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.

Medically Reviewed by Michael J. Breus, PhD on July 07, 2010
3 min read

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.

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.

Want to become more of a lark? Sleep disorder specialist Lisa Shives, MD, has some suggestions for embracing your inner morning person:

Move your bedtime back by 15 minutes every three to four days. On these days, also wake up 15 minutes earlier. Adhere to this plan seven days a week (not just weekdays) until you're falling asleep at -- or close to -- the desired hour.

Get sunlight. Natural sunlight helps reset your circadian clock. If you are a night owl, set your alarm for 7 a.m. and get outside for 30 minutes to have breakfast or to walk the dog. Also, keep your shades open so your room fills with light in the morning to help you wake up.

Shut off electronic media or bright lights two hours before bedtime.

Take 0.5 to 1 milligram of melatonin before you want to go to bed; this will help set your circadian rhythm so you can fall asleep at a more appropriate time. Ask a sleep specialist when you should take it.

If these methods don't work, speak to a sleep specialist. Night owls, like shift workers, might have increased risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and certain cancers. One option you can ask your doctor about is light therapy. This treatment allows you to get light from a small light box to help reset your body clock, without medication.

Above all, remember that these steps are difficult and require discipline, so you really must want to change your sleep patterns.