Waking up is hard to do. Your bed is cozy. Your brain is foggy. And if you’re like many Americans (over a third, in fact), you’re already sleep-deprived.
The pull of the snooze button is strong.
Scientists call this groggy period between sleep and wake sleep inertia, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) it can last from 30 to 60 minutes — and sometimes longer. But for most of us with time-sensitive obligations (work, school, family), that’s too long to linger under the covers in a drowsy half-awake haze.
Even if you’ll never be someone who bounds out of bed in the a.m., you can be someone who wakes up a little easier in the morning. We asked the experts and scoured the scientific literature for tips on how to wake yourself up when you’re tired. Here’s what we found.
How to wake up in the morning
Don’t hit the snooze button
Another five minutes can be tempting when you feel tired but resist the urge to reach for the snooze button. “It can actually do more harm than good,” says Dr. Steven D. Bender, director of the Clinical Center for Facial Pain and Sleep Medicine at Texas A&M Health. “First, the extra time [usually a few minutes] doesn’t allow for restorative sleep. Second, by delaying getting up, we can accentuate or worsen sleep inertia. The longer we attempt to sleep past our ideal sleep duration, the more we may incur this phenomenon.”
Wake up at the right time
Yes, there is a right time to rise, even if you don’t necessarily shine.
Your body cycles through four stages of sleep throughout the night. Non-REM sleep, in which bodily functions like heart rate, brain wave activity, and breathing slow significantly, is the first sleep cycle and has three stages. The last stage of non-REM sleep produces some of the deepest sleep of the night — and it usually lasts between 20 to 40 minutes. When that ends, you enter REM sleep, then cycle back again to non-REM sleep.
If you’re unlucky enough to have your alarm ring during one of those deep-sleep stages, you’re likely to rouse feeling dazed and confused. Here’s a better strategy, try to wake during a lighter phase of sleep, such as the first cycle of non-REM sleep.
“Waking up from light as opposed to deep sleep allows you to feel more refreshed,” says Dr. Alon Y. Avidan, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. “When you awaken from deep sleep, you’re more likely to feel drunken, sedated, or groggy.”
It would be great if you could train yourself to wake in the morning during this light sleep, but according to Avidan, that’s not possible. What about wearable sleep tracking devices? According to Avidan they may not nail the timing. “I haven’t seen any data that these devices can do this reliably,” he says. “We might get there in a few years, but we’re not there yet. I think the best thing people can do is rely less on technology and more on good sleep hygiene [sleeping in a cool, dark room, for instance] and getting enough sleep.”
If you're wondering about your ideal time, try calculating it.
Let the sun in
Sunlight (and darkness) help to set our circadian rhythm, a process by which the body sets its sleep or wake cycle. Sunlight streaming into your bedroom is like a natural alarm clock, telling your body it’s time to start the day. The parts of your brain that help regulate your circadian rhythm are sensitive to light and dark signals. When the eye, and then the brain, sense morning sunlight, hormones like cortisol are released, helping you feel more awake.
How much light do you need? It depends, but experts do note that sunlight is better than artificial light.
“If you wake up rested, light shining in the room would be enough,” says Samina Ahmed Jauregui, a sleep psychologist. “But if you’re struggling to feel alert, 20 to 30 minutes of direct sunlight exposure on your face will help reduce sleepiness and increase energy levels.”
If you need to rise and shine before the sun comes up, consider an alarm clock with a light source that mimics morning light, changing from red to orange to white light (they’re called sunrise alarm clocks). While some sleep specialists note these are more gimmick than science, at least one study shows that people exposed to “dawn simulation” starting 30 minutes prior to waking felt more alert than those in a control group.
Before you even think about coffee, reach for water. Just like during the day, you lose water at night — via breathing, sweating, and urinating. And that water loss, which typically isn’t replenished, can result in dehydration.
But when you hydrate first thing — and stay hydrated throughout the day — you can feel more awake and less sleepy. In one study looking at what the researchers classified as high and low water drinkers, those in the low group who doubled their water consumption (from 1.2 liters to 2.5, or about 40 fluid ounces to 84.5) reported a significant decrease in fatigue, confusion, and sleepiness.
Play some tunes
Research shows that when people wake up to melodic music (think the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” and The Cure’s “Close to Me”) versus sounds rated neutral (neither melodic nor melodic) they experience less sleep inertia. Researchers surmise that it could be because melodic music has an energizing effect, helping you to get up and get going.
To get your mind moving, it helps to get your body moving. And we’re not necessarily talking a quick five miles on the treadmill, either. In fact, you might want to save the sweat sesh for later in the day as exercise a few hours before bed has been shown to promote better sleep, say sleep specialists. Just getting vertical, walking around, taking a shower (you don’t have to use cold water), and making breakfast will help.
“Going from a sleep state to a wake state, you want to promote blood flow, such as walking around and getting your metabolism running (start with water and food before introducing coffee), all to further signal to the brain and body that it is now time to be awake and start the day,” says Jauregui.
The best energy-boosting breakfasts, say experts, combine protein with high-fiber whole grains and healthy fats. Some options include avocado toast with salmon or a breakfast smoothie with fruit, yogurt, peanut butter, wheat germ, etc.
Wait on coffee
You’ve read it above already, but it warrants repeating: Don’t turn to coffee first-thing. Coffee is the elixir of drowsy people everywhere. It helps block the release of adenosine, a chemical that builds up while we’re awake and makes us feel tired. But before you hit the Starbucks, many experts suggest waiting until mid-morning to have your joe. That’s when cortisol, a stress hormone your body naturally produces that helps you feel alert, is starting to wane after peaking earlier in the day. And it’s when the stimulating effects of the caffeine in coffee can give you the most bang for your buck.
The best bedtime tips to wake up naturally
- Going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day.
- Avoiding big meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bed.
- Having a comfortable sleeping environment — for example, a room that’s dark, cool, and quiet.
- Keeping electronic devices like TVs, phones, tablets, etc., out of the bedroom.
If you’re practicing these sleep tips and still having trouble waking in the morning, see your doctor. You may have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome that disrupts sleep and needs treatment.
“If you’re getting seven to eight hours of sleep and still feeling tired, if you never wake up refreshed, if you need to use multiple alarms to get up in the morning, those are all red flags you need to be seen,” says Avidan.
How to stay awake
Now that you know how to wake up in the morning, the question becomes how to stay awake during the day?
The answer: The same strategies you use to rouse yourself in the morning will help you stay awake throughout the day. The one exception: Coffee and caffeinated products. While they’re effective in getting you out of an afternoon slump, they can make it harder for you to sleep at night. “I would warn people not to use caffeine past noon or 1 p.m.,” advises Avidan.