The Science of Wake-Up Lights, Sunrise Alarms, and Their Benefits

The human brain requires sleep to maintain a proper level of physical and mental health. This requirement is programmed into our biology, causing us to feel tired at night so we succumb to the urge of sleep. It is how we can benefit from the restorative processes that sleep provides.

Just because we are not awake doesn’t mean are brains our asleep. The brain is quite active while we are asleep. The human brain goes through characteristic patterns of activity throughout each sleep period. It is so active while sleeping, in fact, that there are times when the brain is less active when we are awake.

This activity is partially why you can wake-up on your own without an alarm clock. If your circadian rhythms have been established, you can even wakeup around the same time every morning. If they are not established, however, then the psychological difference of waking up naturally or waking up artificially is very important to consider.

What Is the Sleep/Wake Cycle?

Your eyelids feel heavy at night. Then they pop right open in the morning, even if you’ve only gotten a couple hours of sleep. This is because of your sleep/wake cycle, which is what your circadian rhythms happen to be.

It is a daily pattern which determines when your body wants to wake up and when it wants to go to sleep. The average person will typically average about 16 hours of wakefulness, followed by 8 hours of sleep.

That’s right. You spend one-third of your life sleeping. It is an important component of life that should not be ignored, but unfortunately, many people experience an imbalance in their wake/sleep cycle.

There are a series of processes that build the foundation for your circadian rhythms. Different hormones and chemicals rise and fall over the course of a day, allowing you to feel awake or tired at times that are quite predictable. If these hormones and chemicals get out of balance, then so will your sleeping habits.

This is where using wake-up lights or sunrise alarms can be extremely beneficial. Not only are they an effective way to wake-up naturally, but with continued use, they can also restore the balance of your sleep/wake cycle.

After all, good sleep isn’t just about quantity. It’s also about quality.

Do You Have a Circadian Rhythm Disorder?

One of the most common circadian rhythm disorders that people experience co-occurs with another disorder: SAD, or a seasonal affective disorder.

When the seasons change, it can be difficult to get to sleep or wake up in a healthy way. After more than a few days of these disruptions, the internal body clock you have will be disrupted. Over time, this can cause signs and symptoms that are like depression and can last until the seasons change.

If you decide to stay up for a couple of nights to binge-watch your favorite shows on Netflix, you don’t need to worry about a circadian rhythm disorder. People who are at a higher risk of experiencing this type of disorder are those who live and work outside of the regular light/dark cycle of our planet.

Do you or a loved one fit into one of these categories?

Each of these examples can lead to a circadian rhythm disorder, though many are short-term concerns. Over the course of a few days, your body can adjust to the new light/dark cycle and begin to get the rest you need once again.

Each of these examples, if left untreated, can also increase the risk of developing a seasonal affective disorder. This is especially true for women who are between the ages of 18-55, though anyone can develop SAD at any time and in any season.

Why Do People Feel the Urge to Wake Up with the Sun?

It doesn’t matter if you’re an early riser or a night owl. The human body is conditioned to wake up when the sun is providing light. You might stay up late, but the phrase “Early to bed, early to rise…” is a reflection of what all humans are naturally wired to do for their sleeping patterns.

If you wake up before the sun comes up, then you would be waking up early. Waking up with the sun gives you the opportunity to start your day just as the day is getting started, which is a natural experience.

The modern life, however, has different demands and expectations. We are connected to one another like never before. You can start a business in your home, get a client in London, another in Singapore, and be dealing with huge time zone gaps for communication. Many stay up late, get up early, and keep going until they can go no more.

That’s a sleeping pattern that isn’t natural, but you may not be able to get out of your personal or professional responsibilities. That is why wake-up lights and sunrise alarms are such beneficial products to have in your bedroom.

By simulating a sunset and then simulating a sunrise in a darkened room, you can “trick” your body into a balanced circadian rhythm. No matter what your actual schedule may be, this type of bedroom setup can create the foundation needed to get the 7-9 hours of sleep that the average adult needs for proper cognitive functioning.

Is Your Alarm Clock Really Hazardous to Your Health?

As reported by Smithsonian Magazine, Till Roenneberg, a professor at the University of Munich Institute of Medical Psychology, says that the alarm clock is responsible for “social jet lag.”

Social jet lag, as Roenneberg defines the term, is the constant clash which occurs between the sleep our bodies need and what our lives demand – like being on time.

A study that Roenneberg published in May 2012 studied the sleeping habits of more than 65,000 adults. Roenneberg found that 67% of them suffered from social jet lag. There was at least a 1-hour disparity between how long these people slept on a workday compared to how they slept on a weekend.

This study also discovered that from 2002-2012, people were losing about 40 minutes of sleep, on average. They were going to bed later, but getting up at the same time as they usually did. Add in the fact that people in the study were also spending less time outside and Roenneberg believed that could account for the delay in circadian rhythms.

The solution sounds simple: rewind the circadian clock. Keep it operating on a cycle of 24 hours, based on the reset of light and darkness. In reality, that can be almost impossible to do for people who work alternative schedules, have young children, or are dealing with a complex health issue like SAD.

Sleep isn’t an indulgence, but it can still be a struggle to find if there is an unbalanced circadian rhythm. That is why wake-up lights and sunrise alarms are so important to have in the bedroom. In 80% of people, it can work with their genetic makeup to re-establish a healthy sleep cycle.

Does an Artificial Dawn Really Improve Circadian Rhythms?

Dawn simulations were first patented in 1890 to create a mechanical sunrise, but the modern effort to produce wake-up lights and sunrise alarms didn’t begin until 1973. When Dr. David Avery discovered that the circadian rhythms of animals were sensitive to dim lights that would gradually rise in strength, signaling a dawn and the end of night, the popularity of the product began to increase dramatically.

The goal of an artificial dawn is to advance the biological clock of a person who has an unbalanced circadian rhythm. Once the balance is achieved, continuing to use a wake-up light or sunrise alarm can maintain that balance so that better, longer sleep cycles can be achieved.

This process can achieve results because of the phase response curve. Early morning light is more effective in moving a person’s biological clock forward than other forms of light therapy or light signals that may occur later in the day. When the simulation is naturalistic, it can be effective in any season.

All a person needs to do is sleep in a darkened room. By running the sunrise simulation, a springtime body response can be achieved even on the shortest sunlight days of the year during the Winter Solstice. In return, better sleep can be achieved. This can help to lessen the signs and symptoms of a seasonal affective disorder over time.

Is a Wake-Up Light or Sunrise Alarm Better Than Bright Light Therapy?

For individuals who have been diagnosed with a seasonal affective disorder, there are two therapeutic options that are generally recommended: sunrise simulations and bright light therapy. In a perfect world, both would be used and this would lead to a successful reduction of symptoms. Unfortunately, for 1 out of every 5 people who are diagnosed with such a disorder, the results experienced are not classified as positive.

Part of the problem with treating a seasonal affective disorder is that there are individualized symptoms that need to be controlled. Some people may only require light therapy to feel better. Others may need to be started on antidepressants, start cognitive behavioral therapy, or implement other recommended treatment options.

What is interesting about bright light therapies is that about 19% of patients who are prescribed a 10,000-lux daily treatment will discontinue their therapy without completing it. The most commonly reported reason for discontinuance is “inconvenience.”

When the data is combined, there is the potential for light therapies to be up to 99% effective in the treatment of seasonal affective and circadian rhythm disorders.

Because convenience is the primary issue that people encounter, sunrise alarms are often thought of as a better product for treating a disorder. Their convenience is certainly undisputable. Just place the wake-up light or sunrise alarm next to your bed and you’ll experience the benefits of this system from the very first night.

Yet the benefits of bright light therapy should not be discounted. More than 15 medical centers and clinics have treated seasonal affective disorders for several years with success. Improvements are often seen within 7 days, sometimes sooner, and it very rarely takes more than 14 days to see improvements in even the most serious of cases.

The modern light therapy box is extremely compact. You can fit it on the average computer desk without difficulty. You can also use it virtually anywhere, so put it at your desk at work and experience its benefits. Run the light while you watch TV. That’s really all you need to do with the modern 10,000-lux bright light therapy product.

You can also purchase light therapy lamps that have a minimum 2,500-lux output, which can also be beneficial for all-day exposure.

How to Properly Use a Wake-Up Light or Sunrise Alarm

Wake-up lights and sunrise simulations are a fantastic way to feel like you’re refreshed after a good night of rest. When properly used, these alarm clocks can give your body the natural boost it needs to get moving in the morning.

Setting up your new sunrise alarm or wake-up light is a rather simple process. You’ll want to place the clock near your bed, on a nightstand or table, and have it be close to pillow level. Then plug the clock into a wall outlet.

Do not use an extension cord to plug-in your clock as this can change the lux output on some models.

Some manufacturers also recommend against using surge protectors and power strips with your sunrise simulator.

Take the time to familiarize yourself with the controls of the display and the simulation features. Most alarm clocks in this category are programmable, so you can set the simulation for a specific start time. A common mistake is to set the simulation to begin at the exact time you need to wake up.

You need to start the sunrise simulation 15-20 minutes before the time you need to wake up. You can then add an audio component, such as an FM radio, to your alarm experience so that the natural waking mechanisms of your body are appropriately triggered. Some models have a default alarm that goes off at 7am if your clock has been set, but the alarm has not been programmed.

Set the clock on your unit. You may be asked to choose between 12/24 timing. If you choose 12-hour timing, you will want to double-check you AM and PM settings.

At this stage, you’re ready to set the total length of your simulation. Most of the sunrise alarms have a standard 30-minute setting, but some models allow you to choose shorter or longer lengths. You may be able to choose 15-minute increments, going all the way up to 2 hours for the alarm.

Most of the alarm clocks in this category do not have a snooze feature. You may be able to delay the audio component of the alarm, but not the light simulation.

Make sure that your preferred sunrise alarm or wake-up light is flicker-free.

Lights that have a noticeable flicker to themcan be problematic for individuals who have photosensitive epilepsy. This form of epilepsy has seizures triggers by flashing, flickering lights, as well as some shapes and patterns. Artificial light, like from a wake-up light, that isn’t flicker-free can cause a seizure in someone even if they have not been diagnosed with epilepsy in the past.

There is also the possibility of lights like these creating vertigo if they flash or enhancing problems with tinnitus. Migraines, dizziness, and fainting are also possibilities. Use the best wake-up light and sunrise alarm clock reviews to make sure you get the right product to meet your specific health needs.

Is a Wake-Up Light or Sunrise Simulation Right for You?

The science behind wake-up lights and sunrise simulations is clear. You can wake up better, feel more energetic, and effectively balance your circadian rhythms. Once that occurs, the quality and quantity of your sleep will begin to improve.

You can use these alarm clocks to help with the signs and symptoms of SAD, in conjunction with bright light therapies if you wish or as recommended by your doctor. They are also useful for treating jet lag, stopping insomnia, and many other bothersome sleep-related issues.

Many wake-up lights and sunrise alarm clocks are highly affordable, with numerous models priced below $50. Research each product, read through real trial reviews and customer statements, and you’ll find an option that works best for you.

It’s time to take charge of your sleeping habits. Wake-up lights and sunrise simulations will help you do just that.

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