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The Science Behind Why We can’t Wake up Early

Sunny skies, cotton candy clouds and a castle zooming past your feet while riding a majestic green dragon. Now it's purple, then green again, and then yellow. A color changing dragon it is! Just as you're about to start on the dangerous quest the king of Candyland sent you on, you hear a high pitched trilling. Of course, it’s the flying goblins trying to sabotage you, and just as you’re about to shoot the last one, BAM, you realize that the high pitched noise was your alarm.

At some point in our lives, we will be required to get out of bed early. Be it for school, or work, or to go sightseeing during a holiday. ‘Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ doesn’t apply to everyone, especially if waking up early means getting interrupted in the middle of the most awesome dream you’ve had in months. And let’s be honest, the frustration that kicks in is not a desirable feeling. Let’s list some of the consequences of waking up early. You could lose the required amount of sleep if you haven’t paired your waking time with an appropriate bedtime, which results in tiredness and fatigue throughout the day. On the other hand, it could also lead to a few handy perks, such as waking up to a much more peaceful environment where you can get work done in a quieter tone before everyone around you starts their day.

There are two main factors that affect whether you wake up early or not: sheer willpower and melatonin, which works like the body’s natural clock. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your sleep cycle, mainly produced by the pineal gland in the brain. It works according to brightness; darkness increases melatonin levels, telling the body it’s time to sleep while light decreases it. Some labs produce melatonin to be used as supplements, even though the body naturally produces the required amount. These supplements are most often taken to cure short-term sleep problems such as jet lag or even to prevent headaches for adults. However, artificially altering your sleep patterns frequently can result in multiple unwanted side effects, such as dizziness, nausea and tiredness during the daytime.

The phrase ‘Sleep like a baby’ probably originated from the fact that melatonin levels are at their highest in infants from 1-3 years old. These levels gradually decrease over a person’s lifetime, primarily during a process called senescence, which is when the cells in the body stop reproducing but don't die. This is different to ageing. The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that affects your physical and behavioral rhythms such as sleeping. As you age, the circadian rhythm changes too, which may be why most adults tend to wake up earlier than younger teens.

Another factor that contributes to the sleep cycle and circadian rhythm is the hypothalamus, a small organ found in the center of the brain between the pituitary gland and thalamus. Its main function is to ensure homeostasis or keeping the body’s systems balanced, such as ensuring optimal conditions for enzyme actions. It also acts as a connector between the endocrine and nervous systems.

Photosensitive light cells in our eyes send signals to the hypothalamus, which then detects the brightness and decides whether to produce more melatonin or not. Sometimes, when the lights stay on longer once the sun has set, the hypothalamus gets confused and doesn't make you as tired as you should. To make up for this, it tells you to sleep for a few more hours in the morning. The next night, the hypothalamus follows this new schedule, so even if you want to fall asleep sooner, it’ll be harder because the hypothalamus is following the routine from the previous night. Simple things like closing the blinds while you're sleeping to obstruct the morning light also confuses the hypothalamus, making it think it’s still dark outside.

A study at 23andMe, a DNA testing and analysis group, showed that genetics may also influence whether you're an ‘Early-Bird’ or ‘Night-Owl’. A person’s ability to wake up earlier is a continuous trait, depending on whether they have one out of 15 genetic variants which can influence how early you wake up from 5-25%. The study also proved that 48.4% of women tend to be early risers, making women more likely to wake up early than men.

​​We can break down people into three categories depending on their chronotype: morning, day and night. Morning people wake up early, as they work at their best when the sun is still fresh and the air still crisp. Day people sleep a little longer and work best around afternoon. Night people are the complete opposite, feeling most productive later in the day and pushing along their bedtime as far as possible. Chronotypes also change with age. Babies and younger children are typically early risers, preteens and adolescents tend to be day people, while people in their late teens and young adults lean more towards being night people. The remaining years switch between morning or day people.

Waking up early can be hard, and I’m sure most people around you would agree to this as well, but it isn’t labelled the most productive time of the day for nothing. Even if you don’t have the morning chronotype, you can still use these early morning hours as a time to relax and get work done without as many distractions as you would have later on in the day.

Here are our 7 tips and tricks on how to wake up early without feeling like a zombie throughout the rest of the day.

1- Avoid late night snacking

Eating any unnecessary items right before you prepare yourself for bed is a bad idea, as it leads to uncomfortable symptoms such as heartburn and acid reflux. These issues are more likely to happen if you have any prior medical conditions, however, consuming foods that are generally unhealthy such as ones high in sugar can also delay your ability to fall asleep.

2- Avoid caffeine

No! But how can I live without that magical drink that fuels me every day! Of course, drinking one or two cups of coffee early in the day isn’t harmful, it may even help give you a few jolts to help you stand uptight. Drinking it before bed is obviously not the best option, because you’re preparing your body to do the exact opposite of sleeping. Try not to consume any beverages high in caffeine within 6 hours of when you plan to sleep.

3- Set an earlier bedtime

This one may be the most obvious in the bunch, but also the most effective. The average teenager between the ages of 13 and 18 must sleep 8-10 hours every day to perform at their optimal level the next day. Depending on how early you start your day, find an appropriate bedtime where you can fulfil your required amount of sleep.

4- Find a way to wind down, without electronics

In the modern world, we use our devices way too much throughout the day. Oftentimes people scroll through social media right before they go to sleep. This is proven to create significant sleep disturbances, even if they’re not noticeable. Find a nighttime routine that suits you best, be it reading a book or journaling or even doing that extensive skincare routine that’s so desirable. Reading more about that latest piece of TikTok drama can wait till later.

5- Pick out a nice ringtone and place your alarm out of reach

Hearing the annoying sirens that are set as the default alarm sounds is bad enough, but having to hit snooze and repeatedly hearing that same sound can get on your nerves. Pick a soothing tone that you can hear while you're snoring, but also doesn’t make your ears ring for the whole day after. Just be sure not to set your favourite song as the ringtone! Another helpful tip is to place the alarm on the other side of the room, so you have to move a bit to shut it off. This alerts the rest of your body that it’s time to get a move on, no matter how warm that blanket may be.

6- Let in the sunshine

In the words of Dumbledore, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Instead of shutting the blinds or curtains to stop the sun from disturbing you in the mornings, keep them open, and embrace it. If you live in a populated area and it’s a matter of privacy, open the blinds as soon as you open your eyes. This also alerts the hypothalamus and starts decreasing melatonin production.

7- Treat yourself!

Finally, the best way to get yourself up in the morning is by having something to look forward to. Be it a hearty breakfast or meeting someone you enjoy spending time with. Even if you have nothing planned, find something to make you happy, and learn to appreciate the little things in life.


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