Have years of poor sleep hygiene ruined me from using a sunrise alarm clock?
December 28, 2008 1:19 PM   Subscribe

Will my sunrise alarm clock ever work for me? And other tips on regulating my sleeping schedule?

So I have a ton of trouble with sleep:

- Insomnia, which alternates between not being able to fall asleep at all and waking up an hour or two after falling asleep at night
- Excessive daytime sleepiness, which makes it nearly impossible not to nap, which then throws off my whole schedule
- Complete inability to wake up in the morning, regardless of how much sleep I've gotten the night before

To that last end, I asked for (and received) this guy for the holidays this year. I've tried every manner of super loud alarm clock placed across the room, multiple alarms, etc.--all of which I eventually end up sleeping through completely after using for a couple of weeks. So I decided to go a different direction and use an alarm based on light rather than noise to see if that worked.

Except in the four days I've used it, I've failed to be awakened at all by it (even the beeping noise it makes at the end of the "sunrise"). Twice it's been set to a time prior to the actual sunrise (6:45), and twice after (7:45). I slept with the shades drawn for the "after", but it didn't seem to matter, as neither scenario was successful.

My sleep hygiene throughout my life has been spectacularly poor, and while I'm really working at getting that under control, I'm wondering if my habits have 'ruined' me from ever successfully using a sunrise clock. Specifically, light has never prevented me from sleeping--in addition to frequent afternoon naps, I have been known to fall asleep at night with all of the lights on (and have since childhood). I also live in New York City, so it is never completely dark in my bedroom, even with the shades drawn.

The past few weeks I've seriously been cleaning up my act--no daytime naps, no caffeine except tea in the mornings, reducing external sources of stress, making my bed more comfortable (and not spending non-sleeping time in it), trying to go to bed at a specific time each night. While I haven't been perfect, the past few nights when I've used this clock I've been pretty meticulous with a specific bedtime routine and ample time to wind down from computer/television use and though I fell asleep more easily than I normally do (ok, I did take a Benadryl last night), I'm still sleeping straight through the alarm.

So, people with sunrise alarm clocks: did they work right away for you? Is this just a question of my body taking its time to adjust to my new habits? Or will this clock never reliably wake me up because of so many years of sleeping with the lights on?

(Additional, possibly relevant information: I don't have sleep apnea, and while actually getting out of bed is easier in the summer when it's bright and warm out, my sleeping through alarms is pretty consistent year-round and doesn't really change based on what I'm getting up for--i.e., getting up for work, getting up for an exam, getting up to catch a flight, getting up to go have fun at the beach--are all complete struggles.)
posted by cosmic osmo to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have a sunrise alarm clock that I've been using for a year or so, and I don't think that I've ever actually noticed the "sunrise" part of it.

Despite that, this is by far the greatest alarm clock I've ever used. Rather than a horrible, screeching, and, well, alarming alarm, it wakes me up with songbird sounds. It's fantastic. It wakes me up immediately (which I was surprised about), and in a pleasant manner, as opposed to the sudden fight-or-flight manner of most alarm clocks.

But as relates to your question, again, I've never actually noticed the "sunrise" part of it (which starts several minutes before the songbirds do). Maybe it puts me in a state such that I can be easily awoken gently, though, I don't know.
posted by Flunkie at 2:24 PM on December 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I know someone who is a True Believer in this kind of clock, but it makes sense that if ambient light makes no difference when you're falling asleep, it probably won't have much affect waking you up. You're following all of the standard advice for a good night's sleep, so maybe it's time to see your physician if you haven't done so lately. It's a health issue that's impacting a great deal of your life both at night, and through the day. An extended-release sleep tablet might help "reset" your body. I'm not a doctor, but my hunch is that a series of regular, restful nights' sleep will make it easier to wake up to the alarm of your choice.
posted by woodway at 3:04 PM on December 28, 2008

If you're used to sleeping with the lights on, its unlikely this alarm clock will work for you (definitely don't expect it to work right away) but you've barely given it a chance. Not sleeping with the lights on/curtains open would be a good start but these things take time.

If I needed to get up at a specific time, it would be the perfect clock for me because sunrise always wakes me up (unless I'm really exhausted and need the extra sleep). Not everyone is like me though, if light has never woken you up before, you really shouldn't expect it to just because its an alarm clock.
posted by missmagenta at 3:11 PM on December 28, 2008

My first thought is that your sleeping problems have nothing to do with your alarm clock and are a symptom of sleep apnea. The only reason this comes to mind is that I have several relatives and friends with it, and they were all shocked at how much better they slept and awoke once they got treatment. Talk to you doctor.

My other thought was that 4 days is a pretty short time to expect a new sleep routine to fix you up.
posted by revgeorge at 4:03 PM on December 28, 2008

Complete inability to wake up in the morning, regardless of how much sleep I've gotten the night before.

That, along with the daytime sleepiness, sounds a lot like Delayed Phase Sleep Syndrome or a related circadian rhythm sleep disorder. With DSPS, your sleep phase is shifted to later in the day with respect to time signals like sunrise. So a sunrise alarm clock would likely be ineffective.

I had similar problems (I've lost jobs because I've been unable to wake up for them) and my sleep hygiene issues were a consequence of my sleep disorder rather than a cause. Fixing the sleep hygiene problems and cutting out caffeine made no difference at all. I never tried a sunrise alarm clock, but I doubt it would have helped either. My sleep patterns just don't respond to external cues. The only thing that's helped is melatonin, which has fixed my sleep problems completely so far.
posted by xchmp at 4:52 PM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was about to say what xchmp said about DSPS. I read about it for the first time on AskMe - I've had sleep problems since I was in high school - and went to a sleep specialist and was shocked to be *actually diagnosed* with something I read about on the internets. It can happen.

His recommendation to me was to take a small dose of Melatonin 3-4 hrs. *before* I want to go to sleep as an effort to establish a regular bedtime. That in addition to good sleep hygiene (I had already perfected the "1 hour before bed all electronic devices are stowed in their upright and locked positions in preparation for bedtime takeoff" followed by shower followed by reading routine) has really REALLY made a difference in my being able to fall asleep which has also made a difference in my being able to wake up.

As for the specific alarm clock issue: I know I could sleep through a sunrise alarm because sleeping during the day doesn't bother me. Heck, I didn't even get bothered by living in Iceland in summertime when it was light 24 hours a day. People asked me how I slept and I just looked at them askance because I have *never* had a problem sleeping in broad daylight. The only alarm I CAN'T sleep through is my cellphone when it plays the 1812 overture. The cannons will do it every time.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:04 PM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the feedback so far. To follow up:

- I don't have sleep apnea
- I've had the alarm clock for 4 days, but I've been working on my sleep hygiene for close to 2 months, which means no daytime naps or falling asleep with the lights on in that time. (I certainly haven't been perfect with following a bedtime routine, but those 2 things are definitely true.)
- Delayed sleep phase syndrome sounds EXACTLY like what I experience. I have a referral to a sleep clinic that I will be following up on shortly and I will definitely ask the doctors there about it.
- Re: melatonin. I have some 3mg tablets upstairs, but I've heard that smaller doses might be more effective, is that true? (I will try taking them earlier than I have in the past, too, so thanks for that tip!)
- I will also try moving the clock to someplace higher up and see if that makes any difference.

Thanks, all. I'm trying to decide if I should return the alarm or not; it sounds like if DSPS is my problem then it won't ever work for me, perfect sleep hygiene be damned :(

(Now if you'll excuse me, it's 10:20 on the east coast and I have to turn the computer off, go wash up, drink a big mug of warm (decaf) tea and read in bed for an hour.)
posted by cosmic osmo at 7:22 PM on December 28, 2008

This week I am trying out a light box from philips. Their website has a test to help figure out your sleep disorder. It gave me a schedule for using the light box, and, I swear, it may be working. I have the worst sleep schedule. I have been sleep tested, with no sleep apnea or other problems. I got mine from costco.com. You can email me if you'd like to know how it is in a week or so.
Here's the test site, you do have to register:
I hope this didn't sound like a sales pitch, I have no interest in this company.
posted by cdferr at 7:23 PM on December 28, 2008

Re: Melatonin; I chop the 3mg pills in half since I haven't been able to find 1mg pills in my area (I've looked. I know they're there, I've seen them before). Works for me just fine. And yes, a 1mg dose is what my sleep specialist recommended.

And yeah, if you have DSPS, the light alarm won't help. Melatonin & good sleep hygiene is the standard treatment and from what my doctor said, if you're really disciplined about it, it absolutely CAN be treated. Best of luck!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:05 PM on December 28, 2008

The thing about the dawn alarm is: It wants to wake you up by shining light at your closed eyes! So... the light has to shine right on your face, and the bigger the bulb and the closer, the better. (Just having it sitting on a shelf somewhere pointed vaguely toward your pillow is not good enough.) And yeah, seeing a sleep specialist is a good idea.
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:45 PM on December 28, 2008

Another DSPSer here -- and a sunrise alarm clock is useless for me. I can sleep through broad daylight without a problem, even if I'm getting enough sleep.

I also had a dawn simulator which pointed four halogen lights at my face -- the lights gradually turned on in the morning, which theoretically should fool the body into thinking it's time to wake up. I slept right through that as well.

(I hate the term "sleep hygiene." It makes it sound like a moral failing if you don't sleep at the "right" time of night. I refuse to use it.)
posted by litlnemo at 4:47 AM on December 29, 2008

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