Some mornings you wake up refreshed and ready to go for the day…other mornings, you may wake up still feeling tired, groggy, and unprepared to tackle the day’s challenges. If your alarm is going off at the same time each morning, why would there be such a difference in how you feel once awake? The answer might lie in whether or not you are waking at the right time in a sleep cycle, and technology has provided some new solutions in devices such as “smart alarms.”
The Rhythm of Sleep
It’s common to think that when we fall asleep, we spend part of the night sleeping lightly, part of the night sleeping deeply, then we dream—and then we wake up. This view breaks an entire night of sleep into three distinct sections.
However, the brain actually goes through distinct “cycles” of sleep several times throughout the night, each lasting about ninety minutes. At the beginning of each cycle, the brain is still fairly active while sleeping lightly, then becomes less active during deeper sleep known as slow wave sleep…and finally becomes more active again as it enters a time of dreaming (also known as rapid eye movement—or REM—sleep).
Generally, how you feel upon waking up is related to what kind of sleep you are waking up from in a sleep cycle. For example, if you wake up from slow wave sleep (the deeper sleep), you are much more likely to feel groggy and have difficulty focusing—because the brain is still in a very relaxed state and not as active as it would be during normal waking consciousness. It is easier to wake up out of REM sleep because the brain is more active—although doing so can sometimes lead to a headache because the brain is in a very excited state during the act of dreaming. Researchers have generally found that the best time to wake up is during light sleep. In this part of the sleep cycle, the brain is still active enough that it is easy to transition to full waking consciousness without the grogginess and headache problems that can accompany waking from slow wave sleep or dream sleep (respectively).
How Can I Wake Up at the Right Time?
To wake up at the right time, it is first important to make sure that there are no factors leading to a poor sleep quality while you’re asleep (such as sleep apnea, snoring, PLMs, etc.) If any of these are concerns, it may be a good idea to see your physician or a sleep specialist to address these issues.
Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule with good sleep hygiene is important to ensure you wake up at the right time. Included in this is knowing how much sleep you need. While eight hours is often suggested as the recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult, you may need more or less as everyone’s individual sleep requirements are different. An easy way to determine how much sleep you need is to allow yourself to go to bed when tired and wake-up when you’re ready to on the weekends (or while on a vacation) when you don’t have to be on a set schedule. After doing this several times, you’ll find an average amount of sleep you need to feel refreshed and ready for the next day.
Technology has also provided some new ways that can help ensure you wake up at the right point in the sleep cycle. These “smart alarms” can work in a variety of ways. Some are similar to wristwatches that you wear while sleeping which keep track of your body movements and will wake you during periods where there is an increase in movement activity, which is typical of lighter sleep. For those with smartphones, apps can be downloaded that allow the user to enter in their “sleep window”, or period when they’re sleeping. By doing this over a period of several days, the app can calculate when a person is likely to be in lighter sleep in the morning and wake them up accordingly.