By Dawn Butt and Brett Wisniewski
We’ve all been there, staying at a friend’s house and being jarred awake by the smells of freshly brewed coffee and bacon, and as you stumble from the bed you flip your phone and it’s 5:00 am. Surely this must be a dream. Or maybe a hungry-person home invasion? You crack the door to find those smells accompanied by freshly squeezed orange juice and a faint whistling of some catchy song. This is worse than you thought. This is reality and your host is a morning person!
Don’t worry, this hatred runs deep in most of us. The reason for it? Jealousy. Imagine the extra waking hours, the productivity…the happiness! People subscribe to their personal sleep/wake cycle so deeply that it becomes their identity: “I am a morning person” or the opposite, “I tend to be more of a night owl”. In most cases, these patterns start out as habits. Whether it’s those late nights in the student center preparing for midterms or that 4 am barista job in your early 20s. If these habits go on for too long, however, then your biological rhythms actually shift.
Other times, we see the sleep/wake schedule (circadian rhythm) be influenced by some sort of chronic disorder. For example, fatigue or depression, which makes it harder to get up in the morning, or anxiety, which causes insomnia.
For years, I spent the mornings squeezing out every minute of sleep I could. I put forth so much effort to change my routine for just 540 seconds more of sleep (that’s the 9-minute snooze for those who are counting on their fingers). The night before, I would shower, prepare my outfit, make my lunch, make a breakfast that was quick to warm up and could be consumed on my way to school…all of this just for those few extra minutes of snooze time. I was a snooze button addict! And don’t get me started on the weekends – that was a back of the eyelids free-for-all! I’ve tried almost everything positive to slurp up that last drop of sleep. But then, I had this feeling that maybe the other side had it right. What if I could be more productive or, even crazier, feel better across enemy lines?!
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and likely would involve a lot of mind games for a few weeks, but then after that, I would get to see how the other side lives. From my experience, this shift takes 2-4 weeks, even in extreme cases. So, your buy-in will be short but the payoff will be tremendous. Getting good quality sleep absolutely helps with this transition and should go without saying, but we are going to concentrate on the AM routine for this article. If you’re having sleep-onset or duration issues, stay tuned! That article is coming soon 😉
Create a Schedule and Keep a Routine
Listen, if you’re tired at 8:00 am, you’re going to be tired at 6:00 am and likely you’d be tired at 10:00 am, too. If this is the case, then getting up at 6:00 am will leave you in the same energetic state as your normal waking hour but net you 2 extra waking hours for productivity. This is the biggest mind game of all – the numbers on the clock. Everyone has that time that just seems “too early to be awake”. Whether it is 4, 5, or 6 am, get over it. It is literally just a number. Pick a consistent time and stick with it! Set a recurring alarm and don’t change it – a “set it and forget it” approach works well here!
If you have no clue what the best time is to get up, count 7-8 hours forward from when you go to SLEEP (better than counting sheep- which by the way, doesn’t work any better than staring at the ceiling; it’s science). Now, obviously, you might have to adjust your bedtime to make this happen, but again, we’re focusing on the morning routine here.
One of the biggest mistakes most people make is shifting their sleeping schedule on the weekend. Try not to deviate too much. It sounds great to “sleep in” but you won’t feel any better and it will throw off your upcoming workweek schedule. Me, I get up at 5:30 am on the weekends instead of my usual 5:00 am. A 30-60 minute adjustment is ok, but if you find yourself waking up tired, push through and take a nap later in the day. We’ve all had the experience of having to get up earlier than normal for something and then finding that the initial sleepiness wears off relatively quickly. Mind over matter!
Bright (Sun)Light Exposure
Expose yourself to sunlight within an hour after waking. This triggers cortisol release, which ideally peaks around the time of waking. It is the best way to ensure focus and wakefulness throughout the day. It also sets you up for falling and staying asleep that night (again, more on that side of things in a later article). Turn on the lights in your house if the sun isn’t up yet, and then go out into the sunlight as soon as it rises (the artificial light does not replace sunlight, but it will serve to wake you up more). You want to get 10 minutes in the morning and 10 in the afternoon – go for 20 minutes on cloudy days and 30 on very cloudy days. The important part is specifically getting sunlight in your eyes – avoid sunglasses and windows/windshields but contacts and eyeglasses are fine – it has to do with the way the light is diffused with sunglasses but more focused with contacts or glasses. (Also, use common sense, don’t stare directly into the bright sun or bright lights…just look in the direction of the sun). Some may have plenty of access to early daylight but it may be cold early in the morning. Lucky you! This is even better! See the next point.
If you have access to red LED light panels, those appear to be beneficial and may be a good option for those who shift work and do not have the opportunity for wake-time sun exposure. There are also lights that mimic sun exposure. Both of these options can be out of many folk’s budgets, so if you can, get outside into nature and enjoy the free boost in hormones!
Overnight, a drop in internal body temperature is a major mechanism to allow for a nice “deep” sleep with appropriate duration. The opposite is true in the AM. Our body temperature naturally rises as we begin to wake up and this also causes the release of cortisol – again, encouraging alertness and focus, as well as increased metabolism and immune function (#bonus). Believe it or not, exposing yourself to cold in the AM, will trigger your internal temperature to increase. A cold shower is a great way to do this. While it may not sound fun, it only takes 1-3 minutes for huge benefits. It also assists in feeling alert, awake, and focused because it triggers adrenaline and dopamine (think: “more motivation!”).
If you let out an audible and emphatic “NO, THANK YOU!” to the cold shower idea, try stepping outside on cold mornings, instead. This approach can be a two-fer or three-fer in the “benefits” department, depending on your strategy. We’ve already talked about light exposure, so this is an obvious time-saver for getting your light AND your cold exposure, given that it is cold outside.
Two other practices you can stack with this tip are earthing and exercise. Earthing, also known as grounding, is exposing your bare feet (or other parts of the body) to the bare earth, ideally for 10-15 minutes. The Earth has a negative charge, which serves to neutralize the free radicals from the positive ionic charge that our body accumulates from our exposure to just daily living, but especially electronics. For this reason, avoid staring at or holding your phone as much as possible during this practice. The scientific benefits of earthing are numerous, but a few of our favorites as they relate specifically to your new “morning person” routine are: improved sleep, more energy, stress reduction, normalizing circadian rhythm, reduced jet lag symptoms, and reduced inflammation (always a #bonus).
Now, let’s transition to exercise.
Exercising in the AM will absolutely improve your energy in the morning but it may also cause early onset somniloquy (tiredness) later in the day. The timing of exercise is tricky, and it does appear to have a high degree of bio-individuality. Some feel better if they exercise at lunch and it gives them a second wind for the day; others will exercise at night because they feel this leads to better training sessions. I would say try it and see how you feel and then make a decision.
One thing that is fairly universal though is just moving. Gentle stretching or a leisurely walk around the block can be helpful. As mentioned above, combining your exercise with your morning light exposure by doing it outside saves you time and gives you the additional benefit of fresh air. Try 10-15 minutes of calisthenics, jumping rope, or a short jog/brisk walk. Stack the benefits by doing any of these activities barefoot (safely, of course).
Caffeine, but not right away
Caffeine is a great way to wake up the mind and body, however, my fellow coffee addicts out there, you might not like what you’re about to read. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you not to drink coffee…but, I am going to tell you to wait to drink coffee until at least an hour and a half after waking up. Hear me out! There are two main reasons why delaying your caffeine consumption can have a big impact on your whole circadian rhythm: cortisol and adenosine.
First, as we’ve already talked about, your body releases cortisol first thing in the morning, peaking around the time of waking and then beginning to fall around late morning and continuing to fall throughout the day. Consuming caffeine immediately after waking up interferes with the body’s natural timing of cortisol release. This results in feeling more tired in the long run. Waiting until the point when your cortisol level begins to fall means that you will benefit from more sustained energy and avoid having to continue to drink coffee just to stay awake.
Second, the chemical compound called adenosine accumulates throughout the day in our brain and is responsible for promoting sleepiness and helping us stay asleep. It is cleared out with sleep and is, ideally, at its lowest when you wake up (levels will remain higher if the duration or quality of sleep is inadequate). It might seem like a good idea, then, to squash the rest of this sleepy-causing chemical as soon as you can, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The dues must be paid eventually. While caffeine blocks the effects of adenosine by binding to its receptors, it does not reduce the total amount of adenosine in the body. Therefore, when the effects of the caffeine wear off, the grogginess from the remaining adenosine sets in. You’re essentially just putting off (and stacking up) the fatigue until later, hence why you feel you need that third or fourth cup of coffee in the afternoon.
The great news is that I’ve already told you how you can clear out the rest of the adenosine and therefore, feel more alert before the coffee. How? By allowing cortisol to hit its natural peak timing and/or supporting it with light exposure, cold exposure, or exercise. How’s that for bringing it full circle?!
In short, feel free to enjoy that tasty cup of joe, just give your body’s natural energy-creating cycle a chance to do its thing first (or give it a little support). Trust me, you’ll enjoy your coffee (and your day) so much more!
So, now what?
Welcome to the dark side, my friend! You can now go forth with more waking hours at your disposal AND better health on your side!
Still not convinced? Need support making the switch? We offer “Sleep Coaching” for those who are ready to experience better sleep and/or who are wanting to finally become the envied Morning Person.