Changes in schedules or forced early wake-ups can wreak havoc on our sleep patterns—not to mention the effect on our mood, energy levels and brain power. I talked with sleep medicine specialist, Dr. Scott Leibowitz, about the best ways to get up and out of bed when you'd rather stay in and sleep.

Julie Jones
April 20, 2021
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Your schedule changes. Your kids have to be at school early. Your boss schedules an early meeting. You're trying to wake up earlier for exercise. You set your alarm. You give yourself plenty of time. But you still feel sleepy, groggy and low energy. If this resonates with you, you're not alone. While research shows that trouble waking is most common in adolescents and tends to decrease as we age, it's an issue that still impacts many adults. Here's why it's so hard to wake up earlier, plus expert-backed tips to try out to make it easier to get up and go.

Why is it so hard to wake up early?

So why do some people bounce right up in the morning, while others—myself included—have a harder time waking up? Sleep medicine specialist, Scott Leibowitz, M.D., DABSM, FAASM, explains that the answer lies in our DNA.

"It is important to realize that sleep is a biological process and like all biological processes, each person is designed differently." This biological process is part of our central nervous system and is determined by our genetics.

Circadian rhythms are part of the body's biological clock: a structure in our central nervous system that controls all of the processes of the human body—with sleep and wake being the most notable. When someone has trouble waking up, it's a result of their genetically determined circadian rhythms.

Dr. Leibowitz says, "When we are forced to wake at a time that is earlier than our natural wake time, our brain is still in a sleep state, so we will typically experience a sleep inertia, where our brain and our body want to stay asleep." This can become especially problematic when our natural wake time—the time that our body naturally wants to wake—is much later than our forced wake time, causing sleepiness during the day, even if we have gotten enough hours of sleep.

For those of us who are night owls, even when we have the best of intentions, Dr. Leibowitz says, "If you are a night owl, early mornings will always be difficult." And while there isn't a way to change this trait, thankfully, there are ways to manage it to make waking up easier.

Woman Waking Up In Bed
Credit: Getty Images / Willie B. Thomas

How to make waking up early easier

1. Go to bed earlier—but not too early

Going to bed earlier to allow for more sleep can help to offset the effects of waking up earlier. The trick is that you have to find your "sweet spot". Find a bed time that allows you to get more sleep than you would by going to bed at your "normal" time, without going to sleep so early that it causes you to wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back asleep (read more on that here).

As the week goes on, you can gradually move your bedtime a little earlier each night so that you'll get more sleep and will also continue to be able to sleep through the night. While you may still feel sleepy in the mornings due to circadian misalignment, you will certainly feel better than if you hadn't adjusted your bedtime to allow for more sleep.

2. Stand up

Step 1: Put one foot on the floor.

Step 2: Put the other foot on the floor.

Step 3: Make yourself stand up.

It sounds simple but just by standing up, you're already on your way! Dr. Leibowitz shares, "When your alarm goes off at an early time and you don't want to get out of bed, the best thing to do is to muster up the energy to put your feet on the ground and get out of bed. Standing up actually sends a signal to your alerting mechanism to 'wake up'."

3. Turn on the lights

It would be nice if we were always able to wake up as sunlight began to stream in through our windows. For many of us, that simply isn't possible and waking in the dark is the norm (especially in the winter months).

There is research to suggest that exposing yourself to bright lights in the morning is activating and increases your alertness. So, turn on as many bright lights as possible as soon as you wake up. Turn on your bedroom light as soon as the alarm goes off, the bathroom light as you brush your teeth and as many lights in the kitchen while you make your coffee.

4. Take a cold shower

Taking a shower always helps to wake us up. But if you need to be up, alert and ready to go, a cold shower is the way to go.

Dr. Leibowitz shares, "While it may be the last thing you want to experience just after waking, it has been shown that a "cold plunge" into near freezing water causes the release of neurotransmitters in our brain that not only help to wake you up, but also enhance your mood."

5. Move your body

If you can exercise in the mornings, do it! It may sound counter-intuitive, but getting your body moving, even when you're tired, is activating. Exercise helps with alertness by elevating dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine—all chemicals that improve cognition and focus. Exercise also elevates endorphins, the body's feel-good neurotransmitters, that elevate your mood.

Dr. Leibowitz shares one caveat to this: "It may not be ideal to exercise every morning if you are forced to curtail your sleep significantly in order to do so. I often recommend choosing two days per week to exercise in the mornings, and then one or two days on the weekends."

6. Manage your weekend sleep

Oh, how tempting it is to sleep in late on the weekends after a long week of early wake-ups. The problem arises because sleeping later means that you may have trouble falling asleep that evening.

Dr. Leibowitz says that he, "generally recommends sleeping in on Saturday morning and forcing yourself up earlier on Sunday (possibly an hour later than your weekday wake time). This way on Sunday night, you'll have an easier time falling asleep earlier and will be more likely sleep through the night. This allows you to begin to offset the impact of circadian misalignment that you will experience on Monday morning."

Bottom Line

While we may not be able to turn night owls into morning larks, we can make early mornings less painful by simply acknowledging the fact that everyone's sleep patterns are different and adding some of these techniques into our early morning routine to better rise and shine!

It's important to note that if your sleep disturbances have been going on three times a week for more than 30 days or are causing you distress, it is time to go and see a specialist. You may be dealing with a true sleep disorder or an underlying medical condition and in those cases, it's important to seek the advice of a medical professional. To find a sleep specialist in your area, you can visit Sleep Education.org to find an American Academy of Sleep Medicine Accredited physician.

It's also important to note that severe trouble waking up, consistently not wanting to get out of bed and the need for excessive sleep can be symptoms of depression or an underlying health issue. If you have been experiencing these symptoms for more than two weeks or if you are experiencing symptoms that are severe, you should seek the advice of a medical professional