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10 Tips to Improve Your Circadian Rhythm: Waking Up Naturally vs. Setting Alarms

By guest author: Reece Joseph Jones

A healthy circadian rhythm leads to a healthier happier life.

No one likes being woken up by an alarm clock, especially when it goes off loudly halfway through a sleep cycle, all shrill and invasive. Not only is it psychologically unpleasant, but it also has the potential to be physiologically unhealthy. Preferably, then, we should be aiming to wake up naturally.

Intuitively we know this is the better of the two options, yet so many of us have a fear of sleeping in and being late for work that we refuse to risk it. Waking up naturally, however, has been shown to improve cognitive function, enhance mood, and boost energy levels, so it's something we should all at least consider mastering.

And besides, it's not actually as risky as it sounds. All we have to do is harness the natural power of our internal body clock – our circadian rhythm.

-----Syncing up with the sun-----

In this day and age – what with our newly acquired ability to keep our living environments lit 24/7 – most people tend to ignore the importance of the sun. We routinely wake up hours after it rises and stay up hours after it sets. This is terribly unnatural behaviour that – if done habitually – can lead to deep depression and ill health.

Instead, then, we should be looking to the sun for guidance. Nature has given us a pretty glaring indicator of when to go to sleep and wake up each day, so as best we can, we should follow its lead. There can be some wiggle room, of course, but if we want to be working at optimum efficiency, there shouldn’t be much. A healthy circadian rhythm is one that's synchronised with the activities of the sun.

That's just the first piece of the puzzle, though...

-----Other rules for a healthy circadian rhythm-----

1. Get plenty of sunlight first thing in the morning. Our first goal upon awakening should be to shut off melatonin production. This sounds simple enough, but by staying in a darkened room, secretion continues.

Not only does this put our circadian rhythm out of whack, but it also leaves us in a groggy state – half-asleep, half-awake. It's certainly not the way we should be starting the day. So, in order to avoid this, we should be going straight outside and soaking in some rays instead. At the very least, we should be opening the curtains up and letting some light stream in. By doing this we're bookmarking the beginning of the day and telling melatonin to cease production.


2. Avoid caffeine after midday.

Caffeine has a half-life of around 6 hours, which means that half of it is still coursing through us 6 hours later! With this in mind, then, it should be obvious that the time of day we drink the stuff is crucial.

A little bit first thing in the morning is fine (green tea and yerba mate come highly recommended), but after that we should be abstaining. Drinking caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors, thereby tricking our brain into thinking we're not tired even when we are. By doing this late in the day we confuse our circadian rhythm and make it difficult to fall asleep come bedtime.


3. Stay active throughout the day.

If we spend all day sitting at a desk, physically inactive, we're going to feel restless and irritable later on.

So, to sidestep this, we need to get plenty of exercise throughout the day, even if it's just a brisk walk through the park or some squats during our lunch break. This way our body should be sufficiently tired by the time evening rolls around.


4. Avoid food close to bedtime.

Going to bed overloaded and still in the process of digesting food can negatively impact our sleep.

Instead, then, we should be giving ourselves a 2-4 hour fasting window at the end of each day. This way we ensure that all the body's heavy lifting is done in time for sleep. Personally, I stop eating at 5pm and get into bed at 9pm.


5. Avoid artificial light in the evening. This helps correctly set our circadian rhythm by ramping up melatonin production come night-time.

Optimally we should be avoiding all electronic devices and using only candles once the sun has set (natural light doesn't hamper melatonin production in the same way that artificial light does), but this will likely be a step too far for most. At the very least, then, we should be cutting out blue wavelength light and replacing it with red. These days most Operating Systems come with night settings that do exactly this. There are also 3rd party apps that do the same (f.lux is a popular example). As for room lighting, consider purchasing smart bulbs that can be set to a subdued red.


6. Moderate activities that spike cortisol levels.

Cortisol and melatonin have somewhat of an inverse relationship. Therefore, getting stressed out just before bed suppresses the production of melatonin, making it harder to drift off.

So, with that in mind, come evening, avoid things that are likely to trigger cortisol release. In other words, don't get into arguments, don't scroll through social media, don't respond to emails. Even if these things aren't consciously stressing us out, cortisol is still likely being released. So, we should keep the last hour or two of our day completely stress-free.


7. Keep a regular sleep schedule.

We should be going to sleep and waking up at the same time each and every day, even at the weekends.

If we do this consistently our internal body clock will become just as reliable as our external one. So, avoid sleeping in...ever. By sleeping in for just an hour at the weekend, we're throwing our entire circadian rhythm out of whack and giving ourselves a form of self-inflicted jet lag.


8. Sleep in a blacked out environment.

Even the tiniest amount of light has been shown to hinder melatonin production, thereby affecting our sleep quality.

So, blocking off all light sources just before bed should take high priority. Even things like the light emitted from an alarm clock can be enough to affect us, so let me repeat, turn absolutely everything off. And, if there are light sources that are beyond our control, like streetlights, then get blackout blinds or purchase an eye mask. We should be doing absolutely everything we can to ensure that our sleeping environment is 100% pitch-black.


9. Sleep in a silent environment.

It should go without saying that sounds, especially loud, abrupt ones, can rouse us from sleep.

Even if it's not enough to rouse us fully, it can be enough to disturb a sleep cycle. So, with that in mind, we need to minimise inside and outside noises. For example, all appliances that can be turned off should be turned off. If we live in a busy city, then the windows should

be closed. And, if noise still somehow seeps in, ear plugs should be worn.


10. Sleep in a cool environment.

To successfully induce sleep each night the body has to drop its core temperature significantly, so by cooling our rooms to between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, we help that process along.

For those of us who don’t have precise control over the temperature, however, we can take a warm bath just before bed instead. When we get out of a warm bath, we experience a mass evacuation of body heat, which drops our core temperature and helps us fall asleep faster.

By slowly and methodically implementing all of these new habits into our lives, we can successfully reset our circadian rhythm, ensuring restful sleep and natural awakenings, alarm-free.


-----Alarms with a purpose-----

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here, though. Alarms can still serve a purpose. For example, during the process of resetting our circadian rhythm, it's wise to have a backup alarm in place. I recommend having one set for 15 minutes or so after our anticipated natural awakening. That way we can be rest assured that whatever happens, we'll still be waking up when needed. This has the added benefit of assuaging any concerns we might have about sleeping in, which, in turn, will help us fall asleep faster.

Also, some lucid dream induction techniques hinge on interrupting sleep cycles, so unless we have someone willing to rouse us come the designated time (unlikely), alarms are going to play an important role here too. Just be warned, however, this should be done sparingly. Regularly interrupting our sleep (even for something as worthy as lucid dreaming) is unhealthy.

We could also experiment with setting alarms to remind us to reality check throughout the day. Or, if we're really struggling with our dream recall, we could set an alarm to go off during a REM cycle.

There are all sorts of creative ways to use alarms. I just don’t recommend being woken up by one every single morning.

-----Alarms as a necessity-----

For the people that, for whatever reason, simply have to continue using an external device to induce wakefulness each morning, I implore you to at least consider how and what you're using. For example, consider replacing your standard alarm clock with a sunrise clock. Just as the name implies, in lieu of blasting you with noise to wake you up, it emulates a sunrise and wakes you up gently instead. Alternatively, if you'd still rather be woken up by sounds, consider using soft, peaceful music that gradually increases in volume over a set period of time. This, again, will soften the transition from sleep to wakefulness and make the process a lot more pleasant.

Also, play around with when you set these alarms for. Remember, you're always aiming to wake up at the end of a REM cycle, just as you're re-entering stage 2. This aids with feeling properly rejuvenated. So, work out how long your sleep cycles typically last for (the range is between 70 and 120 minutes) and set an alarm with that in mind.

-----Circadian rhythm: a conclusion-----

Anyway, take your time with all this and don't stress yourself out along the way. None of it will happen overnight and that's fine. Just keep on experimenting and eventually you'll find what works best for you. Have fun!


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