By Anna Medaris Miller for U.S. News
Did you hit the snooze this morning? Reach for the coffee? Skip breakfast? If this were “How to Wake Up 101,” you’d fail.
But don’t let that keep you up at night. Sleep patterns — and, on the flip side, waking up habits — are “highly trainable, for good or for bad,” says Michael Grandner, a psychiatry instructor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies sleep, its health effects and the factors that influence how we do it.
Here’s how to conquer seven common mistakes — and wake up like a pro:
Mistake #1: You get ready in the dark.
Rise and shine! No, really. Taking in a hefty dose of sunshine first thing in the morning can help you wake up “because your body’s internal clock is sensitive to light and darkness,” says Natalie Dautovich, the National Sleep Foundation’s environmental scholar. She recommends opening the curtains or eating breakfast on a sunny porch. “Exercising outside could also be an exhilarating way to cue your brain that it’s time to start the day,” she says.
If you wake up before dawn or to gray skies, Grandner suggests turning on a very strong light, such as those used to treat seasonal affective disorder. And the earlier you wake up, the less bright the light needs to be. “You get more bang for your buck with the light the earlier it is,” he says.
Mistake #2: You succumb to the “sleep inertia” trap.
Some call it “the snooze button.” Grandner calls it “the sleep inertia trap.” Either way, the message is the same: You snooze, you lose.
“When you first wake up, you have that sensation of wanting to fall back asleep and feeling very sluggish and cloudy and that’s sleep inertia — it’s a normal process that helps protect your sleep” throughout the night, he says. “The problem is, in the morning, it can be very, very difficult to overpower that and actually get out of bed when you want to.”
But stay strong: Hitting the snooze will only make it worse, Dautovich says. “Post-snooze sleep isn’t high quality and leaves you feeling more tired — not to mention, rushed,” she says. Instead, set your alarm later. Better yet, get a full night’s sleep and avert the need to use an alarm altogether. “You’ll feel most alert if you wake up without an electronic aid,” Dautovich says.
Mistake #3: Your motto is “coffee first.”
You say you can’t function without coffee? You’re underestimating yourself, Grandner says. “A lot of times people are drinking caffeine to wake up in the morning, but that’s going to happen naturally,” thanks to movement, light and time, he says.
A.M. coffee cravers also overestimate the power of caffeine. The stimulant works partly by blocking the effects of adenosine, a brain chemical that mirrors the natural drive to sleep over the day, Grandner says. Since the chemical is in short supply in the morning, you’re better off saving your cup of Joe until you get to work or later, when your body has built up enough adenosine for the caffeine to work its magic.
“[People] start training themselves that they need the caffeine to wake up which isn’t actually biologically true,” he says. “It’s really just a matter of sleep inertia fading away.”
Mistake #4: You skip breakfast.
If coffee won’t cut it, what will? Breakfast. “After getting a good night’s rest, you’ll need to fuel your body properly to ensure productivity throughout the day,” Dautovich says.
She suggests a meal with plenty of fiber and protein, such as whole-grain toast with peanut butter or oatmeal with a hard-boiled egg. And be wary of breakfasts high in unsaturated fat, magnesium and potassium, which promote sleep, she says.
A bonus? Breakfast might also help you lose weight. A 2013 study found that overweight and obese women who morning-loaded their calories lost more weight and inches of their waists than counterparts who ate more calories at dinner but the same amount overall.
Mistake #5: You don’t wind down the night before.
If you frequently tuck into bed with a tired body but a racing mind, ask yourself this: Did you take some time to relax? Working, cleaning or even watching TV up until the minute you crash means that lights out is “your mind’s first chance to wind down without any distractions,” Grandner says. That can cause you to misjudge how long you’re actually sleeping — and wake up groggy. “You have to give yourself enough time in order to use your sleep to your maximum benefit,” he says.
And don’t think you’re doing yourself any favors by multitasking in bed, Grandner adds. Using the bed for anything other than what it’s made for will only make sleeping — and getting up — that much harder. “You train yourself to be awake in bed,” he says.
Mistake #6: You don’t sleep long or well enough.
Cue Captain Obvious: If you’re not sleeping the expert-recommended seven to nine hours each night, it’s going to be tough to wake up. But, since a 2013 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans get less than seven hours, it must be said. “People starve themselves of sleep all the time,” Grandner says.
Getting quality sleep is just as important. The National Sleep Foundation suggests avoiding daytime naps and evening doses of caffeine, alcohol and heavy food. It’s also important to stick to a consistent bedtime, even on the weekends, Dautovich says. “That way, your body’s internal clock will get accustomed to a regular bedtime, which will help you fall asleep better at night and wake up more easily each morning.”
Mistake #7: You don’t seek help.
If you’re sleeping long, deep hours, and still frequently waking up tired, “that’s a clue that something is happening during your sleep that is keeping it shallow,” Grandner says. The most common culprits are chronic pain — “you know it if you have it,” he says — and sleep apnea, a breathing disorder that affects more than 18 million Americans, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Scheduling an appointment with a sleep specialist can help diagnose and treat such conditions – and help you wake up feeling alive. But taking that first step is key. “A lot of people who have daytime sleepiness have sleep-related breathing disorders and have no idea,” Grandner says.