From Snooze-Button Addict to Morning Person
I have always wanted to be one of those women who jump out of bed and into a pair of running shoes at 7 a.m. What an amazing feeling: to stroll into work after a three-mile jog, a Spinning class, or a series of sun salutations. I wouldn't know.
"Um, really?" my husband asks on Monday night when I tell him I'm going to the gym the next morning at seven. Why the skepticism? He shoots me a knowing look.
7:00 a.m. Alarm blares. Ugh, I should get up.
7:15 a.m. My gym clothes are right there! I laid them out on my chair last night!
7:30 a.m. I should at least get up and do a workout DVD.
7:45 a.m. Too late to work out; might as well cozy up and sleep some more.
8:00 a.m. Now I have to get up or else I'll be late.
Clearly my morning sluggishness is cramping my workout style. But can I change my night-owl ways? Because I've snoozed through the better part of three decades, I'm pretty sure I'm just inherently lazy. But I'm determined to try, so I call in the troops: the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. After I tell them about my mission to get more out of my mornings, they set me up with my very own sleep guru, Colette Haward, MD, a psychiatrist in New York City. At our first meeting, my future as an early riser looks bright. "There's a genetic component to your circadian clock. But for many people, behavioral changes make a big difference," Dr. Haward says. She tells me that it typically takes a few weeks to get on a better sleep schedule. I'm yawning already.
Sizing Up My Zzz's
The first question Dr. Haward asks me is how much I sleep. "A lot! I turn in by midnight and get up around eight. Why is it so difficult to get out of bed every morning?" I complain. She tells me to track when I get into bed, fall asleep, and get up and if I wake during the night for two weeks. "This is the best way to objectively assess whether you have a sleep disorder or just need to change your habits," she explains.
My Bedtime Story
The log is, well, eye-opening. Most nights my head hits the pillow closer to 2 a.m. Seriously? No wonder I'm a zombie in the mornings; the eight hours I thought I was snoozing just turned into six. "Many people think they're getting more or less than they actually are," Dr. Haward says. "Your sleep cycle is pushed back a few hours. It's delayed at night, which causes excessive sleepiness in the morning and during the day."
Another red flag is my weekend wake-up time -- a not-so-respectable 10 or 11 a.m. Sleeping two hours later on Saturday and Sunday throws off my internal clock during the week. "We all have a 24-hour clock that regulates our sleep-wake cycle," Dr. Haward explains. It lives in your brain and enlists a team of hormone helpers to knock you out and wake you up. Cortisol is like your butt-kicking personal trainer who shows up in the morning -- or in my case, around noon -- to rev you up, while melatonin is a mellow meditation instructor who drops in at night -- er, 2 a.m.! -- to help you wind down. It's not news to me that I should get up at the same time every day, but I'm more likely to do it now that I know why I should.
Resetting My Internal Clock
I learn from my snooze sage that to get back on track, I need to stick to a reasonable sleep schedule. But a little research shows me there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to how much I need each night. When Harvard Medical School scientists monitored hormone levels in people who slept more than nine hours nightly and compared them with those of others who slept less than six, the sleepyheads secreted more melatonin. Translation: Some bodies are hardwired for more sleep, others less. (Hmm.... Something tells me that won't fly as an excuse in the office. "I'm so sorry I missed our 8:00 a.m. meeting, boss, but my circadian clock didn't go off.")
My Bedtime Story
"The best way to determine your individual sleep needs is to let your body guide you during a week of vacation. In other words, don't use an alarm clock," Dr. Haward says. Since I don't have any getaways coming up, she suggests that I start with seven to eight hours a night (the average amount adults need, although some naturally need more) and see how I feel. In an effort to squeeze in a morning run around Brooklyn's nearby Prospect Park, I decide to get up at 7:30, which means lights-out at 11:30 the night before. "Be militant about these times, even on the weekends, when you're used to sleeping in. A regular schedule is crucial," Dr. Haward advises. She warns me that if I'm feeling more tired than usual after a couple of days on the new schedule, chances are I'm still working my way out of debt -- sleep debt, that is. Even though I'll be getting the eight hours I need, it will take a while for those two extra hours a night to have a positive impact on my energy level during the day. Although it won't happen overnight, my new schedule will help me make deposits into my sleep bank account so I'll wake up feeling energetic instead of exhausted.
Creating a Sleep Sanctuary
Once I know when to sleep, we discuss where I sleep. A snooze-friendly bedroom is, you guessed it, dark (light suppresses the secretion of sleep-inducing melatonin) and quiet. It also needs to be cool to allow you to sleep comfortably. "The magic number for a sleep-friendly room is around 69 degrees Fahrenheit," Dr. Haward tells me. Before you sleep, your body temperature drops. As your brain releases melatonin, your body is chilling out -- literally. When the morning approaches, melatonin decreases and you start to wake up.
My Bedtime Story
Dark is easy. I've always wanted one of those "I'm a movie star" sleep masks. Quiet and cool in a New York City apartment are a little trickier, so I check in with Michael Breus, PhD, author of Beauty Sleep: Look Younger, Lose Weight, and Feel Great Through Better Sleep. "Your brain constantly interprets stimuli, even while you sleep," Dr. Breus explains. "A white-noise machine can block any distractions and calm your brain." He suggests Brookstone's Tranquil Moments Sleep Sound Therapy System (brookstone.com, $129.95), with 12 soothing settings. Now for the tough part: the variable temperature in my apartment. Like many city dwellers, I live in a building where I can't regulate my heat, so I never know if it will be sweltering or subzero. Surprisingly Dr. Breus recommends a wool blanket as a remedy. "Wool is a fantastic insulator but also good for wicking away moisture and keeping you cool," he explains. I order a queen-size Natura Classic All Season Comforter ($223.20, naturaworld.com). Dark? Check. Quiet? Done. Cool? Let's hope so.
Establishing a Relaxing Routine
The time has come to put my new sleep environment to the test. Dr. Haward recommends taking 30 minutes to prepare myself for sleep with a three-step plan: (1) Take a hot bath or shower (when you step out, your body temperature drops, which encourages sleep); (2) jot down a list of anything you're worried about to clear your mind; and (3) dim the lights and meditate, do some deep breathing or practice progressive relaxation, in which you slowly tense and then relax all your muscles from scalp to toes. And no more Late Show with David Letterman. Dr. Haward notes that televisions, cell phones, and computer screens all emit blue light, which has been shown to suppress melatonin production.
My Bedtime Story
I'm skeptical when 11 p.m. rolls around. Since it's Saturday, I've been up for only 12 hours. I doubt that a hot bath and a diary entry will make me tired. Plus, I've heard these sleep-inducing suggestions before. Admittedly I haven't tried them; filling the tub takes forever, meditating seems dull, and I usually finish up work or watch TiVoed episodes of 30 Rock before I hit the sack. So long, Tina Fey.
First I hop into the shower and up the ante with a lavender body wash (a recent study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that the scent helped insomniacs sleep better). On to the worry list: "Dear worry diary, I'm worried about ...Deadline tomorrow. Meeting Wednesday. Dentist's appointment at noon. That I will never become a morning person...." Okay, enough of that. Time to flex my zen muscle. My older, wiser, and less frazzled sister has been touting the benefits of meditation for years, so I dig through my sock drawer until I find the how-to CD she gave me. I pop it in. Ten minutes later I feel relaaaaaaxed, and, hey, it's 11:30! Lights out, sound machine on.
The crashing waves are soothing and the comforter is cozy without feeling stifling, but I'm not even on the outskirts of the land of nod. I toss. I turn over. I'm thirsty. I think back to what Dr. Haward said to do if I couldn't fall asleep: "After 30 minutes, get up and engage in a quiet activity. Don't flip on bright overhead lights; use a soft table lamp instead." Twenty minutes into a crossword puzzle in my dimly lit living room, my eyelids droop. Hooray! Oops. I mean, shhhh! Time for bed.
Bypassing the Snooze Button
On any given day, I hit the darn snoozer anywhere from three to six times. What's the big deal? Turns out, besides robbing myself of 30 to 60 minutes of sleep, I'm messing with my system. "It generally takes about an hour to reach deep, restorative sleep. Your fragmented morning dozing actually leaves you more tired," Dr. Haward explains.
My Bedtime Story
Breaking up with Snooze is hard to do. Beep, beep! I want to throw the alarm clock across the room, but I can't, because Dr. Haward told me to put it in the living room. So I have to leave my comfortable bed to turn it off (well played, sleep doctor!). I stumble to the bathroom, splash some cold water on my face, clip the leash onto my dog, Theodore, and stagger out the door. "Go outside and take a walk right when you get up," I recall Dr. Haward telling me. "Bright light suppresses sleep-inducing melatonin." It works; 10 minutes later I feel surprisingly alert. Lesson learned: Once I'm out among the living, I'm fine. But how the heck do I crawl out from under those covers smiling instead of swearing?
Next morning I try an alarm clock that eases me into reality. The BlueMax Sunrise System Model 320 ($129, fullspectrumsolutions.com) grows progressively brighter as 7:30 a.m. nears. "Graduating-light alarm clocks are effective, especially during winter, when mornings are dark," Dr. Breus says. When I open my eyes, my mood is a little brighter too (although I would still rather go back to sleep).
On day three, I sweeten the deal with a get-up incentive. If I wake on time, I get to watch my fave show on TiVo after Theodore's walk (a stop at your favorite coffee shop or breakfast with a pal would also work). My oatmeal is a riot with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, and afterward I'm positively cheerful on the subway.
I experience a breakthrough a week later. My early-rising friend Carolina asks me to meet her at the park for a 7:45 a.m. doggie playdate. I'm pretty sure she thought I would say no on a Saturday, but I rise to the challenge. As soon as I step outside, I'm smiling. The sky seems bluer, my down parka feels cozier; I am in love with the morning! When I run into another friend at the park, she nearly falls over and asks, "What are you doing up so early?"
Ever since I discovered my inner morning person, I wake up at five every day. Just kidding. But it's way easier to get out of bed most of the time. The night after my two-week experiment ended, I decided to tempt fate and not set the 7:30 alarm. I awoke at a perfectly respectable 8:00! Now I'm typically up and moving at 7:30 on weekdays and 8:30 on weekends. My energy has increased, I no longer doze off on the subway in the morning, I'm in a better mood, and I've even dropped a few pounds, thanks to my new morning running routine.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2010.