Why do I wake up before I need to?

10 November 2015

Question

I wake up most mornings around 6am, but don't have to get ready for work until 8am. During the two hours I lie in bed, trying to sleep, but it isn't until around 7.50am (or later) that I start to fall into a deep sleep.

Is there an actual biological reason?

Answer

Chris Smith held the answer to Renny's question... Chris - The reason this happens is that we're actually extremely good at keeping time. In common with pretty much every living process on Earth and I'm including in that bacteria even, we have body clocks. Bacteria have a body clock. They know what time of day it is chemically speaking. In us, the seat of that body clock is a small cluster of maybe something like 20,000 nerve cells which is in a part of the brain called the superchiasmatic nucleus. It's in the bottom of the centre of your brain. These nerve cells are running a genetic programme where gene 1 turns on and that turns on gene 2 which in turn, turns on gene 3 and feeds back and switches off gene 1. And this genetic clock ticks around taking about 24.5 hours to complete its cycle. As it does so, it changes the activity of the nerve cells in the superchiasmatic nucleus and because they are connected to lots of other bodily systems, they can influence how different parts of your brain function and critically, they influence other parts of your so-called hypothalamus including the part of your hypothalamus that produces the hormone cortisol which comes out of your pituitary, goes around your bloodstream, and visits every cell in your body. And this is how your brain's body clock then sets slave clocks which are running in every single cell pretty much in your body. So, every cell in your body knows what time it is. When you get into a rhythm of always waking up at a certain time, your body has to anticipate that it's going to need a big surge of energy at a certain time of day because that means that when you leap out of bed in the morning, you're ready to go. Your metabolism is fired up, you have energy on tap, you're enthusiastic, rearing to go because you want to get to work because it's Monday morning. And the way it does that is by learning that process and cortisol setting all those clocks. Now, what that does mean is that when you change time zones, it's all off-whack and out of kilter because that learning needs to be relearned and readjusted. It also means that because your body clock hasn't catered for weekends, it still thinks it's going to be Monday to Friday. And so, your body clock gets you out of bed even on the weekend, and at least alerts you and wakes you up, and prepares you for the day ahead before you actually need to. It takes a little while to overcome that effect and try and drop off again, and by then of course, you should be rearing to go again. unfortunately, there's no simple answer apart from learning to get up later during the week which is not always possible.

Kat - I have seen some quite interesting stuff about schools and workplaces. It should be more catered towards people who have different sleep-wake cycles because I'm a real night owl. I struggle to fall asleep before about 1:00 o'clock in the morning. Luckily, I've got a bit of flexibility. I don't normally have to get to work until about 10:00. But I don't even wake up until at least lunch time in my brain.

Chris - The thing that's really making a difference now though is screens. The change and the revolution in technology means that many, many people are sitting in front of computer screens, and flat screens which are LCD until well into the night. Social media have got very good data on who's using it, what they're logged into and.

Kat - It's basically all me I think.

Chris - The reason these screens are important is that they are using blue LEDs to produce the white light that you see from the screen. The blue is critical because it goes out of the screen, into your eye, and at the back of your eye is a population of retinal ganglion cells and they're called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells. They're important because although you don't see with those cells, they contain a pigment that's very sensitive to blue light and they're connected to your body clock, and they're used to reset your body clock and tell it when it's bright light coming in early in the morning, must be wake up time. So, by basting yourself in rays from your screens at night, you're actually sending a really strong wakeup signal to your brain which is what you shouldn't be doing last thing at night. As a result, you're actually waking yourself up and making it harder to fall asleep and people are robbing themselves of sleep chronically this way.

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