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You're Waking Up Wrong

Getting into a healthy morning routine can be a struggle. Here are some scientifically backed tips for fixing yours.

Photograph: Getty Images

With apologies to Ben Franklin, the very act that’s supposed to make you healthy, wealthy, and wise can also be a royal pain.

As the literal first thing you do in the morning, waking up can easily set the tone for how productive and happy you’ll be for the day. Yet getting out of bed early and rested is a challenge for millions of people. A study last year by the American Sleep Foundation found that 39 percent of people reported being at least a little bit tired during the previous week, and most of those people wished they got more shut-eye on workdays.

Fortunately, science is on the case: Countless researcher hours have been devoted to understanding why so many of us struggle to sleep soundly and wake up refreshed. Through interviews with researchers and a review of the studies, I’ve been able to create an evidence-backed guide for hacking your morning routine.

Harness the light

Blackout blinds come with a conundrum: While the pitch dark may let you sleep like a baby, it can make rolling out of bed come daybreak much harder. The reason: Light suppresses the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Without those morning rays, it’s simply harder to get up.

One solution is to invest in programmable shades, like the Lutron Serena shades, which can be scheduled to open automatically at the waking hour of your choosing.

If your appointed clock-in time requires you to wake up before the sun does, plenty of companies make artificial lights that you can program to turn on when you need to be up, some of which mimic the natural creep of daylight into your morning. For the best morning jolt, select a light with a bright blue glow. Bluish-white light such as that produced by fluorescent bulbs is more effective than a warm orange or red-tinged bulb when it comes to suppressing melatonin and giving you energy, according to Randy Nelson, the chair of neuroscience at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.

I like the Philips Hue system (about $200 for a three-bulb starter pack). Its bulbs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and can be set for an energy-boosting morning blue—or a sleep-inducing red at night. Philips also makes a variety of “wake-up” lights that are designed to simulate a sunrise. For a less expensive option, Dr. Shalini Paruthi, a fellow at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, suggests outfitting existing lamps with holiday light timers. “They cost just a couple of bucks, making it easy to install if you have a large house with several bedrooms,” Dr. Paruthi said.

Drink caffeine early (and potentially often)

You probably know that your morning coffee can boost attention, vigilance, and focus—ideal traits for powering up your productivity—but recent research also suggests it can bolster memory.

“We found that caffeine seems to let people memorize things better and for longer periods,” said Michael Yassa, assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California at Irvine, whose lab has researched the topic.

Lest you search for a one-size-fits-all solution to caffeine consumption, Yassa stresses that individuals handle the drug in different ways, and that the ideal dose varies. While a few recent reports have touted the wisdom of a single best time to drink your coffee in the morning (typically about an hour after waking up), Yassa is skeptical. Just make sure you grab your joe before hitting the road: A 2000 study published in the journal Psychophysiology suggests caffeine can significantly reduce the risk of getting into an accident during a morning commute.

Maximize your natural awakening response

While our conscious minds are at war with the snooze button, our bodies fight mightily to get us out of bed. One tactic: an early-morning spike in the energy-boosting hormone cortisol, which tends to rise roughly 50 percent soon after we open our eyes. And despite cortisol’s reputation as a “stress hormone,” this so-called cortisol awakening response is actually a good thing for an up-and-at-’em day.

It’s also a fragile thing, with research suggesting that numerous factors—including many that are completely within our control—can reduce the response and our a.m. energy with it. Things that can dull the cortisol awakening response include consuming aspirin; sleeping through constant low-frequency noises, like the sound of street traffic; and waking up in complete darkness (yet another reason to let the sun in in the morning).

Skip the intense workout

You can probably guess that exercising in the morning, or really any time you can squeeze it in, is a good idea. But according to Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at Brunel University London who studies performance, a wake-up routine is not the place for vigorous workouts such as heavy weightlifting or sprinting, or activities that require more attention than your drowsy brain can deliver, like cycling on high-traffic roads.

“Injury risks are heightened in the early morning because the muscles, joints, and supporting structures are less supple following a night of being almost motionless,” Karageorghis said. “My advice is that people engage in low- to moderate-intensity activities early in the morning and leave any high-intensity activities for later in the day.”

Take a cold shower

If it feels like a cold shower knocks some sense into your sleepy head, that’s because it does: Research has long shown that exposure to cold water—either through taking a shower or by drinking a glass of ice water—can activate the sympathetic nervous system (that’s the one responsible for your fight-or-flight response) and give you an eye-opening spike in adrenaline.

Cold showers may have other health benefits as well. Some researchers even hypothesize that their ability to kick an “overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain” could serve as a viable treatment for depression.

 

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