Is there anything worse than hearing an alarm clock go off? Unfortunately for many of us, that’s exactly how we start each day. However, every once in a while, we’re blessed (or cursed) with waking up an hour or two before the alarm. When this happens, we’re faced with a critical decision: rise up out of those comfy sheets and blankets and get a head start on the day, or try and go back to sleep. I’ve often wondered which option is the better choice if I want to avoid feeling tired and groggy the rest of the day.
According to Mayo clinic professor and former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine Timothy Morgenthaler, MD, the answer to this question is pretty basic. You should get up if you’ve slept long enough, and you should try going back to sleep if you haven’t. Well isn’t that just super helpful? Let’s dive into what that actually means.
To begin, most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep. While some of us may skew closer to 7 hours, and others 9, there’s no getting around the fact that to maintain physical and mental health, we all need to sleep around 33% of each day.
Our bodies maintain a normal sleep schedule by utilizing two interacting systems that control the drive to sleep, and the drive to stay asleep. The first is referred to as “sleep homeostasis”, which describes what pushes you to sleep longer and more intensely if and when you haven’t slept enough. The second is your circadian rhythm, a person’s internal biological clock, which tells our body when we should feel tired and when we should feel awake.
In general, sleep homeostasis regulates the intensity of your sleep, and your circadian clock determines what time in the day you start and stop feeling sleepy. Think of your sleep homeostasis system as your short-term regulator, and your circadian rhythm as your long-term regulator. If you were out late for an extended happy-hour, sleep homeostasis will tell your body to sleep longer and deeper the next night. In contrast, your circadian rhythm is a slower, but more resilient schedule based on your sleeping habits.
If you find yourself waking up before your alarm, ask yourself if you’ve slept for at least 6 hours. If the answer is yes, waking up early is probably your body telling you that both sleep systems are satisfied, and it’s time to get up and start your day.
However, if you’re waking up early after sleeping just a few hours of sleep, you should probably try to squeeze in a little more shuteye.
You can also improve the way you feel in the morning by avoiding the snooze button. Letting ourselves fall back asleep for an extra 10 or 15 minutes of slumber can make your actual wake up even worse. Our circadian rhythm is based on the slow release of proteins and hormones which tell our body to fall asleep or wake up. When we shut our eyes after hitting the snooze, our internal clock reverses, and floods our body with calming sleep hormones. This will leave most people feeling even more exhausted when there alarm goes off again.
In the end, we’re left with two basic rules to help ensure we feel as good as we can in the morning:
- If you’ve slept for 6 hours or more and you wake up before your alarm, you should simply get up and start your day early, and
- Never, ever, ever, use your snooze.