When You Have Trouble Waking Up

Is it so hard to fall asleep you can't wake up in the morning? Here's how to embrace your inner early bird.

From the WebMD Archives

Brian Cyphers has always had trouble falling asleep at a "normal" hour. A few years ago, when the 24-year-old Chicagoan was dozing off between 3 and 5 in the morning and had to wake up at 6:30 to get to his job as a data entry clerk at a lab, he knew it was time to seek help.

Cyphers sought assistance from Lisa Shives, MD, medical director of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Ill., and a specialist in sleep disorders. Shives frequently sees patients who want to alter their night owl ways. "People can modify their sleep patterns, but it's not easy," Shives says. Being a "morning" vs. "night" person is so ingrained in one's nature that Shives sometimes tells late-nighters to seek careers with delayed start times.

Sleep Phase Disorders

The reason Shives' job is so difficult might lie in our genes. Two sleep disorders -- advanced sleep phase syndrome, which causes bedtimes of between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., and delayed sleep phase, where patients fall asleep between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. -- are both often inherited. Advanced sleep phase is less common, affecting less than 1% of middle-aged and older adults. As for delayed sleep phase syndrome, researchers don't know how many people have it, but (to name one group of people) 7% to 16% of young adults do, according to the International Classification of Sleep Disorders.

The greater incidence of delayed sleep phase may explain why night owls seek help more often than larks -- there are simply more of them. In addition, their shut-eye patterns frequently interrupt normal school or work schedules because their late bedtimes cause difficulty waking up at an appropriate hour.

Beyond genes, sleep patterns are influenced by a strong biological pull. The body's circadian rhythm dictates what time a person falls asleep and wakes up, and that can be very difficult to change. "Normally, I can help them a bit," Shives says. "If patients are going to bed at 4 in the morning, I'm not going to get them to 11 p.m. But I can roll them back to 1 or 2 a.m., and that generally makes them pretty happy.”

And 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. is Cyphers' new bedtime, too -- not optimal, but an improvement nonetheless. "I don't feel like I can take on the world every day, but I do feel better," he says.