The dreaded alarm clock. That awful sound that interrupts our slumber rather harshly to say the least. This invasive method of waking up often drags us out of the most amazing of dreams. Time to get up for work! Few of us are fortunate enough to be able to wake from a night’s sleep naturally without an alarm clock, more so of course, on a work day. The earliest form of the alarm clock was likely the factory whistle, its piercing shrill sounding out across the working village, dragging workers from their beds. This overly invasive alert made its way into the bedroom in the form of the modern-day alarm clock.
What effects do alarms have on the body?
The rude awakening of an alarm artificially wrenches us from our sleep when our body is not ready for it. Studies have shown that this sudden invasion of sound triggers a spike in blood pressure and a shock acceleration in heart rate. This is caused by a burst in activity from the central nervous system, known as the fight-or-flight response. With all the other environmental stressors that can potentially affect our health, alarm clocks are not doing our bodies any favours. More on stress here and ways to reduce it, here.
Do you use the snooze function?
So we’re clear on the impact of the alarm but what about the snooze function? Using the snooze function means that you will repeatedly inflict this cardiovascular assault on your heart again and again within a short space of time. Continue this for 5 days a week and you can start to imagine the amount of abuse your heart and nervous system could suffer across the span of a working lifetime.
Does this mean that alarm clocks should be avoided?
There is a place for waking up at the same time of day, every day. This kind of regular sleep routine ensures you keep a stable sleep schedule if you are having difficulty with sleep. It is one of the most consistent and effective of ways to improve the sleep of insomniacs and is top of the list in Matthew Walker’s international best seller ‘Why we sleep’. Go to a sleep specialist and they will recommend a consistent, regular sleep routine every time.
So how can we soften the blow?
Welcome the days of the dawn-mimicking alarm clock. A much more subtler way to wake is with nature, with the sun as we all know. Now this isn’t possible for most of the year for workers and school children because, of course, sun rise time moves throughout the year and our morning start times generally don’t. So how about an alarm that has the same effect on us as waking to a gradual sunrise? Some of these alarms even come with natural sound effects such as birds tweeting. Because the brightness of the light increases gradually, this has a more gentle effect on our central nervous system and heart. There’s not such a shock to the system as with a regular alarm clock and we can gradually wake up feeling less groggy than we would with the regular shock awakening.
How does light affect our sleep/wake cycles?
Light simulation devices work because light has a waking effect on the brain and body. Light suppresses melatonin which is responsible for switching on the parts of the brain that generate sleep. That’s why bright lights, screens, tablets and smart phones before bed can make it more difficult to get to sleep and have good quality sleep. Light in the morning activates our circadian signal by travelling through the eyes along the optic nerves to the hypothalamus. This is where the 24-hour biological clock sits called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SN). The SN is tiny but contains around 20,000 brain cells that activate the body’s circadian rhythm.
What else can dawn-mimicking alarm clocks do?
Light simulation on waking has shown to support a healthy sleep routine, improve the quality of sleep and reduce feelings of low mood and depression. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) also known as winter depression is a common issue when the nights are longer. Darkness in the morning can make it harder to wake up and can lead to depressive symptoms, lethargy, prolonged sleep and weight gain. Light simulation may help make the mornings less of a challenge and help to speed up the recovery from the disruption daylight saving has on our circadian rhythms. The change in sleep time by one hour either way can affect cognitive function, concentration, energy levels and how we feel for as long as a week afterwards. Light therapy, when timed right, is also known to speed up the recovery from jet lag.
Please note if you are suffering from any other non-seasonal mood disorders do consult your doctor before using light simulating devices. All lights should be certified as a medical device, QMS standard. Lights must pass rigorous safety tests and be supported by clinical research to meet the Medical Devices Directive EC93/42/EEC.