Relief From Early Morning Insomnia

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.

early morning awakening can be avoided by postponing sleepIt 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Timing Your Exercise for Optimal Sleep

It’s pretty well established now that exercise is good for sleep. Compared with couch potatoes, exercisers generally fall asleep more quickly, sleep more soundly, and feel more alert during the day.

The timing of your workout can also affect your sleep. Lack of exposure to sunlight can be a setup for insomnia, and now that the days are short, you may be able to improve your sleep by making exercise more regular or exercising at a different time of day.

exercising at the same time of day everyday helps your sleepIt’s pretty well established now that exercise is good for sleep. Compared with couch potatoes, exercisers generally fall asleep more quickly, sleep more soundly, and feel more alert during the day.

The timing of your workout can also affect your sleep. Lack of exposure to sunlight can be a setup for insomnia, and now that the days are short, you may be able to improve your sleep by making exercise more regular or exercising at a different time of day.

Challenging Gospel

First, let’s look at a new study that turns conventional thinking on its head. You’ve probably read that you shouldn’t exercise too close to bedtime. Exercise increases your heart and breathing rate, increases the stress hormones circulating in the blood, and delays secretion of melatonin. None of this is compatible with sleep—when your body is in rest-and-relax mode.

Still, there’s little evidence that vigorous exercise in the run-up to bedtime is harmful to sleep. So Swiss researchers set out to study the effects of evening exercise on 52 young adults who routinely exercised 2 or 3 nights a week. Specifically, they wanted to find out if the amount of exertion in the hours before bedtime would have a negative effect on sleep.

Surprising Results

Following an evening of normal exercise, subjects were hooked up to an EEG machine for the recording of brain activity during sleep. In bed, they completed a questionnaire to assess how vigorously they’d exercised and how they felt. Then the EEG recordings began, no more than 70 minutes after exercise stopped.

Surprisingly, the more vigorous the exercise,

  • the more tired subjects felt
  • the more quickly they fell asleep
  • the deeper and more efficient their sleep was, and
  • the fewer awakenings they had.

Not only did the results show that vigorous exercise late in the evening was not harmful to sleep. On the contrary, it actually improved sleep in many ways.

This study shows that evening workouts may be beneficial to the sleep of healthy young adults. Whether the results would generalize to other populations is still unknown, but the results bode well for people who want to exercise but can’t find time during the day.

Exercise and the Circadian System

What about people with insomnia and older adults? Evening exercise may be OK for us (or not), but when should we exercise to maximize our chances for sound sleep? Following is the gist of what little is known.

One key to using exercise to benefit sleep is to make the activity regular. Scheduled exercise is known to improve the function of the circadian system, and sleep tends to be more stable when internal rhythms are in sync.

Sunlight is the main external cue that keeps your internal circadian rhythms in sync with the earth’s 24-hour light/dark cycle. But exercise has a lesser synchronizing effect on circadian rhythms. Especially near the winter solstice, when you’re exposed to the least amount of sunlight all year, regular exercise may be a good way to keep insomnia at bay.

The Best Time of Day

Regarding optimal timing, one study found that long-term fitness training in the middle of the day improved the consolidation of the sleep/wake cycle in older men.

Other studies suggest that in older adults with insomnia, sleep quality is more likely to improve with exercise scheduled late in the afternoon or early in the evening. Research from the 1980s is supportive of this claim. Exercise heats the body up and eventually triggers an internal cooling mechanism favorable to sleep—specifically, deep sleep. So you may be able to improve the quality and depth of your sleep by scheduling exercise sessions later in the day. I have.

But the timing of your workout may be less important to sleep than doing it at the same time every day. So experiment to find out when exercise is more appealing (or least unappealing!) and seems to help with your sleep. Then make it part of your routine.

If you exercise, when do you do it, and does it help your sleep?