The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Not a morning person? A sunrise alarm clock could be the answer, experts say.

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Johnston Tisdale hates being woken up. “If I were an animal, I would be a sloth, 100 percent,” said Tisdale, 30, who has a long history of sleeping through multiple alarms. “I’m just real slow moving in the morning.”

But since December, Tisdale, a resident of Philadelphia, said her mornings have improved dramatically, and she credits her new sunrise alarm clock, which gradually fills her room with light before emitting soft sounds when the light is at its brightest.

“I haven’t overslept with it,” Tisdale said of her iHome Zenergy Dream Mini. “It definitely wakes me up way better than an alarm noise does.”

Sunrise alarm clocks, also known as dawn simulators, are a “growing trend,” said Phyllis Zee, chief of sleep medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Although the concept of using artificial light to mimic the sun isn’t new, Zee and other experts said the clocks have become more mainstream in recent years — and there’s science to back up the potential benefits.

“There’s really substantial research on the science of light, the wavelengths of light, intensity of light and how it affects our brain and our circadian rhythms,” Zee said. She added: “In particular, that dawn signal, that morning light, is very important for healthy circadian rhythms.”

Here’s what experts say you need to know about sunrise alarm clocks and how to make the most of using one.

What are sunrise alarm clocks?

Sunrise alarm clocks essentially combine a digital alarm with an artificial light source designed to mimic natural dawn or morning light. Some are simple devices that emit a sudden bright light on a timer, creating an effect similar to waking up on a sunny morning and immediately opening shades or curtains, Zee said. Others use more complex technology and simulate natural light cycles, such as dawn and dusk, by gradually changing the wavelengths and intensity of light over time. Depending on the model, a clock can run about $20 to $100 or more.

Unlike traditional alarms that typically jolt people awake with a burst of loud, disorienting noise, dawn simulators can “enhance the wake-up experience,” said David Neubauer, a sleep expert and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“If somebody’s getting up at 5, 5:30 in the morning, this may help them be more alert quicker when that alarm does go off,” Neubauer said.

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What is the science behind how these clocks work?

Although there hasn’t been extensive research studying the effects of specific devices on the market, their purpose “clearly makes sense from our understanding of circadian physiology,” Neubauer said. Exposure to morning light, he said, not only has an alerting effect but also helps to reset the circadian rhythm to keep humans biologically synchronized with the 24-hour day-night cycle.

“The big picture is that our circadian system is very sensitive to light,” he said, highlighting the well-known effects of light exposure on the brain and body. For instance, too much light in the evening, especially of the blue variety, can make it harder to fall asleep.

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Light is the body’s most powerful time-giver, Zee said. When the eyes sense light, that information goes directly to a cluster of neurons in the brain known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or what Zee refers to as the “master circadian clock.”

“It acts like the conductor,” said Rafael Pelayo, a clinical professor in the sleep medicine division at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. “If you have a whole bunch of musicians playing music, you need somebody to get them into a rhythm, to synchronize them, and what synchronizes our rhythms is the suprachiasmatic nucleus.”

Using a sunrise alarm clock could help establish a regular rhythm of light exposure, which in turn could lead to more consistent wake times and sleep times, Zee said. “That regularity is great for your circadian rhythms and for your overall sleep quality.”

When might a sunrise clock alarm clock be beneficial?

“Anybody potentially may benefit if they need to be getting up at a regular time in the morning,” Neubauer said. “Ideally, you sleep until you wake up and get all the sleep that you need, but a lot of people work and go to school and may find it challenging to awaken as early as they need to most days.”

An alarm clock that simulates the sun may be especially useful during dark winter months when the sun rises later but you still have to wake up at the same time, experts said. It could also be helpful if you don’t get enough morning light streaming into your bedroom.

Zee said she has recommended artificial light devices to people who have trouble waking up and shaking off the fog of sleep. That grogginess is known as sleep inertia, and it can have negative effects on cognitive alertness and performance.

Morning light exposure can also have benefits for people with conditions such as seasonal affective disorder or delayed sleep-phase syndrome, Pelayo said. But he noted that therapeutic effects require much larger amounts of light than what many sunrise alarm clocks are typically designed to produce.

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And, he said, it’s important to recognize that the device may not always be the solution to difficulties in getting out of bed.

“If somebody says that they’re tired, no matter how much sleep they get, instead of getting a light device, I would speak with a sleep doctor,” he said. There may be other factors affecting your ability to wake up feeling rested, such as the amount, timing and quality of your sleep.

Good sleep means more than getting enough hours. A consistent schedule matters, too.

How should I use a sunrise alarm clock?

First, make sure you’re getting enough sleep, Zee said. For adults, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends seven hours or more each night.

Additionally, Zee recommended using the clock to enhance the natural light-dark cycle. Unless you are a shift worker, you should avoid using these clocks to simulate dawn when it’s naturally supposed to be dark out.

“On a regular basis, that would be counterproductive, because now you are creating an abnormal light-dark cycle for yourself,” she said. “Living with the timing of the sun clock would be your healthiest behavior.”

Where you place your clock also matters, Pelayo said. The device should be positioned in a way that allows enough light to hit your eyes and, he advised, should be kept out of arm’s reach. It’s important to welcome the light, he said. “In the end, it’s about motivation.”

Matt Wing, 31, a Web developer in Southern Oregon, said getting up has felt easier and less abrupt since he switched from using his phone as an alarm to a Philips SmartSleep device, which simulates sunrise over a 30-minute period and plays noise when the light is the brightest.

“Before, it would be like, I hear this big noise … and I’m like, ‘Whoa, what’s happening?’” said Wing, who typically wakes at 6 a.m. Now, though, his mornings start with a bright light and the sound of birds tweeting. “It’s a lot easier to just motivate myself to actually get out from under the covers.”

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