Discover more from The Mind, Brain, Body Digest
Harnessing Neuroscience to Wake Up Earlier 🧠
A Practical Guide for Shifting Your Sleep-Wake Cycle (10min Read)
Adjust your sleep-wake cycle for better mornings.
Understanding Sleep: The role of circadian rhythm and sleep stages in daily energy.
Hormones & Sleep: The impact of melatonin and cortisol on sleep patterns.
Women's Sleep & Menstrual Cycle: How hormonal changes affect sleep.
Step-By-Step Process: Steps to shift your sleep cycle and improve sleep quality.
Motivation Strategy: Using a reward system to encourage waking up earlier.
For many people juggling demanding careers and personal lives, starting the day earlier can be a game-changer.
However, shifting your circadian rhythm isn't just about setting an earlier alarm.
It's a delicate dance of biology, chemistry, and habit formation.
In this short guide, I'll dive into the science behind sleep, and offer a step-by-step process for shifting your sleep-wake cycle.
Hopefully, this will allow you to wake up earlier feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day.
Understanding the Circadian Rhythm (Sleep-Wake Cycle)
If you want to start waking up earlier, this is “what” you’ll be shifting internally.
Your circadian rhythm is like an internal clock, regulating your sleep-wake cycle.
It's influenced by external cues like light and temperature, and internal factors like hormones and genetics.
Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist who studies this system, emphasizes the role of light in signaling our brains about the time of day.
When light hits our eyes, it triggers a chain reaction in the brain, releasing hormones like cortisol and melatonin that wake us up or prepare us for sleep.
Think of your circadian rhythm as a conductor of an orchestra, where each musician (hormone) plays a part in your daily energy symphony.
When the conductor is in sync with the natural light outside, the music (your energy levels) flows harmoniously.
The Neuroscience of Sleep
It’s also important to note that sleep isn’t just one event, it has multiple stages that you move in and out of throughout the night, multiple times.
During these sleep stages, the brain goes through a series of cycles & changes that allow it to rest and repair itself.
These changes can be seen in brain activity, neurotransmitter and hormone levels, and other physiological processes.
That being said, sleep has been a huge research topic over the last few years in the world of Neuroscience, and the cycles you probably learned have changed a bit!
First of all, sleep is divided into two main categories: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
Each night, a person typically goes through several sleep cycles that alternate between NREM and REM sleep.
NREM & REM Sleep Stages
During a typical sleep cycle, a person progresses through four stages of NREM sleep, which are known as stages 1, 2, 3, and 4, creative, I know…
After a person has gone through the four stages of NREM sleep, they enter into the REM sleep stage.
REM sleep is characterized by rapid eye movements, increased brain activity, and increased blood flow to the brain.
This stage is also associated with vivid dreams and temporary paralysis of the muscles, which helps prevent us from acting out our dreams (even though most of us would love to be able to fly).
The sleep cycle typically lasts about 90 minutes and repeats itself several times throughout the night.
The amount of time a person spends in each stage of sleep can vary, but in general, a person spends more time in the deeper stages of sleep earlier in the night and more time in REM sleep later in the night.
I hope you can start to see why shifting your sleep-wake cycle is a little more complex than just setting your alarm for earlier…
The Sleep-Wake Hormones
When it comes to regulating our sleep-wake cycle, two key hormones play a pivotal role: melatonin and cortisol.
Understanding their functions and the typical patterns of their levels throughout the day and night is key to shifting your sleep-wake cycle.
Melatonin: The Sleep Inducer
Melatonin, often referred to as the "sleep hormone," is produced by the pineal gland in the brain.
It helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle by signaling to your body that it's time to sleep.
Its production is influenced by light exposure: as it gets darker, melatonin levels increase, preparing your body for sleep.
Typical Daily Pattern:
Evening Rise: Melatonin levels start to rise in the evening as it gets dark, peaking usually around 2-4 AM.
Daytime Suppression: During the day, especially in the presence of bright light, melatonin production is suppressed, keeping you alert and awake.
Cortisol: The Wakefulness Hormone
Cortisol, commonly known as the "stress hormone," is produced by the adrenal glands.
It plays a crucial role in waking you up and keeping you alert.
It also helps manage various bodily functions like metabolism and immune response.
Typical Daily Pattern:
Morning Peak: Cortisol levels are usually at their highest in the early morning, around 6-8 AM, which helps you wake up and feel energized.
Evening Decline: Levels gradually decrease throughout the day, reaching their lowest point during the late evening and early nighttime, aiding the onset of sleep.
As a side note, spikes in cortisol late in the day and night have been connected to increased levels of anxiety and depression!
Bottomline, you want to do things that increase melatonin and decrease cortisol at night time, and you want to do things that increase cortisol and decrease melatonin in the morning.
Hormones, Sleep & the Menstrual Cycle
Considering the majority of my clients, readers, and followers are women, I think it’s important to cover the science behind how menstrual cycles can affect sleep before breaking down the process of shifting your wake-up time.
I believe it is also important for us guys to understand this as well so that we can be better support systems for the women in our lives!
Women's sleep patterns are uniquely affected by hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle.
The largest contributors to this are estrogen and progesterone, which vary throughout the cycle, and can impact sleep quality.
Let’s break down shifts during each phase.
1. Follicular Phase (Day 1-14, starting with menstruation)
This is the ideal phase for women to try and shift their sleep-wake cycle.
This is because many women experience increased energy and better sleep quality due to their estrogen levels rising during this phase!
Research also suggests this rise in estrogen also makes it an ideal time to exercise, as estrogen has been shown to increase muscular endurance.
2. Ovulatory Phase (Around Day 14)
The energy and alertness gains generally peak during the ovulation phase.
Some of my clients experience improved sleep quality around ovulation due to the sedative effects of progesterone.
Others might find their sleep is more disturbed due to the fluctuating hormone levels.
Try to maintain an exercise routine here, as it can make you more sleepy and help you stick to your new sleep schedule!
3. Luteal Phase (Day 15-28)
During this phase, progesterone rises and then falls, which may disrupt sleep, induce insomnia, and/or increase the vividness of dreams.
Focusing more on relaxation techniques before bed, like yoga or meditation can help buffet some of these things.
And giving yourself a large “wind-down” period can be very useful in this phase as well.
4. Premenstrual Period (A few days before menstruation)
In the biometric data of my clients, this is often the roughest phase of menstruation when it comes to sleep.
Hormonal changes can lead to difficulties in falling asleep and staying asleep, and you might feel more tired during the day.
I’ve found it helpful to allow for a little extra sleep time if needed.
Be gentle with yourself if waking up earlier is more challenging during this phase!
Knowing which part of your cycle you're in is very important to keep in mind as we dive into the process I’m about to share to shift your sleep-wake cycle.
Shifting Your Sleep-Wake Cycle
Alright, let’s break down exactly how to start shifting wake-up time!
Before we do, if you’d like more info on sleep, I’ve written extensively on the topic.
So, if you’d like a more in-depth breakdown of best practices, routines, and myths, I suggest you read my blog on “Using Neuroscience to Sleep Better 🧠!”
Step-by-Step Process to Shift Your Sleep-Wake Cycle
1. Understand Your Current Cycle
Before making changes, document your current sleep patterns for a week. Note what times you naturally fall asleep and wake up.
2. Set a Gradual Goal
Decide on your new wake-up time. If it's significantly earlier than your current time, aim to shift gradually – about 15-30 minutes earlier every couple of days.
3. Morning Light Exposure
Upon waking, expose yourself to natural light as soon as possible. This could mean opening curtains, stepping outside, or using a light therapy box.
This exposure helps reset your internal clock by setting your melatonin timer.
4. Evening Light Management
Starting an hour before your intended bedtime, dim the lights and minimize exposure to screens.
This helps increase melatonin production, signaling your body it’s time to sleep.
5. Create a Pre-Sleep Routine
Develop a calming routine before bed to signal to your body that it's time to wind down.
This could include activities like reading, stretching, or taking a warm bath.
Make it something that you enjoy, and look forward to!
6. Optimize Your Sleep Environment
Ensure your bedroom is conducive to sleep – it should be cool, dark, and quiet.
Consider using blackout curtains, comfortable bedding, and white noise machines if needed.
7. Consistent Schedule
Stick to your new sleep schedule every day, even on weekends. Yes, you read that right, even on weekends!
Consistency strengthens your body's sleep-wake cycle.
8. Monitor Your Diet and Exercise
Avoid heavy meals, caffeine, and alcohol close to bedtime.
Regular exercise can promote better sleep, but try not to exercise too close to bedtime, this will increase your heart rate and body temp and disrupt melatonin release!
9. Track Your Menstrual Cycle (for Women)
As we discussed above, if you're a woman, be aware of how your menstrual cycle affects your sleep.
Adjust your approach during different phases of your cycle as needed.
If you find certain times of the month disrupt your sleep more, plan for earlier bedtimes or allow for longer sleep periods during these phases.
10. Avoid Naps
This one is tricky because naps can help you reduce sleep debt if used effectively.
However, since the goal here is to get to sleep earlier, and wake up earlier, naps during the day can make it harder to get to sleep at your new time!
11. Respond Appropriately to Wakefulness
If you can't sleep, don't lie in bed getting frustrated.
Get up, engage in a quiet, relaxing activity in low light, and return to bed when you feel sleepy.
12. Waking Up Before Your Alarm Goes Off
Depending on how much before your alarm you wake up, it is likely more beneficial to just get up, especially if you’re trying to shift your sleep-wake cycle.
If you wake up before your alarm, it often means your body has completed a sleep cycle, and just getting up will help cement your new wake-up time!
Going back to sleep can put you at risk for experiencing “sleep inertia” which is the grogginess and disorientation that can come from being abruptly awakened from deep sleep.
Pro Tip: Reward Yourself
We’re generally pretty hard on ourselves, but our brain responds well to reward!
So, I’d suggest setting up a reward mechanism for yourself and creating a game out of it.
I use a bead jar reward tool with my clients. Here’s how it works.
Get a bead jar, and get two different colored beads. Determine a reward color and a non-reward color.
Put the beads into the jar with the ratio of 8:2, non-reward: reward, meaning if you use 100 beads, 80 would be non-reward, and 20 would be reward!
Next, brainstorm some rewards that you would enjoy, I use ChatGPT to help me with these kinds of lists.
Put these rewards on little pieces of paper or sticky notes next to the bead jar in a bowl.
Then, on days you wake up on time, draw a bead.
By not knowing if you’re going to get a reward bead or not, you’re subtly addicting yourself to this new habit.
This is the same neural mechanism slot machines and social media use against you, so why not put it on your team for once?!
Transforming your sleep habits and circadian rhythm is a journey that requires understanding your body's needs and creating an environment conducive to restful sleep.
I hope that by combining this neuroscience knowledge with the process above you’re able to shift your sleep schedule, which can lead to more productive mornings and an overall healthier lifestyle!
Remember, small, consistent changes can lead to significant improvements over time.
Happy sleeping, and until next time… Live Heroically! 🧠
1. Dijk, D.-J., & Landolt, H.-P. (2019). Sleep Physiology, Circadian Rhythms, Waking Performance and the Development of Sleep-Wake Therapeutics. Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology. DOI: 10.1007/164_2019_243.
2. Pavlova, M. (2017). Continuum (Minneapolis, Minn.). DOI: 10.1212/CON.0000000000000499.
3. Santhi, N., Lazar, A.S., McCabe, P.J., Lo, J.C., Groeger, J.A., & Dijk, D.J. (2016). Sex differences in the circadian regulation of sleep and waking cognition in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(19), E2730-E2739. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1521637113.
4. Dijk, D.J., & Lockley, S.W. (2002). Integration of human sleep-wake regulation and circadian rhythmicity. Journal of Applied Physiology, 92(2), 852-862. DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00924.2001.
5. Dijk, D.J., & von Schantz, M. (2005). Timing and consolidation of human sleep, wakefulness, and performance by a symphony of oscillators. Journal of Biological Rhythms, 20(4), 279-290. DOI: 10.1177/0748730405278292.
6. Sun, S.Y., & Chen, G.H. (2022). Treatment of Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorders. Current Neuropharmacology, 20(6), 1022-1034. DOI: 10.2174/1570159X19666210907122933.
7. O'Byrne, N.A., Yuen, F., Butt, W.Z., & Liu, P.Y. (2021). Sleep and Circadian Regulation of Cortisol: A Short Review. Current Opinion in Endocrine and Metabolic Research. DOI: 10.1016/j.coemr.2021.03.011.
8. Liu, P.Y., & Reddy, R.T. (2022). Review of Endocrine Metabolic Disorders. DOI: 10.1007/s11154-022-09755-4.
9. Baker, F.C., & Lee, K.A. (2022). Menstrual Cycle Effects on Sleep. Sleep Medicine Clinics. DOI: 10.1016/j.jsmc.2022.02.004.
10. Baker, F.C., & Lee, K.A. (2018). Menstrual Cycle Effects on Sleep. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 13(3), 283-294. DOI: 10.1016/j.jsmc.2018.04.002.