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Waking Up Early? Here Are the Possible Reasons Why

Waking up early when you don’t intend to can leave you dragging during the day. Here’s why you may be waking too early and what to do about it.
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Published
2/2/2022
Updated
16 MINS

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 and keep your sleep debt low, and how the RISE app can help you wake up at the right time for you.

Why You May Be Unintentionally Waking Up Early

Waking up early: woman who can't sleep looking at her alarm clock

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 the total number of hours of sleep you’ve missed over the past 14 days. This leads 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 behind the scenes), 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.

Circadian Misalignment

Your circadian rhythm is a kind of internal body 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 circadian rhythm 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:

  • Social jet lag: This happens when you have a different sleep schedule on workdays compared to free days, which can disrupt your circadian rhythm. One of the best ways to combat social jet lag is to stick to a consistent sleep-wake schedule, even on your days off. Try not to stay up significantly later than usual on weekends. (You’ll thank yourself on Monday morning.) Additionally, sleeping in when you don’t have to wake up early may help you catch up on sleep, but try not to sleep in more than an hour past your usual wake time so as to keep circadian misalignment to a minimum.
  • Jet lag from travel across time zones: The other type of jet lag is also notorious for disrupting our sleep schedules and causing circadian misalignment. When traveling to a different time zone, plan ahead: Shift your sleep and wake times gradually in the direction of the time zone change. For instance, if you’re going somewhere two hours ahead of where you are now, it will take you four days to prepare if you shift your sleep and wake times 30 minutes later each day (or more than a week if you do this in 15-minute increments).
  • Daylight saving time: Many people advocate for abolishing the artificial time change our society imposes on us twice a year, and with good reason. Daylight saving time may be just a one-hour change, but that seemingly small amount of sleep loss has been shown to cause a spike in traffic accident rates the very next day. The time change also leads to cumulative sleep loss, an increase in workplace injuries in the days following, and other deleterious consequences. The best way to avoid the negative effects of these time changes is to treat them like any other time zone change. Plan ahead, and gradually shift your sleep and wake times in the direction of the change when you know it’s coming.

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 Cycle

Melatonin is a hormone produced by your brain that promotes sleep. Peak production happens at night during an hour-long phase known as your Melatonin Window, signaling to your body that it’s time to sleep. 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 light exposure 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.

Sleep Pressure

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 suggests you may be particularly vulnerable to sleep fragmentation 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.

Stress

Waking up early: man who can't sleep

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.

To release stress from the day before going to bed, try 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

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.

Age-Related Sleep Issues

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.

Environmental Disturbances

Worker using a jack hammer

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.

How to Improve Your Sleep Hygiene and Keep Your Sleep Debt Low

RiseApp My sleep
The RISE app calculates your sleep debt every day.

Regardless of the reason you are 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.

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 daytime and sleep habits you’ll want to implement:

  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol too late in the day: Both caffeine and alcohol can be disruptive to your sleep and contribute to you waking up earlier than you intend. The RISE app can tell you the specific cutoff times based on your circadian rhythm.
  • Nap during your afternoon dip: If you’re feeling drowsy after waking up early, taking a nap during your afternoon dip can give you an energy boost and help you catch up on sleep. Try to keep the nap under 90 minutes, i.e., about the length of one sleep cycle, so you don’t interfere with your nighttime sleep.
  • Implement a wind-down routine: Having a bedtime routine helps to relax your mind and body, preparing you for sleep. This is especially helpful if you’re waking up early due to stress.
  • Prep your sleep environment: Make sure your bedroom is cool, quiet, and dark. Optimal sleeping conditions will help you stay asleep and hopefully avoid an early wake-up time.
  • Go to bed during your Melatonin Window: Your body is primed for sleep during your Melatonin Window, so you’ll be more likely to fall asleep and stay asleep until your optimal wake time.

Use the RISE App to Help You Wake Up at the Right Time for You

We’ve covered a lot of information to help you understand your sleep patterns, but it may be hard to keep track of it all. Thankfully, the RISE app makes this easy for you.

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.

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