Relying on an alarm clock isn’t just bad for you because it depletes sleep – it also makes it likely that you’ll wake up at the wrong point in your sleep cycle, which can have a negative effect on your health.
Do you rise serenely to the sound of birds tweeting in the morning? Or are you dragged from slumber, heart racing and hackles raised, by the screeching of an alarm clock?
It’s bad news if it’s the latter – according to sleep experts, when it comes to our health, we’d all be better off breaking up with our alarm clocks.
‘If you’re dependent on an alarm to get you out of bed then you’re not getting enough sleep, and you’re at risk of all the negative consequences of that,’ says Professor Russell Foster, director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford.
Sleep experts have warned that people would be better off if they ditched their alarm clocks
‘In a perfect world, no one would use an alarm clock – we’d all wake up naturally having had as much sleep as we need,’ adds independent sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley, who only uses one if he has to be up extremely early for a flight.
‘Using an alarm clock means you are potentially going to wake up during a stage of sleep in which you are not designed to wake,’ says Dr Stanley.
While we sleep, the electrical activity in our brains slows and speeds up again several times a night. These patterns are known as sleep cycles.
In each cycle, our brain activity slows down until we reach deep or ‘slow wave’ sleep – the most restorative kind – before coming back up into light, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, a state much closer to wakefulness.
This is when we are biologically programmed to wake: left to our own devices we would never wake up naturally during deep sleep.
But an alarm clock doesn’t know if you are in this stage of sleep.
‘Deep sleep is the only time that the brain can properly rest and do its housekeeping, allowing the brain and body to recuperate,’ says Dr Stanley, who explains that if we are woken up from it we feel groggy – this is because the hormones that make us feel alert have not yet reached the levels they should be at, while electrical activity in the brain has been ‘jump started’ instead of rising naturally.
‘When you use an alarm clock, you’re shocking the system and the body will trigger a stress response to wake you, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure,’ explains Professor Foster.
According to the experts, alarm clocks are dangerous because they force you to wake up out of your sleep pattern
‘Cortisol, the stress hormone, rises in the morning in anticipation of waking, but if you’re woken up too early you can get a big spike in it.’
Studies have shown that in the long-term, being deprived of deep sleep can leave you more susceptible to heart disease, infection and metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity.
Relying on an alarm clock could also, quite simply, make you miserable. ‘Research shows people who are not getting enough good quality sleep, i.e. deep sleep, will remember negative experiences perfectly well, but they forget positive experiences,’ says Professor Foster.
So ditching the alarm clock seems sure to make you healthier and happier – but is it really achievable? Can you train yourself to wake up at the right time in your sleep cycle, and at the right time to go about your daily life?
I’ve never been a morning person, and start most weekday mornings dazed, resenting my alarm and wishing I could sleep that bit longer. It’s rare I don’t set one and not to do so seems like a sure-fire route to over-sleeping. I’m sceptical, but decide to find out if I really could wean myself off my alarm. I give myself a month.
At first, I simply try to ‘tell’ myself before falling asleep what time to wake up, giving myself roughly eight hours and setting an ‘emergency’ alarm half an hour after that in case I don’t wake of my own accord.
Almost every day I sleep through until the usual buzzing rouses me – less than ideal.
I consult the experts. ‘The first thing to do if you want to wean yourself off the alarm is to listen to your body to find out how much sleep you really need,’ says Professor Foster.
‘Some people need nine hours, some can get away with six-and-a-half, but there is no norm,’ he explains, adding that the term ‘oversleeping’ is in many ways a misnomer.
Left to our own devices, we don’t ‘over’ sleep, we sleep as much as we need. ‘A few consecutive days where you have no alarm set and no deadline will allow you to wake up undisturbed during REM and so work out how long you naturally sleep for,’ says Professor Foster.
Dr Stanley said: ‘Using an alarm clock means you are potentially going to wake up during a stage of sleep in which you are not designed to wake’
So if you’re someone who needs to get up at 7am for work, you can work out when you need to go to bed so that you then wake naturally at 7am.
The other key to weaning yourself off your alarm lies in keeping a regular routine – being militant about getting up at the same time each day (so no weekend lie-ins).
In fact, to give your body the best chance of waking naturally, you shouldn’t vary the time you get up by more than 30 minutes, says Dr Stanley.
This is going to be a problem for me as my bedtime can vary from 10pm to 2am each night, depending on my work patterns as a journalist. I have also struggled with insomnia on and off for years and I still have nights where it takes hours for me to fall asleep.
According to Dr Stanley, even someone who gets up an hour early some mornings to go to the gym before work will struggle to ditch their alarm clock.
He is insistent: ‘Your body needs routine,’ he says. ‘But moving your wake-up time by under 30 minutes is manageable because the body can deal with slight changes.’
This is because our body clocks actually run on a 24-hour 17-minute cycle rather than a precise 24 hours, which allows us to cope with the lengthening and shortening of the day across the year.
‘However, any more than half an hour, you’re varying the time too much,’ warns Dr Stanley.
‘We know this because when the clocks change it has measurable consequences on performance – and on accident rates.’
Fortunately, a week into trying to break up with my alarm clock, I go on holiday and, almost without effort, things click into place very quickly.
Going to bed just before 11pm each night, I find myself waking unprompted, around 7.30am, feeling refreshed.
It seems my natural sleep pattern duration is around eight-and-a-half hours.
‘The absolute ideal is that you would have a fixed bedtime and a fixed wake time, which corresponds with your individual sleep needs,’ says Dr Stanley.
Unfortunately, that’s simply not practical for some of us. So what can we do?
Professor Foster recommends the ‘good sleep hygiene’ we are often told about but often ignore: prioritising getting to bed on time, banning screens from the bedroom, blocking out light and keeping the temperature low.
He also advises never using the snooze button on your alarm (see box).
It’s also a good idea to get up if you ever find yourself waking earlier than you need to, rather than allowing yourself to doze.
‘It’s preferable to get up at that point rather than going back to sleep and risk entering another sleep cycle,’ says Dr Stanley.
For me at least, discovering how much sleep I really need has made some difference.
While I can’t always go to bed or get up at the same time, most days since my holiday, I’ve been able to wake up before my alarm – but I still set it, just in case…
Stop hitting the snooze button!
One thing we can all do that would make a surprisingly big difference to how we feel in the mornings is to stop pressing the snooze button on our alarm.
It’s tempting to think that an extra ten minutes will make you feel better, but hitting snooze will actually have the opposite effect.
‘Setting an early alarm only to “snooze it” continuously will needlessly interrupt deep sleep,’ says independent sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley. ‘Rather than waking up every ten minutes and snoozing the alarm, you’d be better off actually setting it for the latest possible time that you have to get up, and buying yourself another 30 minutes of consolidated sleep.’
This way, you’re increasing the chance that you’ll be in a period of light sleep by the time your alarm goes off, making it much easier to get up.