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Is there a sound that makes you shudder because it reminds you of being jolted out of a deep sleep on countless cold, dark mornings? I have two: the infamous grating beep of OG alarm clocks and that first-ever default iPhone alarm sound that berated me into waking up for 9 a.m. classes in college. Thankfully, there is now a gentler solution: a sunrise alarm clock.
These days, we tend to use our phones for everything, which can be hugely convenient. If your handy smartphone provides a certain function, it can be a hard sell to invest in a separate product that serves the same purpose and takes up more space.
But if you’re a troubled sleeper or find it difficult to rise and shine, especially before sunrise, a light or sunrise alarm clock may be well worth the buy.
What are sunrise alarm clocks?
“The key thing that these alarm clocks try to mimic is direct sunlight exposure,” says Rebecca Robbins, an associate scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School. “They build on the circadian science that light is a vital input to our internal circadian rhythm.”
The part of our brain that guides our circadian rhythm, Robbins explains, is housed behind the eyeballs, making our eyes the receptors of light that kick-start the awake phase of this 24-hour cycle.
That’s why exposing yourself to light in the morning, even if it’s a simulation of the sun, will help trigger that alertness by suppressing the flow of the hormone melatonin from the pineal gland in the brain. (Darkness triggers melatonin release, while light can halt its production.)
These clocks can be especially helpful in certain regions of the world, at times of the year with hours of sunlight vary, or any time you need to artificially replicate sunrise and sunset to signal a proper sleep schedule. Your circadian rhythms can also respond to decreasing light at the end of the day, according to Dr. Raj Dasgupta of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. That means that a dimming function is another helpful component to have in a sunrise alarm clock because it can help you wind down for bedtime.
Which sunrise alarm clock is best?
When searching for the best sunrise alarm clock for you, the sunset option is key if regardless of the season you tend to have issues falling asleep as well as waking up. Robbins adds that warmer colors of light are a soothing effect for bedtime, while cool, bright blue tones emulate sunshine for an alerting effect in the morning, so the availability of those varying shades is key. Though many of us tend to depend on a snooze button, the lack of one could actually be helpful if you’re looking to establish healthier sleep habits.
“With your first alarm, you’ve extracted likely from your best, most restorative stages of sleep,” she says. “The only sleep you’re getting after interrupting those really deep, rich stages is twilight sleep, which is the worst thing we can do.” (Twilight is stage 1 of non-REM sleep, which is a lighter stage where you can still have some awareness of what’s happening around you.)
For those who go with a snooze option, Dr. Dasgupta advises keeping the alarm clock out of arm’s distance so that you have to get up to turn it off, which will encourage you to get out of bed instead of further delaying the start of your day. Since sleep preferences in general are quite individualized, he suggests looking for an alarm clock with adjustable features so that you can customize brightness and sound elements to your needs.
Do sunrise alarm clocks work?
Experts agree that while a wake-up light alone may not give you more restful nights, they can be helpful when used in conjunction with good sleep hygiene, which includes sleeping in a cool, dark room, using your bed only for sleeping (stimulus control), and sticking to set bedtimes and wake times.
Shelby Harris, a clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine, also notes that if you tend to bury your head under the covers or can’t resist repeated snooze sessions, this type of alarm clock may not be the right choice. It all depends on your ideal sleep environment and where your sleeping or waking issues are stemming from.
Sunrise alarm clocks and seasonal affective disorder
If you tend to struggle to get out of bed when you’re forced to wake up in complete darkness on winter mornings, and you experience season-related mood changes in general, you may have seasonal affective disorder.
While anyone can have the “winter blues,” about 5% of people have seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as SAD or seasonal depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
SAD is a type of depression that’s most common in fall and winter months, when there are less hours of sunlight per day, although it can occur in summer in some people. People who have SAD experience symptoms for about 40% of the year, and it’s more common in women than men.
One common treatment is light therapy, which often comes in the form of a specific type of lamp.
“Light has a physiological direct impact on our mood,” which is why light therapy helps with seasonal depression, Robbins explains.
Since many of these sunrise alarm clocks have adjustable brightness settings, it makes sense that they could also help with some symptoms of SAD.
That said, light therapy for SAD treatment usually involves 20 to 30 minutes of direct exposure to a light box with a brightness of 10,000 lux each morning, or a light box with a brightness of 2,500 lux for one to two hours.
Sunrise alarm clocks tend to have a lux that’s 300 or lower. While gradual light from an alarm clock might help improve your mood and ability to wake up, follow your healthcare provider’s guidance for any light-related treatments if you’ve been diagnosed with SAD.
Sunrise alarm clocks and insomnia
When Dr. Dasgupta thinks about alarm clocks or any other device that’s supposed to help you get good sleep, he thinks of one patient population in particular — those with insomnia. While almost everyone experiences an inability to sleep at some point, he’s referring to those with chronic insomnia, which the American Academy of Sleep Medicine defines as having symptoms more than three times per week for up to three months.
Insomnia generally involves difficulty initiating sleep and maintaining sleep throughout the night. While he emphasizes that the mainstay therapy for these issues is cognitive behavioral therapy, sunrise alarm clocks are among the sleep products that may help.
“You have to have all the right pieces to complete that puzzle to get that good sleep,” he says. “When people try different things to get good sleep, it really depends on what puzzle piece is missing.”
For some, that missing piece may be the comfort of a weighted blanket. For others, a white noise machine may do the trick. But if you’re sensitive to light and creating a faux dawn sounds like a nicer way to wake than jarring beeps and jingles, it’s well worth trying out one of the clocks on this list.