A. blaring, relentless beeping breaks the silence of dawn. You jerk up awake suddenly, tense and aware of the day ahead…
Although imposing bell gongs or these loud beeps were how we used to rise over decades, now we have alarm options that simulate the gradual light of sunrise - as if we were sleeping under the open sky - or even wake us up with natural fragrances that we like.
What is the best option for our health? We speak to Dr Hady Jerdak, CEO and internal medicine, pulmonary diseases and sleep disorders specialist at Abu Dhabi-based Harley Street Medical Centre, and Dr Syed Arshad Husain, consultant pulmonologist at Dubai-based King’s College Hospital’s sleep medicine clinic to find out.
Sound alarms: Blaring beeps or melodic tones?
“Loud alarms certainly do not help us wake up in a natural way – when you wake up suddenly, with a high sound, it is associated with an increase in secretion of adrenaline,” says Dr Jerdak. This is our ‘fight or flight’ response that accelerates our heart rate, and increases blood pressure – and when our slowed sleeping heart surges into action suddenly, this can strain our cardiovascular system.
You can also be abruptly woken up out of deep stages of sleep, causing increased sleep inertia - which is the feeling of grogginess, and impaired cognitive function that lasts after we transition from sleep to being awake, explains Dr Husain. He says, “That might lead to not being refreshed and not performing well or feeling lethargic and tired, which is what we call inertia.
Loud alarms certainly do not help us wake up in a natural way – when you wake up suddenly, with a high sound, it is associated with an increase in secretion of adrenaline.
“Their concentration span might not be good, and they might feel quite jittery and unhappy in the mornings. That is why I think it’s important that they wake up in a way that they don’t feel these in the morning – it affects good health, and well-being, especially how you behave, how you interact, how you concentrate on doing things.”
Put on sweeping, melodic tunes, gentle, upbeat pop or nature sounds with chirping birds for the best mornings. “Softer, milder sounds are better than strong – unless the person does not wake up. There are some patients who need something brisk but 99 per cent require soft sounds and can wake up,” says Dr Jerdak.
In fact, a 2020 study by University of Melbourne researchers published in PLOS One, a journal by the US-based Public Library of Science found that melodic sounds were linked with a significant reduction in sleep inertia. According to the study, this includes songs such ‘Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys or The Cures ‘Close to me’.
Dr Syed Arshad Husain, consultant pulmonologist at Dubai-based King’s College Hospital’s sleep medicine clinic explains, “Some people who are in the middle or old age, do develop hardening of the arteries. What happens is, when you wake up very quickly from your sleep and stand up from lying down, you tend to have a postural blood pressure drop – meaning that as the blood is pulled in the peripheral areas, their blood pressure can drop, the amount of blood flowing into the brain can suddenly reduce, and they can get dizzy spells and fall over.”
Use sunrise alarms for a gentle ‘rise and shine’…
Thirty minutes before you are scheduled to face the day, the sun rises gently in your very own room. Sometimes, it is accompanied by the peaceful morning chirps of birds, and you open your eyes to a peaceful morning vista.
Also called a ‘dawn simulation’, a sunrise alarm clock brings the outdoors indoors – and is especially useful if you are a night shift worker, or move to live in countries where the winter daylight lasts only a few short hours, leaving you to operate in the dark for most days. The light gradually increases to it’s highest intensity at the point of awakening.
Dr Jerdak says, “The morning light stops the secretion of melatonin, our sleep hormone. It helps our biological clock recognise the morning and helps us wake up.”
Sunrise alarms have been found to have a range of benefits due to its gentle, natural stimulus:
• Higher alertness on waking up: In a 2004 study by London-based researchers published in the international journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, the participants who woke up with sunrise clocks had significantly higher levels of cortisol, the hormone that makes us alert in the morning, in the first 45 minutes after waking up.
• Even if you’ve slept less, it may increase your cognitive performance throughout the day: Light exposure during the last 30 minutes of our sleep can not only increase our alertness, but also improve physical and cognitive performance just after we wake up – as per a 2014 study by UK-based researchers published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.
These boosts remain even when you are sleep deprived or ‘restricted’. A 2015 study by researchers in Switzerland, Belgium and Netherlands published in the journal Behavioral Brain research found that of participants who slept only six hours, those exposed to a dawn simulation performed better on tasks than those who woke up to only dim light.
• It can reduce cardiovascular stress as you wake up: A 2015 study by researchers in Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands and Italy published in the journal Sleep Medicine showed that using dawn simulation reduces the sleep-to-wake heart rate (that usually shifts abruptly) and that light exposure could protect us from cardiovascular stress in critical morning hours.
• A better morning mood and cheerfulness: A 2019 study by Switzerland, Germany and US-based researchers published in the US-based journal Experimental Gerontology studied 20 patients with dementia over two months and found that with daily Dawn-Dusk Simulations or DDS, they gradually woke up to a significantly better morning mood.
Wait, can I just switch on the lights for the same effects? Unfortunately - “That gives the same effect as a brisk sound,” says Dr Jerdak. It is the gradual increase in light intensity, mimicking the sun, that does the trick to lift you gently out of sleep. You can even leave a bit of your curtains open for this.
Dr Jerdak says, “Always for waking up, the light will help you. When you go to work when it is still dark, they need these more than anyone else.”
“When you have more than one stimuli – biological clock is one, light is second, and sound is the third one, that is best.”
A wafting fragrance that awakens
“Studies on patients have shown that any kind of stimulus – olfactory, touch, hearing, light – may wake the brain. Somebody can wake up if they smell something or a change in smell,” says Dr Jerdak. Olfactory alarms function by spreading fragrances ranging from coffee to grass.
However, a 2004 study by US-based researchers published in the journal Sleep concluded that smell may not be an effective way of waking up as our perception of smell during sleep is minimal.
Ideally, we should wake up without alarms
Although it may sound unrealistic, in an ideal scenario, we should wake up naturally after having slept enough for our needs.
“Someone who sleeps well, they do not need any alarms,” says Dr Jerdak. “You need to make sure that you sleep for enough time, and if you do, you do not need any alarms. Your biological clock will wake you up – if you sleep at 10 pm, you will wake up at around 6 am…”
For this, sleep hygiene and enough shut-eye is important. Dr Jerdak adds, “The best way is to sleep in a regular, effective manner – avoid stimulus at night, having a room that is cold, dark, sleeping naturally using biological clock and wake up with natural light.” Read more here for tips on how to sleep better at night.