Q & A: Early Morning Insomnia

Early birds often awaken in the wee hours of the morning and miss out on social activities in the evening.

Here’s how to sleep later in the morning and delay evening sleepiness using appropriately-timed light exposure and exercise.

Advanced sleep phase disorder can be managed with bright light timed appropriately.

Advanced sleep phase disorder can be managed with bright light timed appropriately.Sleep timing varies from person to person and can stray pretty far from the norm. A visitor posted a question on Ask The Savvy Insomniac about waking up early and not being able to fall back to sleep. Here’s what she said:

“What I’ve always had is early morning insomnia, which has gotten earlier and earlier as I’ve gotten older. It used to be when I was working and living in New York City, I’d go to bed at 10 and wake up maybe at 4. Now I can’t keep my eyes open past 8:30. Often I wake up at 1 or 2 and can’t fall back asleep though I stay in bed. A lot of the time, I just don’t feel rested.”

But exercise, she went on to say, “seems to take away some of the tiredness. If I exercise and get my metabolism going, I’m much better. I jog in the morning right within an hour of when I get up.” Still, she said, she’d like to get more sleep. What could she do to prolong her sleep in the morning?

Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder (ASPD)

One problem here may be ASPD, the diagnosis given to people who tend to fall asleep and wake up much earlier than normal, who miss out on evening social activities and awaken in the wee hours of the morning. Rather than cycling every 24 hours, their body clock operates on a shorter cycle, prompting the urge to fall asleep and wake up early.

If this is your situation, changing your habits may help.

1)    Adjust your exposure to light. Light can have a big effect on the timing of sleep cycles, particularly daylight. Exposure to daylight early in the morning (as is habitual for the early morning jogger writing above) will shift your body clock in the wrong direction, making you sleepy soon after dinner. If you’re inclined to ASPD, you’ll want to dim your lights in the morning. Wear dark glasses if an early morning walk is part of the routine. Save your exposure to bright lighting for the evening, when it works in your favor. If turning on the living room lights full blast in the evening doesn’t keep you from nodding off, try sitting beside a light box while you’re reading or watching TV.

2)    Exercise late in the afternoon rather than early in the morning. Like light, bodily activity can affect the timing of sleep. While early morning exercise tends to make you want to nod off earlier in the evening, late afternoon or early evening exercise will delay your sleep cycle, which is what people with ASPD are looking for.

The Take-Away

Changes in light exposure and the timing of exercise may be helpful to early birds wanting more of a social life and less time awake in the dead of the night.

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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