your afternoon dip to get the most benefits. The RISE app will alert you to your energy peaks and dips throughout the day, including your afternoon dip.
Related: How to sleep when you're pregnant | How to get energy when you're pregnant
Sleep disturbances are common in the elderly. While not technically a natural part of aging, many of the effects of aging can contribute to sleep issues. In particular, it is well-documented that older adults often have an advanced circadian tendency, meaning they may tend to fall asleep and wake up earlier than they used to.
Waking up earlier may be unavoidable as you get older, but make sure to shift your bedtime earlier too in order to avoid acquiring sleep debt.
Other causes of early morning awakenings may be external. For instance, perhaps the sun comes up very early where you live. As mentioned above, a good eye mask will help protect you from early morning light.
Sound is another common sleep disturbance, especially in the early morning. Perhaps you live near a construction zone and wake up to the sound of jackhammers at 5 a.m. Maybe one of your family members is an early riser whose alarm clock goes off a few hours before your desired wake time. If early morning sound is disrupting your sleep, use ear plugs to help block the sound.
Temperature is another external factor that can disrupt our sleep. Our body temperature drops at night and rises in the morning, so if your bedroom is too warm or too cold, you may have trouble falling and staying asleep. Aim to keep your sleep environment between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit in order to get the most restful sleep possible. Related: Are there benefits to sleeping naked? It depends
Regardless of the reason(s) you're waking up early, the most important thing to keep track of is your sleep debt. As mentioned above, each of us has an individual sleep need, and we accrue sleep debt when we fall short of that need. Most adults need more than 8 hours of sleep each night, but one in three Americans report getting fewer than 7 hours. This suggests many of us aren’t meeting our sleep need.
The RISE app can determine your individual sleep need, track your sleep debt, and offer guidance to help you lower it. Related: Use this sleep calculator to get the hours you need to wake up refreshed
Aiming to keep your sleep debt low will allow you to recover more quickly on those nights when you don’t get sufficient sleep because you woke up too early. The best way to keep sleep debt in check is through sleep hygiene best practices. Proper sleep hygiene will help you fall asleep and stay asleep, keeping your sleep and wake times aligned with your circadian rhythm.
Here are some science-backed sleep habits for a good night’s sleep and better next-day energy levels:
There are many reasons why you might be waking up early. Thankfully, the RISE app can help you address most of them.
The app calculates your sleep debt every day based on your individual sleep need and current sleep data, allowing you to track your sleep debt as you work toward healthier habits. Additionally, it displays your daily circadian rhythm, suggesting appropriate activities for energy peaks and dips, and it also lets you know when your Melatonin Window begins every day. Use this information to help you build better sleep habits and keep sleep debt low so you can feel and function at your best.
There are many reasons why you might be waking up too early. They include external factors, such as environmental disturbances like temperature, light, and noise. They also include internal factors, like your circadian rhythm, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, and/or medical issues, like heartburn.
Shift your sleep and wake times gradually (by 15 minutes at a time) while making sure you continue to get enough sleep. Creating a morning routine you look forward to will help motivate you to not hit snooze. Try to get natural sunlight first thing and reduce blue light exposure in the evening to prevent it from inhibiting your natural melatonin levels. Once you reach your target wake time, stick to a consistent sleep schedule.
There are only benefits to waking up early — from a health standpoint, at least — if you’ve gotten enough sleep. This means that you met your sleep need — the amount of sleep you genetically need (not everyone needs 8 hours) — and otherwise have low sleep debt. Also, consistency in your sleep routine is an important input to sleep quality. Waking up much earlier than usual will throw your circadian rhythm out of whack, increasing sleepiness and dampening the extra productivity you might have been seeking.
It’s natural to reach for the snooze button when we’re sleep deprived. When we haven’t gotten enough sleep, adenosine, the drowsiness compound in our brain that builds during the day, doesn’t get sufficiently cleared. This leaves us feeling extra groggy and disoriented. Waking up early is also hard if we have a later-oriented chronotype (we’re a night owl), or if our internal clock has been shifting back and forth because of an inconsistent sleep routine.
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