2018 is shaping up to be the year of better sleep. From fancy sleep-tracker phone apps to sweat-wicking bedding, more and more products are focused on improving the way we sleep—and recently, the way we wake up, too.
Rather than being jolted awake by the blaring of a traditional alarm clock, you can now gradually ease into wakefulness with an alarm that uses light instead of sound. Half an hour before your set wake-up time, the alarm will emit a red light, which will slowly change to orange, and finally, bright white, illuminating your room and lifting you out of your slumber. The idea is for the shift in color to mimic a sunrise, so you can wake up the way you naturally would if you fell asleep outside.
Called dawn simulators in the medical community, sunrise alarm clocks first gained traction among those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) when they were found to be an alternative treatment to bright-light therapy. But over the past year, new and improved models have skyrocketed in popularity among the general public, promising an easier wake-up, a more well-rested morning, and even a better mood. To see if these big claims held truth, I decided to try out the Philips Somneo Sleep and Wake-up Light myself. Here’s what happened.
The Somneo’s white, glowing donut-esque shape makes it look like something plucked from the future. The last thing that its appearance calls to mind is “alarm clock,” which is probably for the best (considering few of us think positively about such devices). I decided to set my alarm to reach brightness level 20 (out of 25 presets) and turned off the sound option (either radio or one of seven different nature noises), so I’d get the full effect of a light-fueled wake-up. Just in case I managed to sleep through the clock’s sunrise, I set my usual phone alarm for twenty minutes after the light would reach max brightness.
As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary: I woke up when the alarm clock was about three-quarters of the way to its brightest light. Rather than having to scramble out of bed, I had a couple minutes to get my bearings—and once I got up, I was ready to get going without having to stumble toward the light switch.
One Month In
Although I didn’t notice a change in how rested I felt at this point—likely because I wasn’t getting a consistent eight hours of shut-eye—I did find that the light-based wake-up provided a smoother start to my mornings.
According to Dr. Raj Dasgupta, an internist in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, that’s because I was experiencing less of something called sleep inertia—the fogginess and confusion we feel when trying to do otherwise simple tasks right after waking up. “Sleep inertia is like pushing a boulder,” he explains. “It’s very difficult right in the beginning, but once you get it going, you’re fine—just like how an extra cup of coffee can give you the push you need to make it through the morning.”
In my case, the sunrise alarm clock was eliminating some of that natural sleep inertia by shifting me to a lighter sleep stage before eventually waking me up. “As the morning approaches,” Dasgupta says, “there is a higher chance you will have entered deep REM sleep—and if you’re suddenly woken up from that stage of sleep, you’ll feel really tired and groggy. Sunrise alarm clocks can lessen that feeling because the light helps you transition to non-REM sleep before waking up.” The result: An overall easier time getting started with your day.
Two Months In
I’m just passing the two-month mark with my sunrise alarm clock, and it hasn’t failed me once. No matter how sleep-deprived I’ve been, the clock’s bright light always manages to wake me up sans noise.
In the weeks when I managed to go to bed at a reasonable hour and wake up around the same time each morning, I noticed that the benefits of the light clock were magnified: I felt more awake during my morning routine and the first few hours of work, and fell asleep more easily each night. While it’s true, keeping a regular sleep schedule can have those effects no matter the alarm clock, a sunrise alarm clock amplifies the benefits by regulating sleep-related hormones.
“Melatonin is the hormone that naturally rises at night and puts you asleep,” explains Dasgupta, “and we know that it’s sensitive to light—which means that the light exposure of a sunrise alarm clock will suppress it in the morning.” Less melatonin means you’ll feel more awake sooner after you get up. At the same time, sunrise alarm clocks have been shown to increase morning release of cortisol, the wake-up hormone that helps you start your day. Combine these two hormonal shifts, and the result is an anti-snooze one-two punch.
While I haven’t noticed any big shifts in my mood or performance since I started using a sunrise alarm clock, I now find waking up much less dreadful than before. Those with a circadian rhythm disorder (or anyone especially prone to repeatedly pressing the snooze button) may find that they benefit even more, according to Dasgupta. For me, the simple fact that I can avoid a blaring alarm—and still get to work on time—is reason enough to keep waking up with “the sun” each day.