It may be true that the early bird gets the worm. But there’s no advantage to waking up before the birds—or so I’m told by insomnia sufferers who routinely wake up at 2:30 or 3 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep. It’s depressing to wake up too early night after night.
Here’s why early morning insomnia occurs and how to get your sleep cycle more in sync with daylight and darkness.
A Timing Issue
Early awakening insomnia has to do with the body clock and the circadian system, which control internal processes that occur on a daily basis such as sleep and the secretion of melatonin (a hormone conducive to sleep).
Some people are simply born with a body clock that runs faster than normal due to genetic factors that run in families. Rather than completing a daily cycle every 24 hours or thereabouts, their internal clocks complete a daily cycle once every 23 or 23.5 hours. It’s an ongoing struggle for these early awakeners to keep their eyes open for evening meetings and concerts. Routinely they wake up at 3 and 4 a.m.
Circadian Factors in Older Adults
Lifelong early awakeners are relatively rare. But older adults commonly experience a shift in sleep timing that causes them to nod off and wake up earlier than they did when they were younger. This pattern is not due to a sudden shortening of the circadian period but rather to age-related changes in the circadian system.
Circadian rhythms tend to weaken with age. This weakening makes both the sleep and wake states less stable, leading to increased shifting between the two states. Older adults are thus more inclined to take naps during the daytime and wake up more often at night. Shifting often and easily between sleep and wake becomes the new normal.
Another effect of weakened circadian rhythms is the forward shifting of sleep timing that occurs in some older adults. In humans, the pressure to sleep mounts steadily during the day and is quite high in the evening. Throughout much of our lives, this pressure is counteracted by robust circadian forces working to keep us alert and awake until our normal bedtime (say, 11 p.m.). The weakening of these circadian forces makes it harder for older adults to stay awake in the evening and more likely that they will experience early awakening insomnia.
Postpone Sleep in the Evening
Regardless of what’s causing your early morning insomnia, the way to sleep longer in the morning is to postpone your bedtime. Here’s how:
- Get plenty of exposure to bright light in the evening. Light can have a big effect on the timing of sleep. Turn lights up full blast at about 7 p.m. and keep them on for a couple hours. If this doesn’t keep you from nodding off early, purchase a light box that emits light as strong as daylight. Set it beside you as you read or do whatever you do in the evening. In the summertime, take an evening walk.
- Avoid bright light early in the morning. Exposure to bright light soon after awakening will shift your body clock in the wrong direction, making you sleepy sooner rather than later in the evening. Keep lights dim and shades drawn early in the morning. Wear dark glasses if you go outside.
- Exercise late in the afternoon or early in the evening rather than early in the morning. Like light, activity can affect the timing of sleep. Early morning exercise will tend to make you sleepy early in the evening. But exercise late in the afternoon or early in the evening will help postpone the urge to fall asleep.
- Cut down on alcohol in the evening. Alcohol tends to make you sleepy when it enters your system. But 4 or 5 hours later, once it passes through your system, it tends to make sleep fitful and wake you up.
- Engage in pleasurable evening activities involving movement. Do crossword or jigsaw puzzles. Play the piano or take out a sketch pad and draw. Call friends and family. Take up quilting. Knit as you watch TV. Page through picture books and catalogues. Or try using a shiatsu massage pillow to see if the sensation is pleasurable while at the same time keeping you awake.
Exposure to evening light and habitual evening activities may not delay your sleep cycle to the extent you’d like. But awakening at 4:15 may end up feeling more palatable than awakening at 3:45.