It’s no secret that the way you start your morning can have a profound effect on hours that follow. Miss your alarm and oversleep? Stressed and frenzied all day. Burst out of bed energetic and refreshed? Poised to take on whatever comes your way.
Maybe this is why we’re so endlessly fascinated with the morning routines of celebrities and entrepreneurs; after all, it’s easy to assume that the secret to their success must be at least somewhat linked to their adherence to an excellent A.M. regime. It’s giving discipline! It’s giving aspiration! It’s giving vitality! And, while it’s impossible to say if copying an influencer’s exact schedule of matcha and meditation will change your life, one thing is for sure: Sticking to a routine filled with healthy habits has been scientifically proven to benefit your entire well-being.
But in all the talk about perfect morning routines, an important factor is often overlooked: First, you need to wake up feeling good. And, if you’ve never been a morning person—or, if you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder in the wintertime—that can truly be much easier said than done. However, experts say that almost anyone really can become better at waking up, and that it’s even possible for someone to go from a night owl to an early bird simply by learning a few basic techniques. It’s worth a try. After all, as the writer William C. Hannan said, “the day will be what you make it,” so you may as well “rise like the sun and burn.” Read on to find out what the experts recommend.
First things first
“It’s common to not wake up ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed,’” explains sleep expert Dr. Rebecca Robbins, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and scientist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. But, if it’s happening to you on the regular, she says it’s important to start by assessing the quality of your sleep before you do anything. “Awakening from sleep and feeling restored, alert, and ready to start the day can take time,” she explains. “But it heavily depends on your ability to fall and stay asleep.”
To that end, she actually leads a series of Sleep Retreats at the Castle Hot Springs resort in Arizona designed to help guests improve this very thing. “Unfortunately, one out of every three Americans report failing to meet their sleep needs, and only three out of every ten Americans report experiencing restorative sleep,” Robbins explains of the catalyst for the program, which includes everything from sleep lectures to restorative activities. “Oftentimes, our sleep systems simply need a reboot, and the answers to common sleep struggles in many cases have very simple solutions in small, modifiable behavioral changes.”
Resetting the rhythm
Rebooting your own sleep system needn’t require a trip to the spa—it often really comes down to resetting your circadian rhythm, which is essentially just the internal clock in our brain. Longevity researcher Dr. Diogo Barardo, Ph.D, says that our circadian rhythm and our need to sleep should “work together like a perfect symphony,” but due to our modern environments, hectic schedules, and the influence of technology, this “symphony” can easily get off key.
Because our circadian rhythms are primarily ruled by light, one simple way to get it back in tune is to be strategic about when you’re exposed to brightness and darkness. Longevity and sleep expert Chris Mirabile of Novos Labs recommends dimming the lights in your home and on your electronic devices one hour before bedtime and turning them off completely at least thirty minutes before you go to sleep. “If you need some light, consider getting a red light bulb,” he says. “The red light won’t disrupt your melatonin production as much as white and blue light.” This should help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep, especially if you use a sleep mask to keep any additional atmospheric light from electronics or the street from seeping into your eyes.
Zeitgebers and light
The influence of light on our circadian rhythm is called a zeitgeber—and yes, that’s a new word for me, too. “Zeitgebers are external cues that tell your body when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to sleep,” explains Barardo. “The most powerful zeitgeber is light. When your eyes see light, especially natural sunlight, it tells your brain to wake up and be alert.”
Because of this, Barardo says that enhancing your ability to wake up easily really just comes down to “slowly nudging your body’s internal clock using these zeitgebers.” So, just as you should eliminate your exposure to light at night to help induce sleepiness, you should do the opposite by exposing yourself to light to feel more awake come morning. “Try to get plenty of natural light, especially in the morning,” Barardo says. Fling open the curtains, turn on your happy lamp, and—if you can—try to get outside first thing. “When you wake up, get outdoors and move with sunlight in your eyes for at least 20 minutes as early as possible,” Mirabile agrees.
Movement and meals
While light is the main and most influential zeitgeber, your circadian rhythm relies on other signals as well. Those include physical activity and meal times, which studies have found can be almost as impactful in establishing your rhythm as your exposure to light. In fact, one study found that doing a high intensity workout first thing in the morning reduces sleepiness, while another found that eating breakfast improves alertness overall.
And it’s not just what you do first thing in the morning that matters; adhering to a consistent schedule as much as possible ensures your circadian rhythm stays on track. “Stick to your sleep and wake times every day, even on weekends,” says Barardo. “This helps reset your internal clock. Align your meals, exercise, and other activities with your ideal schedule. If you’re waking up earlier, have breakfast earlier, too.”
Robbins agrees: “Just as important as our wind down routine, is our wake up routine,” she says. “Ideally, it’s a routine that we can stick to and will help us transition from the sleep phase to the wake phase; flipping the ‘on’ switch to our circadian rhythm then starts the countdown to the time when, later that day, we’ll begin the transition to the ‘off’ switch.”
Still, sometimes no matter how well you slept the night before, the “on” switch can feel a little stuck in the morning. This is where the concept of sleep inertia—another new one—comes into play. “Sleep inertia is a term that describes feelings of temporary disorientation and can be associated with reduced motivation, cognitive capacity, and impaired mood upon waking,” Robbins explains.
In other words, sleep inertia is that groggy, haven’t-had-my-coffee-yet feeling. “You might find it harder to remember things, make decisions, or feel fully alert,” says Barardo. Still, he’s quick to point out that sleep inertia is a totally normal biological state—it isn’t just you being “lazy”—it’s actually just an expected part of going from sleep to awake. “During sleep, your brain is in a state of reduced activity, and it needs time to gear up to its full capacity,” he explains. “It’s a bit like trying to drive a car that’s still cold in winter—it takes a bit of time before it runs smoothly.”
Meditation and coffee
Incidentally, sleep inertia is also part of the reason why so many experts recommend meditating first thing in the morning—your brain is already in a “highly suggestible,” relaxed alpha wave state, which makes it easier to transform your neural pathways to reap meditation’s stress-reducing rewards. Plus, studies have found that meditating regularly increases alertness and may even decrease the need for sleep—two things that are definitely helpful when it comes to experiencing a better morning.
If a regular meditation practice isn’t yet part of your self-care routine, there are still plenty of other ways you can transform sleep inertia into energy. Splashing cold water on your face can help; as can taking a quick cold plunge or shower. But the most tried-and-true? Coffee. As obvious as it sounds, a morning cup of coffee has been proven to shorten sleep inertia, enhance performance, and increase alertness. “If you’re having trouble waking up, there’s nothing wrong with consuming coffee,” says Mirabile, who points to the drink’s longevity benefits. However, he advises to be mindful of consuming too much caffeine. “When you don’t metabolize it by bedtime it can disrupt the quality of your sleep,” he says. “So, try not to have more than three to four servings of coffee per day, and avoid drinking it within ten hours of bedtime.”
Not sleeping well can make waking up all the more challenging—and it can be super tempting to sneak in a couple more winks by hitting snooze on your alarm repeatedly. However, experts say this should be avoided. “It’s common to use the snooze bar to cope with feelings of grogginess upon waking up,” Robbins explains. “It can be challenging in the winter months especially, when your bedroom temperature may be quite a bit cooler than your bed. Nevertheless, it’s best to resist in order to keep your wake-up routine on track.” Instead, she says you should commit to simply turning off your alarm and getting out of bed as soon as you can.
Mirabile, for his part, says that it would be even better to get to the point where you don’t have to use an alarm at all. “Alarms jar you awake while you’re in a sleep cycle, leaving you groggy for much of the morning,” he says. “Even worse, if you’re still asleep, it’s because your body needs more time to recover.” He recommends remedying this by going to bed fifteen minutes earlier until you’re able to wake up naturally a few minutes before your alarm. “You can keep an alarm as a failsafe, but eventually you probably won’t need it anymore,” he says. If that sounds too risky, you can swap your old school alarm clock (or the alarm on your phone) for a sunrise alarm like the Restore 2 from Hatch, which wakes you up gently by gradually emitting soft, golden light.
You are nature and nature has cycles
Essentially, it’s important to remember that your ability to wake up well is connected to everything else you do. “Falling asleep and waking up are both important and cannot operate correctly without the other,” Robbins says. “The way you wake up is not only affected by how you fall asleep, but also by your actions during the day, since those will directly affect how you fall and stay asleep. It’s a cycle, after all.”
And, really, cycles are what it’s all about. “Your sleep is divided into cycles, each lasting about 90 minutes. These cycles are made up of different stages, including deep sleep and REM. Each stage has a specific role,” explains Barardo. “Waking up at the end of a sleep cycle, when your sleep is lighter, can help you feel more alert.” Keep that in mind when you’re setting your alarm—if you’re using one—and remember that it’s ideal to go through at least four or five cycles each night, which is where the whole “eight hours of sleep” rule comes from. “Sleep is your body’s nightly maintenance routine. When you sleep, your body is busy repairing tissues, consolidating memories from the day, and resetting your mood. It’s not just about resting your muscles; it’s about keeping your brain and body in top condition,” explains Barardo. “Good sleep is essential for your overall health and well-being.”
In short, when it comes to waking up earlier, easily, and with more energy, getting a good night’s sleep really is the first step to creating a perfect morning routine. “A good night’s sleep keeps your symphony in harmony, making it easier for you to wake up feeling refreshed,” Barbados says, while Robbins puts it this way: “There is a beautiful rhythmicity to our daily lives—it’s punctuated by patterns of dark and light.”
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.