For most of human history, we lived outdoors, and evolved as a species to go to sleep with the sunset, and wake up with the sunrise. But modern trappings like houses, blackout curtains, and work schedules often rail against our bodies’ natural sleep cycles.
Since the sunrise doesn’t always line up with when we want to get out of bed, most of us use alarm clocks to wake up at a particular time. But as anyone who’s not a morning person will tell you, jarring ourselves out of a deep sleep with a loud alarm is more likely to result in hitting the snooze button than actually getting out of bed.
But some alarm clocks also incorporate sunrise-simulating lamps, which can help our bodies wake up the natural way, regardless of when the sun comes streaming through our windows.
Why Sunlight Wakes Us Up
Humans, like almost all living things, operate on circadian rhythms that respond to light. When the photoreceptors in our eyes take in more light, our brains release chemicals like cortisol that help to keep us awake. When our surroundings are darker, other chemicals like melatonin become more prevalent in our blood streams, helping us get to sleep.
The photoreceptors in our eyes can take in light through our eyelids, even when we’re asleep, which is why sunlight coming through a window usually causes us to wake up. But unlike a blaring alarm, a slowly-brightening sunrise wakes us up gradually and naturally, rather than jolting us immediately out of a deep sleep phase. You know how you feel most tired after getting woken up in the middle of a dream? The sunrise (or a simulated sunrise) can slowly change the chemical balance in your bloodstream to ease you out of deep REM sleep before waking you up, which translates to you getting out of bed feeling better and more rested.
How a Sunlight Alarm Clock Actually Works
Most sunlight alarm clocks are meant to be placed on your nightstand, and feature a warm light that gradually increases in intensity over a period of time, usually 30 minutes, just like a real sunrise.
At the end of that 30 minutes, some can emit an audible alarm on their own to ensure that you wake up in time to get to work, though if the light does its job properly, you’ll already be nearly awake by the time the alarm sounds.
The main advantage of a sunlight alarm is that it eases you awake over a period of time, and should all but do away with those horrible morning when you’re abruptly awoken from a deep REM state. It might not do the trick for everyone, but according to a 2003 study, a large plurality of users reported feeling better while using a sunrise alarm.
Most lamps can also be used as warm, low-intensity reading lights in bed before you go to sleep, and some can be configured to fade out over a period of time (like a sunset!) to help you ease yourself to sleep.
One underrated advantage, though? If you and your sleeping partner are on different schedules, a wake-up light also a lot less likely to inadvertently wake up someone on the other side of the bed than an alarm, assuming you wake up in time to disable any audible alarm feature before it triggers. True, some light from your side of the bed will bleed over to the other side, but the effect of a sunlight lamp is much more localized than an alarm; it needs to be pretty close to your eyes to have maximum effect.
The Lamps to Buy
I used this inexpensive, entry-level Philips Wake-Up Light for years, and loved it. While it lacks some features like a battery backup for the alarm or custom alarm sounds, I really liked the quality of the lamp itself. It faded in gradually and smoothly, and I never noticed it abruptly jumping from one intensity level to the next. At under $50, it’s a great option to figure out if a sunrise alarm is right for you.
For about $100, this higher-end option from Philips features a brighter light (300 lux vs. 200 lux), though I rarely set my own 2oo lux lamp to the highest setting. It also adds a battery backup for your alarm (though not for the light, sadly), an FM radio, and multiple alarm sounds.
My new favorite option actually comes from a company better known for mattresses: Casper. While the Casper Glow Light lacks any kind of audible alarm, you can outsource that job to your phone easily enough, and still set the light to start fading in 30 minutes before you wake up.
The Glow Light is a gorgeous piece of hardware, and will look right at home in even the trendiest bedrooms. Unlike other options, it can run off battery power, and ingeniously turns on or off at will just by flipping it over. And if you’re using it as a reading light and want it to be brighter, you just twist the whole thing clockwise, even if it’s not sitting on its charging base.
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