If you’ve ever tried to wake up before dawn, you know what a challenge it can be to convince your eyes to open and your body to get out of bed. Many of us will reach for the snooze button and roll back to sleep. This is where sunrise alarm clocks can help. These clocks gradually bring light into the bedroom to help convince your brain that it’s time to rise.
Light is one of our brains' primary cues that tell us it's time to wake up. Our brains use dark and light to tell us when to sleep and when to wake, said Dr. Jeffrey Durmer, MUD/WTR’s sleep advisor. As a sleep scientist and physician, Durmer works with Olympic athletes to optimize performance, and sleep is a big part of that. According to Durmer, as daylight turns to night, our brains produce more melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. So, it makes sense that light would also play a significant role in how we wake.
What Is the Best Light to Mimic the Sunrise?
When we first see the light in the morning, that information goes directly to the neurons in the brain.
“As soon as light hits our retina, melatonin shuts off, and the part of the brain associated with wakefulness shuts off the sleep areas,” said Durmer.
That’s why patients with insomnia or circadian rhythm sleep disorders are advised to get light first thing in the morning, he added. One of the best things a person can do who is struggling with sleep is to get outside within an hour of waking up and soak in the morning sunlight.
If someone is sleep deprived, two of the things they need most are time and light, according to Durmer. He added that the best type of light used to wake is either sunlight or a bright light with 2,000 LUX per 2-2.5 feet. That’s why a lightbox therapy lamp is often prescribed during the dark winter months.
Do Sunrise Alarm Clocks Really Work?
The answer is a little more complicated than you might think. Technically, sunrise alarm clocks don’t provide 2,000 LUX per 2-2.5 feet—the brightness needed to replicate a sunrise. And, according to Durmer, there’s still very little scientific evidence that they work on a neurological level. However, the benefit of sunrise alarm clocks lies more in how you wake than how much light they provide.
“It’s really a preference,” Durmer said. “It doesn’t actually have a biological effect.”
Still, many sleepers prefer a gentle way of emerging from sleep. Not only do sunrise alarm clocks gradually increase the light in the room, but most models also come with a digital alarm that offers natural wake-up sounds like bird calls, soothing wind chimes or piano music. That’s undoubtedly a gentler way of emerging from sleep than a burst of beeps from traditional alarm clocks.
For people with vivid REM sleep cycles, who can have intense dreams/nightmares, it’s particularly jarring to be woken up by loud, sudden noises, according to Durmer. “It has some effects on activating the limbic system,” he said. “You may feel strong emotions. And that’s disconcerting for some people.”
Other people suffer from “sleep inertia,” or the grogginess we associate with being unable to get out of bed. An alarm clock can be vital to ensuring they get out the door in the morning, and a sunrise alarm clock can gently wake these sleepers.
Which Sunrise Clock Is Best?
Sunrise alarm clocks range in cost from $25-$200. The fancier models boast Bluetooth connectivity and apps that allow you to schedule the alarms, but the basic functions of clocks are all similar. The add-ons are just about ease of use and preferences of the sleeper.
When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, comfort is key, Durmer said.
Durmer says he no longer uses the term bedroom but refers to the area as a “sleep space.”
“We want people to use the space to enhance their sleep experience,” Durmer said. “Bringing light in can benefit you psychologically.”
Amy Ettinger is a writer living in Santa Cruz. You can find her work at amyettinger.com.
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