Last weekend we all set our clocks back, meaning that the sun comes up an hour earlier than it did before. In more northern latitudes of the United States, this means that kids are no longer walking to school in the dark and adults are no longer hitting the snooze button over and over again until the sun finally rises. But despite the increased light, waking up can still be a tedious chore. Many people convince themselves that they haven’t slept well, regardless of how true that actually is. And then there’s the problem of sleep inertia.
The National Sleep Foundation defines sleep inertia as “the feeling of grogginess and disorientation that can come from awakening from a deep sleep.” First named in 1976, sleep inertia refers to the time when you’re awake but not really that awake, or the period in the morning when many of us take showers while waiting for the coffee to finish brewing. To get really technical, it’s the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in decision-making and self-control) that takes the longest to snap to attention. That’s tricky, because that means we’re not at our best when we make that crucial early-morning decision about whether or not to hit the snooze button again. This groggy feeling can last for hours, as your body adjusts to daytime. The good news is that more gradually we wake up, the less sleep inertia we experience.
Professor Till Roenneberg, a chronobiologist at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, uses the phrase “social jetlag” to describe the difference between when our bodies want us to wake up and when society dictates that we set our alarm clocks for work or school. According to Roenneberg, about a third of the population suffers from extreme social jetlag, and over two thirds have at least a mild form of social jetlag. Social jetlag can lead to increased use of mood-altering substances like alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine, which then perpetuate the bad habits.
Our morning routines can be very personal. Some of us wake up to a rising sun, while some others of us are awakened by hungry cats, dogs that need to be let out, screaming babies, noisy roommates, or even the crowing of a rooster. The recycling truck acts as my alarm clock every Friday morning, but the other six days I’m awakened at six thirty on the dot by a loud beeping alarm clock. I function best when the alarm clock is across the room and I actually stand up to shut it off, although everyone has their own tricks. One former roommate’s grogginess was so bad that he invested in a Clocky, the alarm clock with rubber wheels that crashes off the nightstand and rolls around the floor beeping like a terrifying explosive until you catch it and shut it off.
Our idea of how well we slept is largely based on how hard it is to wake up. The harder we feel it is to wake up, the worse we think we’ve slept. And many sleep scientists say that snoozing makes the problem worse. In extreme cases, some doctors argue that snoozing can lead to a higher body-mass index and an elevated risk of diabetes.
But other researchers say that sleep experts are over-exaggerating the effects of the snooze button. Hitting the snooze button is actually fine, according to David Dinges, chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “Snoozing is not a great evil,” he says. “The extra 10 minutes you get by snoozing can actually help to gently awaken the mind, rather than jolt it back to wakefulness.” If you’re already getting eight hours of sleep, a nine-minute snooze might help your body gradually awaken, thus reducing your sleep inertia. If you’re only getting five or six hours of sleep, the snooze is more likely to screw with your body rhythm. While Dinges admits that you’d be better off just setting your alarm later in the first place, a gentle wake-up doesn’t sound so bad.
Scientists have some simple tips on reducing sleep inertia. The most common advice is to stick to a regular sleep schedule. If you’re always tired, go to bed earlier. Rather than snoozing, set your alarm ten or twenty minutes later. That extra bit of uninterrupted sleep will be better for you than waking up and crashing repeatedly. Also, put away electronic devices well before you go to bed. According to Robert Rosenberg, medical director of the Sleep Disorder Centers of Prescott Valley and Flagstaff, Arizona, exposure to blue light from electronic devices will actually delay production of melatonin, the hormone that lets you know when it’s bedtime. He advises that you turn off your electronics ninety minutes before bed.
Finally, if you can, sleep until the sun is up, even in the winter. One study performed on medical students showed that they didn’t perform nearly as well in test settings when they were awakened before dawn. The early bird may get the worm, but you’re a human. Don’t eat worms.