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How to wake up well

Tessa Hilton
Article written by Tessa Hilton

Date published 16 February 2021

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Most of us tend to focus on falling asleep, but how we re-enter the waking world can be just as important for our wellbeing, says Tessa Hilton.

Starting the day calm, refreshed and alert is what we all long for, but too often we're dragged into awareness by the beeping of an alarm, and feeling quite the opposite.

Interestingly, while emerging from sleep may seem to be just a question of regaining consciousness, important changes are taking place inside our bodies to prime us for wakefulness long before we open our eyelids.

Dr Neil Stanley, an independent sleep expert and the author of How To Sleep Well (Capstone), explains: "From approximately 90 minutes prior to waking up, sleep-inducing chemicals decline and our body temperature starts to rise.

"Blood pressure, which drops while we are sleeping, increases, triggered by a rise in levels of the 'fight or flight' hormones, including cortisol.

Awakening also involves a large increase in electrical activity in the cortex, a part of the brain that plays an important role in consciousness."

The mini-cortisol surge ensures we are ready to deal with the stress of getting up and the challenges of the day.

Testosterone levels are also at their highest in the morning, rising more in men than women, which may explain why there's often a discrepancy over who's in the mood for love!

Dr Stanley's good sleep hygiene tips

Woman holding cup of chamomile tea

  • Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep – and sex – only. No computer, phones, tablets, TV or pets
  • Fresh air is good for sleep so keep the window open
  • Don't drink late – alcohol can disturb sleep later in the night
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine in the evening and don't eat late
  • Wind down before bedtime. Drinking camomile tea, reading, meditation or music are all popular
  • Invest in the most comfortable bed you can afford

Sleeping moments

During the night, we go through 90-minute cycles of dreaming, or Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM), often called slow-wave sleep.

It is hardest to wake during the deepest phases of NREM, but if disturbed at that point you are more likely to be disoriented and feel unwell, explains Dr Renata Riha, a sleep consultant at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and director of the Sleep Consultancy (

Waking during REM can also be disturbing as we are processing our emotions, and feelings from a dream or a nightmare are still vivid.

The best time in the sleep cycle to wake is at the end of the last REM cycle, which, happily, often happens naturally. "This is a stage of sleep akin to wakefulness," says Dr Riha.

"At this point we are more alert and need less time to orientate ourselves. Waking naturally is also best, as it means we've had sufficient sleep." Some of us find waking up harder than others.

About 40 per cent of us are larks, who find it easier to rise early, another 30 per cent are owls, who are frequently incapable of falling asleep before midnight and the rest of us lie in between, says Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at Berkeley University and author of Sleep Well (Penguin).

Unfortunately our tendency to larkishness or owlishness is determined by genetics and is pretty well hardwired into our DNA.

A strong cup of coffee may help bleary-eyed owls in the morning, but the tips below will help all of us make a better start to the day.

Happy wake-up rules

Woman opening the curtains in the morning

Do go to bed and wake at the same time each night/morning

Late nights can't always be avoided, but a regular routine of sleep and wakefulness primes the body to start making those internal preparations to ensure we hit the ground running.

Don't press snooze

Extra dozing disrupts our body clock.

Do let light in first thing

It signals the brain to enter "day mode".

Don't have a lie-in at the weekend

It will make Monday morning harder.

Do stretch before getting out of bed

Reawakening muscles and ligaments is important, says physiotherapist Sammy Margo.

Don't use your phone as an alarm

It's too tempting to check it last thing at night and first thing in the morning for emails and social media.

Do ban screens from the bedroom

Their blue light prompts wakefulness.

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Tessa Hilton

About Tessa Hilton

Tessa is a freelance health writer and editor with more than 30 years' experience. She has a special interest in holistic medicine.