Written by: Mallorie Stallings
Updated March 11, 2021
The majority of people rely heavily on external alarm clocks to jolt them awake every morning. One survey found that 68.2% of adults use an alarm (1) to wake up, either in the form of an alarm clock, a clock radio, or a phone setting. Depending on an alarm clock may cause undue stress, especially if you forget to set your alarm the night before.
Additionally, using your phone as an alarm clock often leads to mindless scrolling. Starting your day off with a sudden barrage of stimuli from social media and the internet may impact the rest of your day negatively.
Sleepers are turning to alternative options for waking up more refreshed, including ditching the alarm clock and setting a new routine.
How Do Brains Tell Time?
We often use the terms circadian rhythm and internal clock interchangeably. However, the circadian rhythm is a pattern of physical and mental behaviors that responds to the body’s internal clock. The master clock that regulates our sleep-wake cycles is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (2), or SCN, and is a group of approximately 20,000 nerve cells clustered inside the hypothalamus. Among other processes, the SCN receives direct information from the eyes (3). Diminishing light causes the SCN to send signals (4) to the brain to release melatonin and induce sleep.
The circadian rhythm follows the signals from the SCN, responding to the increase or decrease of various hormones and proteins within our cells that either encourage or discourage sleepiness and wakefulness. Understanding and mapping your circadian rhythms can help you start to wake up without needing an alarm clock.
How Do You Know Your Circadian Rhythm?
You probably already have a rough idea of your circadian rhythm just from how you live your day-to-day life. You can become more aware of your natural sleep-wake cycle by tracking when you feel tired and when you start to feel more awake and responsive.
What Can Disrupt your Circadian Rhythm?
It may not be surprising that your natural circadian rhythm can be disrupted by your daily living practices, particularly in the age of smartphones and working from home. You might ignore your body’s cues and stay up later to feel more autonomous with your leisure time, a phenomenon called bedtime procrastination (5) that has recently been labeled revenge bedtime procrastination. Other behaviors or lifestyle choices that may negatively impact your circadian rhythm include:
- Shift Work: Working a shift during normal sleeping hours disrupts your natural sleep-wake rhythm, even if you sleep during regular waking hours. Sleep during waking hours is often interrupted and fragmented, preventing you from deep and restful slumber. The disruption of your circadian rhythm due to shift work also impacts your body’s metabolism (6), leading to other health disorders, such as high blood pressure and obesity.
- Jet Lag: Jet lag is the experience of moving ahead in time due to travel, yet still responding to your previous sleep-wake cycle. In most cases, the body will naturally adjust over a few days. However, if you travel frequently or go long distances over short periods of time, your body might not fully adapt to the new environment, and you may struggle getting a good night's sleep.
- Delayed Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder: Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder (DSWPD) occurs when a person cannot fall asleep at a time that would promote adequate sleep (7). Those suffering from DSWPD often cannot fall asleep until early morning, despite their attempts to fall asleep earlier. This can cause sleep deprivation and mental distress, as their body can’t achieve a full night's rest within regular sleeping hours.
- Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder: More common in older adults, Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder (ASPD) is marked by an earlier than normal bedtime and an earlier than normal wake time (8) without the ability to go back to sleep. Often, older adults with this disorder fall asleep very early (sometimes as early as 4 p.m.), wake very early (between 2 a.m. to 5 a.m.), and are unable to return to sleep when they wake.
- Irregular Sleep Wake Rhythm Disorder: Irregular Sleep Wake Rhythm Disorder (ISWRD) is a sleep pattern marked by multiple bouts of sleep throughout the day and fragmented sleep throughout the night (9). Individuals suffering from ISWRD seem to have a wholly dysregulated circadian rhythm. While they usually get the necessary amount of sleep per 24-hour cycle, it is fragmented. ISWRD is common in people with Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injuries, and developmental disabilities.
How To Harness Your Circadian Rhythm To Wake Up Without An Alarm
Waking up without your reliable alarm clock may seem daunting, but it is possible to help your body wake up naturally. There are a few lifestyle changes you can make to sync your life with your natural circadian rhythms and ditch the alarm clock.
Keep a Sleep Schedule, Even On The Weekends
It’s tempting to stay up late and sleep in on the weekends, but disrupting your regular bedtime routine can negatively impact your ability to use your body’s natural alarm clock. Try to maintain your normal sleep schedule, even on the weekends. It may take a few weeks, but eventually you may notice a natural sleep-wake pattern forming.
Implement Good Sleep Hygiene Protocols
Sleep hygiene protocols include reducing distractions, preparing for sleep with relaxing activities instead of technology, and monitoring your eating patterns before bed. Some other steps you can take towards positive sleep hygiene include:
- Reduce technology in the bedroom and keep your phone out of reach to reduce the temptation to scroll in bed
- Eat at least three hours before bedtime and reduce caffeine and alcohol intake (10)
- Ensure your mattress and pillows offer comfort and support for your body type and preferred sleep position
Make sure you stick to your sleep routines, as they will help signal to your brain and body that it’s time to rest.
Wake Up To Natural Light
Find curtains that allow for natural light to filter through in the mornings to help you wake up naturally. If you’re ready to ditch the traditional alarm clock but not yet ready to wake up on your own, investing in a sunrise alarm clock can help you wake up gradually to artificial sunlight from your nightstand.
Establish a Morning Routine
A great way to help you wake up on time is by making your morning routine something to look forward to. Try incorporating activities that help you feel energized and motivated, like starting your day with a quick yoga practice or a healthy breakfast.
Exercise shifts the internal clock and helps you reset or reestablish your circadian rhythm (11), especially if you work out early in the morning. Including a workout in your morning routine may help you ditch the alarm clock over time.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31990906/ Accessed on March 5th, 2021.
- https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/Inside-Life-Science/Pages/The-Rhythms-of-Life.aspx Accessed on March 5th, 2021.
- https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/fact-sheets/Pages/circadian-rhythms.aspx Accessed on March 5th, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31433569/ Accessed on March 5th, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24994989/ Accessed on March 5th, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21633182/ Accessed on March 5th, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29445534/ Accessed on March 5th, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18041481/ Accessed on March 5th, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20160950/ Accessed on March 5th, 2021.
- https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/sleep_hygiene.html Accessed on March 5th, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27103935/ Accessed on March 5th, 2021.