It’s a sound we all know and dread: the harsh beep beep beep that heralds the end of our sweet dreams and the beginning of another workday. Alarm clocks have been a staple in our culture for so long that they’ve become standard comedy tropes (Groundhog Day, anyone?). And even though traditional alarm clocks are less common these days, many people still rely on their phones to perform the same function and rouse them in the mornings.
Here, learn about the health effects of alarm clocks and learn how to wake up without an alarm.
The health effects of alarm clocks
You might be surprised to learn that alarm clocks aren’t great for your overall health. The human body relies on a very delicate and precise internal clock governed by circadian rhythm, which takes its cues—such as light and temperature—from the environment. Like many other organisms, we have evolved to structure our lives around the sun as it rises and sets. In the evening, as the sky grows dark, our bodies release melatonin to induce sleepiness. In the morning, before we awaken, our adrenal glands pump out cortisol to prepare us for the stresses of the day.
Alarm clocks disrupt all of that. Why? Because they are designed to keep us in sync with the workday and not the needs of our bodies. At their prompting, we wake up at a set time in the morning regardless of whether we got enough sleep the night before. That conflict leads to what one doctor calls “social jet lag,” and it can cause a whole host of health issues. (The situation is even worse for shift workers, who often work at night.)
The circadian rhythm is like a natural alarm clock that allows us to get the sleep we need and wake up at a time that makes sense. Alarm clocks don’t take any of that into account.
Alarm clocks mess with our natural sleep rhythms
Experts tell us we need roughly eight hours of sleep every night. We also sleep in stages, from light sleep to deep sleep to REM sleep, and each one performs a unique and essential function. We don’t know exactly why sleep works in this way, but we know what happens when it gets disrupted. A lack of REM sleep, for example, can prove deadly for some mammals.
A full sleep cycle lasts roughly 90 minutes, and the best time to wake up is between cycles. Our bodies tend to do this naturally, but an alarm clock can wake us during deep sleep, which means we’ll be groggy and tired for much of the day. There are smartphone apps that claim to be able to track our sleep stages and wake us at an optimal time, but some scientists are skeptical of these claims. Doctors usually identify sleep stages by measuring brain waves with sophisticated instruments, and consumer gadgets simply can’t do this—yet.
Alarm clocks can stress us out
Not for nothing does the word “alarm” also mean “an anxious awareness of danger.” Alarms are sudden and urgent, usually designed to warn us of threats. A body on high alert is prone to overreact to minor things, triggering the “fight or flight” response even when it’s not necessary. A sudden noise jolting us out of sleep could cause undue stress, although there isn’t that much research available on the topic.
One study in Japan found that participants who were roused by alarm clocks or other artificial means had increased heart rates and higher blood pressure compared with those who were allowed to awaken naturally. Researchers have discovered that our bodies prepare for wakefulness by releasing cortisol, which gradually raises our heart rate and blood pressure. Sudden arousal, on the other hand, doesn’t allow the body to prepare and causes sharp spikes in stress hormones, straining the cardiovascular system. Not a good way to start the day.
Using phones as alarm clocks is even worse
Almost half of 16- to 34-year-olds use cell phones as alarm clocks. In addition to all the usual problems with alarm clocks, that introduces one more: the negative effects of technology in the bedroom, mostly stemming from the blue light emitted by electronic screens. Teens are especially at risk, because they have trouble disconnecting from social media at night.
Even if we intend to use our phones only as alarm clocks, the temptation is as close as the bedside table. Can’t sleep? I’ll just scroll through Facebook for a few minutes! Phone buzzing in the middle of the night? It could be important! Most experts advise against sleeping with a cell phone on the nightstand for precisely these reasons. (Here’s why experts also don’t recommend using sleep trackers.)
How to wake up without an alarm clock
While it is possible to imagine a world without alarm clocks (seems quite pleasant, doesn’t it?), that might not be realistic for everyone. Some of us simply can’t afford to take the risk of oversleeping. Nevertheless, you can learn how to wake up without an alarm and make your wake-up habits more healthy. For example:
Enforce regular bedtimes
It turns out that our bodies have an innate ability to rise at the same time every morning—that’s why you often find yourself awake right before your alarm goes off. The catch? You have to force yourself to go to bed at the same time every night. Your body can’t develop a healthy rhythm without a predictable routine. You may have to forgo one more episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but if it means just one extra hour of sleep, your body will thank you in the morning. If all goes well, you’ll start to rely on your alarm clock less and less.
Make your alarm sound less…alarming
One of the worst parts of waking up is the sound of the alarm itself. I can still remember what my old alarm clock sounded like in high school, and I still flinch when I think of it. These negative associations only make waking up more difficult. Instead, why not use some music or gentle environmental sounds to make the experience more pleasant? Maybe you’ll be more excited to start the day if you’re roused by your favorite jams. Whatever you choose, it can’t be worse than the default.
Use natural light
Sunlight has always been our best alarm clock—it’s how our bodies have woken up for thousands of years. If you sleep next to a window, try to leave the blinds open so light can filter through. If you live in a city and the noise or light pollution makes this impossible, consider using a sunlight alarm clock, which wakes you by mimicking a sunrise and spreading light throughout the room gradually at a designated time. At least one study demonstrates biological and psychological benefits to using these products.
So now you know how to wake up without an alarm. And while we know that you might not be able to abandon alarm clocks entirely, you can certainly try to make them as pleasant as possible!