If you’re someone who struggles to get a good night’s sleep, identify the root of the problem instead of relying on medications and other sleep aids. One such thing you can look at is your circadian rhythm and, more importantly, when you should wake up.
In this article, we outline circadian rhythms, sleep patterns, and offer pointers on how to decide when you should wake up. We’ve also included some tips to help you get out of bed. By the end of this article, you should have all the knowledge you need to get a better night’s sleep.
What Is a Circadian Rhythm?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the circadian rhythm is a “24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It’s also known as your sleep-wake cycle.”
In layman’s terms, your circadian rhythm is the natural tool in your brain controlling when you fall asleep and wake up. Your body regulates this internal clock through the portion of your brain known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus.
Your circadian rhythm controls your internal body temperature and hormone levels to tell your body when to go to sleep and wake up. The rhythm relies on natural cues like daylight to regulate sleep patterns. This is one of the main reasons why exposure to blue light before bed can mess up your sleep schedule.
If you have trouble sleeping at night, you could suffer from a circadian rhythm disorder. For instance, those with irregular sleep-wake rhythm have trouble establishing sleep or wake patterns. They may wake up randomly throughout the night and find themselves unable to fall back to sleep.
If you don’t suffer from a circadian rhythm disorder, your body naturally goes through a series of sleep patterns and cycles. These sleep cycles act as an internal alarm clock, controlling how long you sleep and when you wake up.
Sleep Cycles and Patterns
When you rest, you cycle through four different stages of sleep: 1, 2, 3, and REM. The first three stages are known as non-REM (NREM) sleep, and the fourth stage is when REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep occurs. When you wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle, you’ll find yourself feeling tired, groggy, fatigued, and not well-rested.
In an average night, you complete 4 or 5 sleep cycles. Each cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes, but this can vary from individual to individual.
Below, we describe the four different stages of sleep.
- Stage 1 — Stage 1 occurs as you’re transitioning from wakeful and alert to groggy and sleepy. During this time, alpha and theta brainwaves and your eye movements slow. Stage 1 is associated with hypnic jerks and the sensations of falling. This stage of sleep lasts for approximately 7 minutes.
- Stage 2 — During Stage 2, your brain activity is defined by K Complex sleep structures and sleep spindles— both of which function to keep you asleep and help you enter deeper stages of rest. In this stage, your breathing slows and your body temperature drops. This stage accounts for anywhere from 40-60% of the total sleep time and lasts for 10-15 minutes.
- Stage 3 — Stage 3 is when your deepest, more restorative sleep occurs. If you’re taking a midday nap, you’ll want to wake up before entering into Stage 3 of sleep. During this stage, your brain activity is characterized by slow delta waves. Bedwetting, sleepwalking, sleeptalking, and other parasomnias occur during this time. Your body also produces human growth hormone during this stage to help boost your immune system, consolidate memories, and refresh your brain and body for a new day.
- Stage 4, REM Sleep — Stage 4, otherwise known as REM sleep, is when your most vivid dreams occur. During this time, your eyes move rapidly side to side, brain activity increases, your heart rate jumps, and blood pressure spikes. Though your brain is active during this stage, your body goes into a state of paralysis to prevent you from acting out your dreams. If you wake up during REM sleep, you have a better chance of remembering your dreams, but you’ll be left feeling quite tired and groggy.
How Much Sleep Should I Be Getting?
Too often, when people ask what the proper amount of sleep is, they’re looking for an answer in terms of hours. However, sleep cycles are a bit more complicated than that.
Instead of measuring sleep needs by hours, experts recommend measuring them by sleep cycles and patterns. Your goal should be to complete four to five sleep cycles per night. Depending on your sleep patterns, this could mean you need anywhere from 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
The general rule of thumb is to clock eight hours of shut-eye each night. But if you find yourself setting the alarm at the eight-hour mark and still waking up feeling groggy or tired, it’s likely because you woke up in the middle of a sleep cycle.
Let’s say, for instance, you have a sleep cycle that ends seven hours and 15 minutes after you fall asleep. If you wake up 8 hours after falling asleep, you’d be doing so right in the middle of a deep-sleep stage. You’d be much better off waking up at the 7 hour and 15-minute mark, even though it technically means you received less sleep.
Sleep Needs by Age
Sleep needs are not “one size fits all,” as they vary from individual to individual. One of the factors influencing how much sleep you need is your age. Below, we break down the sleep needs by age:
|Age Range||Recommended Hours of Sleep|
|Newborns (0 to 3 months)||Between 14 and 17 hours|
|Infants (4 to 11 months)||Between 12 and 15 hours|
|Toddlers (1 to 2 years)||Between 11 and 14 hours|
|Preschoolers (3 to 5 years)||Between 10 and 13 hours|
|School-Aged Children (6 to 13 years)||Between 9 and 11 hours|
|Teenagers (14 to 17 years)||Between 8 and 10 hours|
|Young Adults (18 to 25 years)||Between 7 and 9 hours|
|Adults (26 to 64 years)||Between 7 and 9 hours|
|Older Adults (65+)||Between 7 and 8 hours|
Tips to Control When You Wake Up
As scientists learn more about sleep, it’s become easier for people to track their sleeping patterns. Reflecting on your own habits helps you pinpoint the best time to wake up.
Determine the Length of Your Sleep Cycles
The length of sleep cycles change as we age. For instance, older people find they wake up earlier in the morning and need less shut-eye on a nightly basis.
Use a sleep calculator, which uses an average 90-minute sleep cycle to determine when you should wake up. You can also use apps and devices like wearable fitness trackers to understand your personal sleep cycles better.
Use a Special Alarm Clock
There are unique alarm clocks you can download on your phone designed to help you wake up at a more natural time. For instance, certain alarm clocks analyze your sleep patterns to wake you up after finishing your last sleep cycle.
The science behind these apps is iffy. But if you find yourself going to bed and waking up at inconsistent hours, it could be a useful tool to guide you in the right direction. Even if the app does nothing more than make you more aware of the existence of sleep cycles, it’s a positive step.
Visit a Sleep Specialist
If you’re particularly frustrated by your sleep habits, consider visiting a sleep specialist. A sleep specialist will put you through a series of tests to learn more about your patterns, cycles, and behaviors when at rest.
At the very least, a specialist can help you figure out how long your sleep cycles last and advise you on when to go to bed and when to wake up.
If your sleep troubles are more serious, they may diagnose you with a sleeping disorder and provide the best advice for getting better rest.
Wake Up Naturally
Instead of relying on an alarm clock to wake up, try waking up naturally. You may find you need to go to bed earlier to give yourself enough time to sleep.
Remember, sleeping is the best way for your body to recover. If you’re tired, it’s a sign that your body needs to rest. When you use an alarm clock, you’re forcing yourself awake. Unfortunately, we need alarm clocks to fulfill our everyday obligations like going to work, going to school, and taking the children to daycare. But, if you time your sleep cycles right, you can still wake up on time without the use of a shrill alarm.
When you wake up naturally, your body will only do so when you’re coming out of a sleep cycle. Then, you’ll wake up feeling well-rested instead of groggy and foggy.
Tips to Have a Better Night’s Sleep
You may find it easier to wake up on time if you’re getting quality sleep at night. Consider these tips for a better night’s rest:
- Set a Sleep Schedule — By practicing good sleep hygiene and going to bed and waking up at the same time, you’ll reinforce your body’s natural circadian rhythm; this should make it easier to fall asleep and wake up each day.
- Cut Blue Light Before Bed — Blue light delays the release of melatonin, a naturally occurring chemical our body needs to go to sleep. Avoiding screens an hour before bed helps ready your mind and body for rest.
- Be Mindful of Caffeine Consumption — A daily cup of coffee isn’t going to wreak havoc on your night’s sleep, as long as you time it right. Avoid caffeine after noon and instead try herbal teas for a midday pick-me-up. While these do contain small amounts of caffeine, they’re not enough to impact your sleep as coffee, soda, or energy drinks can.
- Avoid Afternoon Naps — Naps can be quite tempting, but taking them too late in the afternoon may delay melatonin production later on in the evening, and ultimately, keep you awake. If you’re needing some shut-eye in the middle of your busy day, keep them anywhere between 15 to 20 minutes and try to schedule them for at least five hours before bedtime.
- Adjust Your Sleep Environment — Invest in blackout curtains and set your thermostat anywhere between 60 to 67 degrees. Research has shown temperatures in the 60s are the best for facilitating deep, undisturbed sleep; while blackout curtains are effective at blocking out unwanted light.
Find a Better Night’s Sleep
Whether you’re a night owl or an early bird, everybody occasionally wakes up feeling groggy and longing for more shut-eye. Instead of opting for sleep aids, consider taking a more natural approach to getting better rest.
Learning more about the science of sleep, and how you can time your night’s rest to wake up when your body is ready, is an easy way to get better sleep without the use of supplements or specialists. However, if your sleep problems are leaving you stumped, we recommend consulting with your doctor.