Why Your Wake Time Matters More Than Your Bedtime for Improving Sleep

Sticking to a regular morning wake-up time is one of the best things you can do to improve your sleep tonight. (And the next night, too.)

Why Your Wake Time Matters More Than Your Bedtime for Improving Sleep
Photo by Thomas Galler / Unsplash

We’ve all been there… You get into bed after a long day, and in the quiet darkness, with no distractions, your mind starts racing and sleep difficulties begin. After a rough night, you might be tempted to sleep in the next day if you can get away with it.

Pulling the covers over your head to “catch up” is something we can all relate to. But in fact, sticking to a regular morning wake-up time is one of the best things you can do to make sure you sleep well the next night. (And the night after that.)

The science behind a fixed wake-up time

Our circadian rhythm is our internal body clock that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. When we wake up, the morning light sets off a cascade of signals orchestrated by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is made up of approximately 20,000 neurons and keeps our many biological clocks aligned and in sync with our 24-hour day. The SCN sends alerts to activate various hormones, including cortisol and adenosine — it’s located close to our optic nerve and utilizes light to guide the output of hormones.

The morning release of cortisol helps transition your body to wakefulness. Adenosine, on the other hand, accumulates in the brain throughout the day and helps you feel sleepy at night. The buildup of adenosine also begins when you wake up.  

Because the release of both hormones is triggered by morning sunlight, when you wake up around the same time each day, your circadian rhythm receives a consistent signal that helps it get “stronger,” or more regulated. When the hormones that help drive sleep and wake are on a more regular pattern, sleepiness at night tends to happen at a more consistent time as well.

Your wake-up call

If you’re trying to log more quality sleep time, it may seem intuitive to consider an earlier bedtime. But you can’t force the sleep process. Trying to will yourself to sleep activates your conscious mind, which is exactly the opposite of what you want to do when you’re trying to settle in for the night. Sleep isn’t a state you can think your way into. In fact, the more you try, the more pressure and stress you’ll cause, and the less sleep you’ll probably get.

Going to bed earlier to catch up on sleep is, essentially, trying to regulate and control your sleep from the wrong end!  But you can control when you open your eyes, put your feet on the floor and get up for the day, which triggers your wake and sleep-drive hormones.

Our bodies thrive on consistency, and your wake time is a powerful zeitgeber, or cue for your circadian rhythm, especially when paired with morning light exposure.

4 tips to harness the power of your wake time and get your circadian rhythm on track for a good night’s rest

1. Maintain roughly the same wake time every day, even on the weekends. It doesn’t have to be to the minute, but within a 15-to-30-minute range.

2. If getting the day rolling is tough, just sit up wherever there's some light exposure. You don’t have to be active, running errands, or accomplishing tasks. Just try to be upright.

3. Natural light is best, but artificial light can do the trick, too. The goal is to get 10,000 lux of light within 20 minutes of your wake time—the sooner, the better!  You can look for lightbulbs with that amount, or try a light meter app to measure the level of light intensity.

4. If you sleep in one day or get off track, just wait until you feel sleepy the next night instead of using a clock to dictate your bedtime. And then get back to a regular routine.