How Your Wake-Up Alarms Are Ruining Your Health

Haris Mohammad

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Ever since the popularity of smartphones and social media, the concept of proper bedtime has become extinct. The damned algorithms working their magic through your hand-held screen wouldn’t let you sleep even if you wanted to.

The result? Tens of millions of people in the US are having to deal with the terrible consequences of irregular sleep timings, shorter sleep durations, and late mornings that have become the norm.

The good thing is that there is a lot of focus on this issue. People have started to recognize the need for change. The problem is that most of the conversation concerning sleep, health, and productivity revolves around sleeping for about eight hours every night and waking up early.

But what if you do that and still don’t feel your best during the day?

Research shows nearly half of the Americans who sleep for 7–8 hours each night feel tired and poorly rested up to three days a week. And while the quality of sleep is often blamed for that, the role of morning alarms doesn’t get enough attention.

In fact, if you are like most people, you must be using an alarm to wake you up for work, school, or something else. I did so for decades until I realized what it was doing to my health.

So let me explain what I mean and why you too should quit this unhealthy habit.

The Hidden Costs

Not all sleep is the same. When we sleep, we go through cycles composed of four different stages.

  • Stage 1 — Transition from wakefulness to sleep
  • Stage 2 — Light sleep — Most of your time sleeping is spent in this stage.
  • Stage 3 — Deep Sleep — The stage crucial for physical restoration
  • Stage 4 — Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage with irregular breathing and increased heart rate. This is where most of your dreaming occurs.

Now when you wake up during the first two stages, you feel fresh and energized. 

On the other hand, if you are snapped out of deep sleep, you find yourself struggling with sleep inertia or a feeling of tiredness and disorientation after you wake up. Being woken during deep sleep affects short-term memory, cognitive abilities, and even counting skills.

Even though the sleep inertia usually goes away in less than 30 minutes, it can sometimes last for a few hours, resulting in those bad days when you feel grumpy and unable to find your flow.

But an alarm set to go off at a predetermined time doesn’t take all that into account. There’s no way you can know beforehand in which stage you will be at that time.

Then there’s another more serious problem. The sudden and unnerving noise of the alarm clock triggers the fight-or-flight response in the body. Which, if it persists over weeks or months, can lead to chronic stress.

Researchers say that “waking up abruptly can cause higher blood pressure and heart rate. Besides increasing your blood pressure, an alarm can add to your stress levels by getting your adrenaline rushing.”

Waking Up Without an Alarm

So now that we have established it’s not wise to allow a screaming alarm clock to put an abrupt end to our sleep, it’s time to look at the alternatives.

The best option is to work on a consistent sleep schedule so that your body gets used to it, eliminating the need for any external intervention. That way, you will wake up fresh and fully recovered from the previous day’s exhaustion at your desired time.

Besides, having a regular sleep pattern is not just about getting enough sleep or not needing an alarm. It’s also great for your physical and mental health.

Talking about her research, Jessica Lunsford-Avery, Ph.D., assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, says — 

“The more irregular these sleep patterns, the higher the risk for obesity, hypertension, and elevated blood sugar, and the higher the projected risk of developing heart disease over the next decade.”

So here are a few things to help you develop that routine.

  • Go to bed a little over eight hours before the time you want to get up in the morning. That is without your mobile phone. If you need something to help you fall asleep, physical books are a great option.
  • Avoid caffeine (tea or coffee) in the second half of the day.
  • Ensure your bedroom is cool, dark, and free from any noise that could interfere with your sleep.
  • Try to avoid looking at your computer or mobile screen, at least during the 2 hours before your bedtime.
  • Soak some daylight.

Better Alarms

When it comes to sleep and wakefulness, our bodies are incredibly sensitive to light. Darkness makes us feel sleepy, while exposure to light early in the day makes us feel more alert and energetic.

So one great way of waking up naturally is to use lighter shades of curtains in your bedroom so that some light can enter in the morning and draw you out of your sleep.

But if you want more control over time or if it doesn’t work for you for any other reason, you can use smart bulbs. These bulbs will turn on at the specified by you and gradually increase in brightness, mimicking the sunrise.

Another option is to use apps (like Sleep Cycle) on your smartphone or watch. You may already be using them to track your sleep metrics. But you can also set them to wake you up using gentle melodies when you are in light sleep.

The Takeaway

A consistent sleep pattern that allows for about 8 hours of sleep every night is essential for your health and well-being. At the same time, being shocked out of our sleep by a sudden loud noise carries both short and long-term health risks.

So stay away from the conventional sound-based alarm clocks unless necessary. Instead, develop a consistent sleep routine, and if needed, use light-based alarms or apps that wake you up during appropriate stages of your sleep.

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