Isn’t it so annoying when you wake up, hoping you’ve got a couple of hours more in bed, and when you check the time, it’s just minutes before your alarm goes off? Well, apparently, there is a scientific reason behind it.
We can assure you that waking up before your alarm goes off is no super-natural power. You wake up before your alarm clock because you either have the motivation for the next day ahead, or your stress hormones are set high as you know you need to be up at a certain time. Usually, you will wake up 2-5 times through the night as the hormone keeps itself up to date.
Timing is everything
No one knows exactly how or why the body can do this, but researchers say that our biological clocks, which keep track of time, have something to do with it.
According to sleep experts, our bodies can sense time even while we’re in a deep sleep. The science behind it is down to a ball of nerves known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is found in the centre of the brain. These nerves control all sorts like our blood pressure, body temperature, and, in this case, our circadian rhythm. The nucleus also figures out when we are feeling sleepy or wide awake.
It's part of our body clock and the process of our brains becoming accustomed to having a routine when we go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning.
What is PER?
A vital part of this process is called PER, a protein that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. The level of proteins in our body will rise and fall over the course of the day and peak in the evening – becoming their lowest at night. Low levels of this protein then lead to low blood pressure, which makes us feel sleepy and ready for bed.
Sleep experts say if you stick to a consistent sleep schedule, your body learns to adapt and increase levels of PER just before your alarm goes off. This peak in PER usually happens around an hour before the alarm goes off, as our body begins to release stress hormones.
To avoid feelings of shock or stress when you get woken up by the alarm, your body starts to produce PER earlier in the night – this is the reason why you find yourself waking up a few minutes before the alarm goes off.
Light levels have an impact
One way our body does this is by sensing the levels of light around us. Special cells in our eyes detect changing light levels, such as right before and at dawn – even through our eyelids when our eyes are closed. These cells may communicate that we’re approaching the time we normally get up.
Earlier-than-ideal rising could also be an effect of a sleep disorder. One possibility is early-awakening insomnia, which, according to sleep psychologists is one of the tougher forms to treat.
Furthermore, the breathing pauses that come with obstructive sleep apnea, could also be the culprit of waking up earlier than you want. If you suspect you may be dealing with a sleep disorder, it’s best to see the care of a trained professional.
Mood disorders, which encompass depression, anxiety, and stress, can be at play here, too. Disturbed sleep and depression are especially closely linked. Anxiety and stress, which affect sleep, may also lead to early rising.
The sympathetic nervous system activates the body’s fight or flight response when you experience stress which keeps you activated and ready to handle perceived threats. This is the opposite of the relaxed, soothing state that welcomes sleep. If you regularly operate in this mode during the daytime, it can carry over into the nighttime, too, making it tougher to get to sleep and stay sleeping.
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When things don’t go as planned
Why is it that some people never wake up before their alarm? It’s possible that when you’re especially tired, your body’s need for sleep overrides its biological clock. Sometimes, if you feel nervous about waking up on time, stress may cause you to wake up earlier than you’d like.
*TIP* To maximise the chance that you’ll wake up on time on your own, it can be helpful to set your alarm for the same time each day so that your body gets used to waking up at a regular time.
What about when you’ve woken up right before your alarm when you’ve had to be up much earlier than your body is used to, such as to catch a flight or attend an important appointment? Instead of waking up based on what time it is, our bodies may be waking up based on how much time has passed since we went to bed. If we go to bed knowing we must be up in four hours, something may help to ensure that we wake up after four hours.
Don’t hit the snooze button
Incidentally, if you don’t wake before your alarm, you probably aren’t getting enough sleep – or you aren’t sleeping on a consistent schedule. Waking up at different times on weekdays and weekends can quickly throw your clock out of sync. Without any consistency, your body may not know when to get up. So, when your alarm starts going off, you feel dazed and grumpy.
Enter the snooze button. Since your body’s gone through all that work to rise gradually, a quick nap sends your internal clock spinning in the wrong direction. All the hormones that help you fall asleep meddle with the hormones that help you wake up. Your body gets confused. You feel groggier. And with each tap of the snooze, it gets worse. The snooze, it seems, is the worst way to start your day.
- Russell Foster, CBE, FRS FMedSci
- Jade Wu, PhD