It's actually making February more bearable.
This Review article is part of a Narcity Media series. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Narcity Media.
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Everyone talks about the importance of sleep for good health, but what about the importance of how you wake up? I've been an early riser my whole life, considering 9 a.m. a sleep-in even when hungover. But recently, while listening to a podcast about morning rituals, it hit me: the pandemic had transformed me from a "morning person" into a "sluggish, snooze-button-loving, roll-out-of-bed-and-log-straight-into-work person." That was not the version of myself I wanted to bring into 2022 because that "me" is a crotchety mess.
I'd had a sunrise alarm clock sitting in the "Saved for later" section of my Amazon cart forever, and it promised to help me get up earlier with progressively brighter lights that mimick the feeling of waking up naturally to the sun. I was skeptical that a fancy new gadget would solve all my problems, but the pandemic also turned me into an "impulsive online shopper person" so I promptly clicked "Place your order."
How do sunrise alarms work?
As one does, I immediately doubted my impulse buy. So I reached out to Dr. Melodee Mograss, a cognitive neuropsychologist and supervisor at Concordia University's sleep lab, to find out whether I'd purchased a steaming pile of B.S. or something with scientific backing.
"There is some evidence that artificial light (or natural sunlight) can be useful to help you wake up in the morning. This is especially true if you struggle to wake up during the darker winter months or don’t have access to a window for natural sunlight," she said, noting that our circadian rhythm is closely related to light and that even artificial light triggers the release of a hormone called cortisol to begin its wake cycle.
"Using a sunrise alarm clock could help by establishing a regular rhythm of light exposure. This, in turn, could lead to more consistent, regular bedtimes and waketimes."
I decided this was certainly not the most embarrassing impromptu Amazon order I'd ever made and it wasn't worth it to cancel.
The 'rise & shine' experiment
I have to admit that, for a few days, the alarm was purely decorative until I took the time to figure out how to use it. I got the Philips SmartSleep Wake-up Light HF3520, a $150-model with lots of bells and whistles, and it looked pretty daunting. But it honestly only took me 10 minutes once I sat down with the manual.
Also, there are tons of different sunrise alarm clock options on Amazon ranging from $33 to $300 so you don't need to splurge like I did (or you can opt to be even fancier). I chose the Philips HF3520 because the hues of light looked natural to me. I knew it had five different sound options you could play once the light reaches its final stage and it's time to wake up, including "ocean waves" and "Nepal bowls."
I definitely did not trust the sunrise alarm that first night so I set my good old iPhone as a backup. Focused on having a more positive wake-up experience, I chose "chimes" instead of whatever the one is called that sounds like being hit on the head repeatedly with a hammer. I didn't end up needing it.
In the morning, instead of being jolted awake in a hammer-induced panic, I was gently rocked back to consciousness with a 30-minute light cycle that progressed from shades of red to orange to yellow. I wasn't aware of the entire process while it was happening, but it was enough to signal to my body that it was time to start transitioning out of sleep mode.
Eventually, I heard forest birds chirping, which is the sound I selected. I stayed sitting in bed for 10 minutes, listening to the birds, which isn't something I'd do with my regular hammer alarm. But 10 minutes is much less than the time I usually spend hitting snooze.
As I sat at my desk to start work, I felt more relaxed and refreshed...happier, even. Could this thing actually be working? Nah, probably a fluke. But, in the days that followed, I kept having a similar experience. Waking up just felt easier.
I decided to try setting my alarm a little earlier, and then earlier again. By the seventh day, I was waking up a full hour earlier than in the pre-sunrise alarm era. Some days, I was even waking up on my own before the birds sounded.
The pros & cons
For me, the obvious advantage of using a sunrise alarm is that it's helped me achieve my goal of waking up earlier and in a better mood, which starts my day on the right track.
But there are also definitely some downsides. If you toss and turn a lot in your sleep, like I do, you may find yourself facing away from the alarm in the morning so the light doesn't have much of an impact on you. This hasn't been a major issue for me because I find the small glimpses of light I get, plus the bird sounds, are enough to nudge me awake.
I can also see how it might be possible to sleep through this alarm if you're a heavy sleeper, which I am not. At one point, I was worried that I might sleep through the bird sounds but it's a short loop and I always grew tired of it and sat up. You'd really have to play around with the settings to ensure maximum brightness and volume.
While you can adjust the duration of the light cycle (mine is set at the default of 30 minutes), the light comes on a certain amount of time before you actually need to be up.
This means you are beginning the wake-up process, and presumably being booted out of REM sleep at, say, 7 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m. For me, it's worth it to wake up slowly and more peacefully. Heck, I might even start going to bed earlier just to make up the difference. But to each their own.
Lastly, price is a factor. There is no doubt that you can find a much cheaper alarm clock or simply use the phone you already have.
The final verdict
This alarm won't make you lose 20 pounds, find your soulmate or land your dream job. It's also not a SAD lamp, so it's not meant to help with your seasonal depression.
But — placebo or not — it has made my life more pleasant (and made me less grouchy) as I attempt to navigate those things during winter in Montreal. I've started using the extra time I have from waking up earlier to meditate, exercise and cook a healthy breakfast.
Now that I wake up to recorded birds, I'm more aware of real birds chirping, and I stop to listen and smile like I'm a freaking Disney Princess. I'm also more aware of my sleep cycle and, since I wake up earlier, I tend to go to bed earlier, too.
I don't want to say my sunrise alarm has been life-changing because, whoa, that's dramatic, but it kind of has been. At the very least, it's making February more bearable. That said, I've also taken steps to make use of the time I've gained in a positive way. I feel like a sunrise alarm is the type of thing that works if you work with it. If you're willing to do that, and you're not a super heavy sleeper, I would definitely recommend one.