It's likely that the alarm clock has been a necessary evil in your life for as long as you can remember. Its sweet silver lining is the snooze button—or is it? Experts say that fragmenting your REM sleep in this way—with an extended period of snoozing and startled waking—significantly undermines the quality of your sleep. In other words, while your alarm clock may be obnoxious enough to get you out of bed in the morning, depending on how you use it, it may be getting in the way of you getting the most restorative sleep possible.
Not to worry; thanks to continued advances in technology and brain science, the modern alarm clock has become more friend than foe, by utilizing light rather than sound to rouse you, among other innovations. And even if you plan to stick with your old alarm clock, there are several doctor-approved tweaks you can make to sleep longer, better and more deeply with its help rather than its hindrance.
What did our ancestors do without alarm clocks?
Ideally, we would sleep like our great great great great grandparents did: drifting off around the time the sun sets and waking at dawn. We wouldn't wake abruptly from a blaring noise, but rather gradually and gently, as light filters into our consciousness.
Though very few of us now follow such a sleep schedule, our brain still behaves as if we do (which is why Daylight Savings time can throw us out of whack). This is where the circadian rhythm comes in; a whimsical-sounding area of our brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus serves as our master clock, regulating the physical, mental and behavioral changes that we cycle through in a given day. This part of our hypothalamus has everything to do with our sleep and wakefulness, metabolism and hormones, cortisol levels and even our body temperature.
Because our suprachiasmatic nucleus responds primarily to light and darkness, sleep scientists have done plenty of work around the impact of light on our sleep—and in recent years, have developed technology to address it.
Alarm clocks get smart thanks to sleep science
Sunrise alarm clocks, also known as dawn simulation lights, have been prevalent for more than a decade now. Rather than abruptly waking you with sound, these high-tech clocks wake you with light that grows gradually brighter over 30 to 45 minutes. They may be especially helpful for those who suffer from winter depression or jet lag, shift workers, the hearing impaired, teenagers and night owls.
Some of these clocks also include a sunset setting, as well as alarm sounds and features like a nightlight or temperature detector, and many come with accompanying apps for your smartphone. While these alarm clocks can be very high-end, with lots of bells and whistles, others are no-frills and quite affordable, with most costing between $25 and $100.
Scientific research has shown that switching to a dawn simulation light can potentially reduce the cardiac stress associated with an abrupt transition from sleep to wakefulness.
How to wake without an alarm clock
It may be possible to condition yourself to wake without an alarm clock by adopting the following common-sense habits:
- When you feel sleepy, go to sleep. If you don't feel sleepy, don't get in bed yet.
- Plan to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. (Our bodies like to follow patterns, especially with regards to sleep.)
- Try to wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekend. This will make it more likely that you go to bed at the same time every night (also ideal).
- Aim to expose yourself to 15 to 30 minutes of sunlight each morning to regulate your circadian rhythm.
Alarm clock tips for better sleep
Though alarm clocks are universally despised, most of us do require them to wake on time for work. And there are ways to use them to your benefit:
- Set your alarm to the latest possible time you can wake up rather than budgeting in "snooze time." This will give you more uninterrupted sleep.
- Place your alarm clock across the room from you, making it much more difficult for you to hit the snooze button. Once you've gotten out of bed to silence it, do not get back into bed.
- Explore the wide variety of alarm clock apps now available, which wake you in various ways, from requiring you to take a selfie to turn it off (e.g., the Snap Me Up app) to those that wake you up by challenging you to a short game or solve a puzzle (e.g., AlarmMon or Alarm Clock for Heavy Sleepers).