They say the early bird gets the worm. Apple’s Tim Cook springs out of bed at 3:45 a.m.
The Vanguard Group’s former chairman: 5 a.m. Oprah: between 6 and 6:20 — without using an alarm. Clearly, these ultra-successful people have mastered the art of the early rise and are enjoying the benefits.
Scientifically speaking, what are those benefits? Research shows waking up early is linked to an ability to take action that leads to your desired outcome. Other research links waking up early with greater levels of happiness — so if you can turn yourself into an alarm-clock-free early riser, you’ll be as happy as a lark and get that proverbial worm.
Of course, knowing why you should want to do something and how you’ll do it are two very different things. So, here are 5 simple and science-backed steps to spring out of bed at dawn:
Step 1: Minimize nighttime stress hormones
Most people recognize the power of melatonin as your nighttime sleep hormone, but many don’t understand how it functions synergistically with the stress hormone cortisol. At night, melatonin should rise as cortisol falls. In the morning, melatonin should fall as cortisol rises. This morning cortisol spike is called the cortisol awakening response and is key to developing an inner alarm clock. To make sure cortisol surges early in the morning, you must mind the symphony of cortisol and melatonin at night.
Watching news just before bed is the worst thing you can do to disrupt this 24-hour rhythm. The stress of watching a car chase and the blue light from your TV increases cortisol and depresses melatonin, respectively. Invert these hormones by keeping your evening quiet, blue-light free, and peaceful.
To spring out of bed at 5 a.m., you’ll need to start shutting down electronics by 7 or 8 p.m. Ditto for eating since you need all bodily rhythms to enter sleep mode. Trade the TV remote and chips for a book and cup of chamomile tea or a supplement with L-Theanine to help calm the mind.
Step 2: Use sleep compression
One of the most powerful techniques to realign your rhythms is called sleep compression. You paradoxically sleep less temporarily to establish a new permanent sleep-wake cycle. For one week, wake up a little earlier — shaving off up to 30 minutes per day. By day seven, you may only be sleeping close to five or six hours, so don’t drive or operate machinery near the end of this week. You should notice that the short-term sleep compression begins to make you tired much earlier than normal.
Then, you’ll strategically add back half the amount of time nightly that you subtracted in weeks 2 and 3 on either end to land at your target bedtime and wake time. For example, add back 15 minutes of sleep nightly if you subtracted 30 minutes of nightly sleep in week one. By the end of week three, these two times should ideally be 8.5 hours apart — which allows for 30 stress-free minutes to fall asleep.
Step 3: Get early morning light
Remember: Early morning natural light is far more potent than afternoon light in aligning sleep-wake cycles and shutting down the pineal gland’s natural secretion of melatonin. Take a brisk walk, or sip your coffee by a window that faces the rising sun. Research shows that dawn-simulating lights can do this as well — especially for people in darker climates. Even if you are genetically wired to be a night owl (e.g., having an aptly-named CLOCK gene mutation) remember that nurture trumps nature here. Morning light can help turn this gene off and begin to reprogram anyone’s circadian rhythms.
Step 4: Keep that waketime stable
Consistency is key. If you wake up at 5 a.m. on weekdays but 8 a.m. on weekdays, that three-hour difference is the equivalent of flying from back and forth from LA to New York every week. If your weekend wake time is later than weekdays, you have social jetlag — and that will silence the inner, early-morning alarm clock you’ve been developing.
Keep your waketime stable seven days a week. When you do have to travel or disrupt your schedule, consider extended-release melatonin so that temporary changes don’t fully reset your body’s clock in the long run. When you do travel between time zones, take it 30 minutes before bed to combat the new zone’s light patterns.
If possible, it’s best to stay on your native time zone’s clock when traveling. If that’s not possible, you can also use extended-release melatonin to adjust to a new time zone and then adjust back to your native one.
Step 5: And finally, patience
Over the course of the weeks ahead, you may notice yourself waking up just before your alarm. After months, you may not need that alarm clock at all. Enjoy the sweet stillness of the wee hours, and then harness all those precious and productive morning minutes. Go and get your early-bird worm.
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