How to wake up without an alarm — and why it's worth trying
Waking naturally might help you ditch chronic social jet lag for good
Work and school dictate a lot about how we structure our days, from day-care drop off to commute length, to when we eat and go to the gym. Most importantly, these obligations impact when we wake up and go to sleep.
Humans need approximately eight hours of sleep but according to Myriam Juda, an adjunct professor in the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Laboratory at Simon Fraser University, most of us are not getting that amount, especially during workdays.
"Most of us are waking up with an alarm clock so we are interrupting natural sleep cycles," she says.
But with more people working from home as a result of the pandemic, we can use reclaimed commute time to better align our biological clocks with our social obligations, and reap the health and productivity benefits.
What does it mean to wake up naturally?
There are two processes that interact to determine humans' natural, biological sleep patterns. The first is called homeostasis. It works by making us more tired the longer we're awake. The second is the circadian process, which controls a variety of 24-hour biological cycles in our bodies like body temperature and the release of hormones like melatonin, which makes us sleepy.
Our circadian cycles are controlled in part by our genes, meaning everyone's cycle is a little different. This is why some people are early birds and some are night owls. Juda says the slower your natural cycle — say 24.2 hours instead of 24 hours — the more likely you are to be a night owl, meaning that you naturally get up later and get tired later.
But genes aren't the end of the story. Circadian rhythms are also very strongly influenced by light, which is considered to be the most important signal the brain uses to regulate its master clock.
"Our circadian rhythms are synchronized to the light/dark cycle of the sun. They're not synchronized to our work schedule or the time on our watch," says Juda. "It's something that we just really underestimate."
There are even seasonal differences in how we sleep. In winter, everything, from when we wake up, to when our body temperature peaks during the day shifts later by as much as 1.5-2 hours and we sleep longer. But you might not notice it because of daylight savings time and because during the week our time is constrained by social obligations.
Juda says that because so many people are sleep deprived from the workweek and sleep longer on the weekend to catch-up, they may not even know what their natural sleep cycle is anymore.
Keeping track of your sleep on weekends or on vacations when you're getting a full night's sleep, and when you're not using an alarm or drinking alcohol (which interferes with sleep) can start to give you an idea of how much sleep your body naturally needs and when you naturally wake up and get sleepy. Not having to commute to work during the pandemic gives you an extra buffer to extend this experiment into the work week.
Life with chronic jet lag
One of the greatest barriers to getting enough sleep and waking up naturally is the conflict between our body's natural rhythms, known to researchers as "biological time" and the work and school schedules we've created as a society and are obligated to uphold, known as "social time"
A work or school start time of 9 a.m. might require us to wake up at 7 a.m. whether or not we got enough sleep or are naturally inclined to wake up later.
The conflict between biological and social time is known as social jet lag. Researchers measure social jet-lag based on the midpoint of your sleep on work days versus non-work or free days. If you usually sleep between midnight and 7 a.m. on weekdays you have a 3:30 a.m. midpoint of sleep. But if you're sleeping from 1 a.m. to 10 a.m. on weekends, your sleep midpoint is 5:30 a.m. The difference between those midpoints is your social jet lag number, in this case, two hours. A survey of over 300,000 people from around the world has found that more than half of the population has a social jet lag of an hour or more.
Night owls tend to have higher social jet lag because their natural rhythms are more out of sync with social norms. Juda says that the higher your social jet lag, the more likely you are to be fatigued, even if you've had enough sleep because you are constantly living out of sync to your circadian rhythm. For example, shift workers, who experience high levels of social jet lag, sleep less and the quality of their sleep is poorer because by sleeping during the day, they are fighting their natural circadian rhythms, which work to keep them alert and awake during the day.
Once you have a better idea of your natural sleep cycle and you can get a better idea of how high your social jet lag is, and if possible, use this time to start to fix it.
Already, preliminary research done in Austria, Germany and Switzerland during the strictest COVID-19 lockdowns shows people are sleeping more and have decreased their social jet lag.
What an out of sync clock means for your health and productivity
"People are just not aware of how light affects our health and well-being," says Juda. According to sleep expert Till Roenneberg, "the practice of going to sleep and waking up at 'unnatural' times could be the most prevalent high-risk behaviour in modern society."
Social jet lag is associated with a higher likelihood of smoking and consuming more caffeine and alcohol. It interferes with the timing of when your body releases hormones related to sleep, stress, hunger and feeling full, potentially impacting your eating habits and physical activity. An hour of social jet lag can increase your risk of being overweight or obese by 33 per cent and the higher your social jet lag, the bigger your risk for type II diabetes, cardiovascular problems, certain types of cancer, depression, and axiety.
But social jet lag doesn't just affect your health, it also decreases productivity, and has cognitive and economic implications.
"When we assess people with cognitive tasks, their reaction time is slower, their decision making is affected. All kinds of cognitive tasks have been negatively impacted by social jet lag," says Juda.
An overall move towards more flexible schedules, like the ones many people are experiencing working from home during this pandemic, could help improve social jet lag, and as a result improve health and well-being.
How to use light to shift your circadian clock
For certain groups of people like shift workers and those with circadian rhythm disorders, using light to train their circadian clocks onto a better schedule may be unrealistic, but for the rest of us Juda has some recommendations.
Try and get two hours of outdoor light exposure every day, even if it's cloudy. Outdoor light is hundreds of times more intense than light in a bright indoor space.
Morning light is better. Juda recommends getting outside within one or two hours of your natural wake up time and says that when it comes to regulating your circadian clock, 10 minutes of morning light is like the equivalent of four, five, or six hours of afternoon light.
If you're not getting enough sleep during the work week she says to try and get as much outdoor morning light exposure as possible. "Have your coffee on the balcony… even just 5-10 minutes can really have a very strong impact, especially if you do it on a daily basis."
Morning light is particularly beneficial for night owls, who often miss out on morning light by sleeping in. This ends up delaying their circadian clock even more, says Juda, and becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. This is why it's easier to train yourself to sleep in than to get up early.
Research has even shown that people who live in the western part of a time zone, and experience sunrise and sunset at a later clock time than those who live in the eastern part of a time zone, are more likely to be sleep deprived and get, on average, 19 minutes less sleep per night.
If it's still dark out right after you wake up, Juda says to use a sunlight lamp. This will not only help you get up earlier, but make you sleepy earlier in the evening.
Use warm-toned lights indoors and start dimming them three hours before bed. Juda says our bodies are used to getting bright white or blue light during the day and warm light in the evening. Darkness cues our body to start producing melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy and evening light exposure interferes with that process. Smart lights can be programmed to dim naturally and their colour temperature can be adjusted. LED bulbs also come in a variety of light temperatures.
For her part, Juda uses a night light in the bathroom, where lights are often bright and white. This is good for avoiding light exposure in the middle of the night, but pre-bed routine.
Use your blinds and curtains strategically. Juda uses blinds to block out the late evening light for her kids' bedtime, but pulls them up once it's dark so that they will be exposed to morning light. Experiment and see what works best for you. Motorized blinds can be set to timers, and if that's not an option, research has shown that sunrise-simulating alarm clocks can help regulate your circadian clock.
Be aware that daylight savings time moves clocks forward from March to November, exposing us to light later into the evening.
Though using light to help better align our biological and social time is always an option, it might be a good time for those afforded the ability to work from home to try and implement now.
"This is a really good time to sleep well," says Juda.
Eva Voinigescu is a freelance journalist and producer. She writes about health and science, careers, and culture.