A reader asks:

Why do I wake up at 4:30 every morning no matter what time I go to bed?


Ugh, the worst! There could be several reasons for this unwelcome early-morning waking:


  1. Is your bedroom dark as a cave, and all light through your window blocked? Dawn rises slowly over a matter of hours, but some people are very sensitive to the first sign of sunrise — especially people with blue eyes, who are often more sensitive to lower light levels than others. If that’s you, try installing blackout shades to optimize your morning sleep. If you don’t want to commit to a permanent installation, there are low-cost, temporary options.
  2. Are you — or have you become — a super-early chronotype? What is that? CET’s Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ) can tell you, and provide personalized feedback about expected wake-up times. If your AutoMEQ score falls between 70-86, your natural wake-up time could easily fall between 4:00-5:00 am.  If so, your circadian rhythm — a basic aspect of your biology — is set for very early waking.
  3. Then why don’t you fall asleep early enough to get consistent sleep for about 7-8 hours? The time we decide to go to bed is much more flexible than when we wake up.  For example, staying up later to watch a favorite TV show can easily fight the circadian signal for an earlier bedtime. Also, late dinners (or snacking) trigger digestive processes that override the body’s need to go to sleep but don’t affect when you wake up. If that’s your habit, plan your last meal or snack three hours before going to bed for a full night’s sleep.
  4. Are you taking naps in the afternoon because you’ve been up since 4:30 am? Napping in the afternoon might seem like a good idea, but without it, you might be ready for bed around 8:30 pm. If you wake up at 4:30 am, you’ll still have accomplished a full night’s sleep. Try to power through that afternoon sleepiness and you’ll be ready for bed earlier in the evening.
  5. That’s so early! Is sleeping from 8:30 pm to 4:30 am just too early for your lifestyle or commitments? 8:30 pm is probably not your desired bedtime. If you are interested in naturally shifting your cycle, you can reset your circadian rhythm later by using 10,000 lux light therapy for 30 minutes sometime between 7:00 pm and 8:30 pm (at the same time over several days). This evening light therapy will shift your inner clock later. If that works for you, continue with this schedule even if you skip light therapy on the evenings when you’re busy. Your bedtime and wake-up time will be modified to be in line with the schedule of a later chronotype, you will be more alert in the evening, and wake up naturally later in the morning. You may have to play with the timing of the evening light session, but this simple, natural solution could provide you with consistent sleep (for example, from 11 pm to 7 am).


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