Kill the alarm clock

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This text is part of: "Science of sleep" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Kill the alarm clock!

Alarm clock epidemic

Few upwardly mobile people in the modern rat-race society can live without an alarm clock. With a shot of strong coffee and round-the-clock stress, most people learn to live and survive with an alarm clock. Half of the population wakes up with an alarm, 9% are woken by a partner, 4% by pets, 3% by children, etc. That leaves a minority that wake up naturally. Increasingly, time becomes the most precious commodity in society where achievement is often associated with speed and perfect time-management. However, alarm clocks introduce harmful side effects: stress, sleep debt, and worst of all, disruption of the natural physiological sleep function. At worst, those factors will result in physical damage to the brain (e.g. such sensitive structures as the hippocampus, your memory switchboard, may literally lose neurons as a result of disrupted sleep).

The art of time-management makes it possible to live at a high speed with an alarm clock at your side, and still be free from stress. However, the societal damage inflicted by alarm clocks and sleep deprivation is unforgivable. An alarm clock that interrupts your sleep damages your memories, your ability to learn, your creativity, your mood and temper, your relationships with other people, your ability to focus, and your overall intellectual performance!

Dr Robert Stickgold has shown that people who learn a skill during the day do not show significant improvement until they get 7-8 hours of good sleep[1]. There was a noticeable correlation between the degree of improvement and the quality of sleep received. My own work with SleepChart also shows that the use of alarm clocks can dramatically reduce memory recall and consolidation. Forgetting is so painless that we rarely notice its effects. In a natural way, forgetting will proceed even if you get as much sleep as you need, and it is difficult to point to specific memories lost as a result of not sleeping enough. Moreover, sleep deprivation may leave your memories intact while their storage will be sub-optimum. The difference may be impossible to spot without measurement. We are more likely to notice sleepiness, reduced mental agility, or bad mood.

Disrespect for sleep has reached biblical proportions. This is most noticeable in the US and other highly industrialized nations. Men's Health's Dan Vergano writing for ABC News in "No More Rude Awakenings" suggests a seven-day system for fighting sleepiness: "The secret is to fuel that arousal system so it can beat the pants off the sleep system. By creating the kind of feel-good expectations that trigger hormones to wake the brain, you’ll override the need to sleep and be able to jump out of bed like a man on fire". The article suggests a "fresh" mind method that capitalizes on the fact that stress hormones help keep you alert. However, the only rational remedy for "rude awakenings" is simple: get enough sleep! Jumping like a man on fire is not likely to have a positive effect on your creative potential!

You may often notice that waking up with an alarm clock gives you a jumpstart for the day. You may then come to believe that using the alarm clock might help you stay alert later in the day. This is not the case. The alarm signal simply scares your brain into wakefulness, disrupting the carefully planned process of neural optimization that occurs in sleep. As a result, you get an immediate injection of adrenaline and your levels of ACTH and cortisol also increase. This is cortisol that peaks at awakening in natural sleeping rhythm that provides you with the fresh-mind impression. With passing time, this cheaply gained alertness will wear thin unless you continue abusing your physiology with more "remedies". You may use more scare tactics for keeping yourself alert, abuse caffeine, or even get a more profound effect with modafinil, cocaine, or amphetamines. Alertness should be achieved with the help of sufficient sleep, not despite the lack of sleep! Apart from your reduced ability to learn new things, all unnatural anti-drowsiness methods will produce a great deal of side effects that can be pretty damaging to your health in the long run.

All efforts to overcome sleepiness by means other than sleep itself can be likened to a chase of the first high in the use of psychoactive substances. If you drink buckets of coffee, do pushups, pour cold water over your head, or slap your face, you only dip into the last reserves of your alertness hormones that only worsen the effects of deprivation after the effects of the stimulation wear off, which is usually a matter of minutes. Rarely can you get a boost lasting more than an hour, and the more you perk up, the lower you fall in the aftermath.

Insomnia trap

If your life without an alarm clock may seem like an impossibility, you will probably need to use all methods in the book to be sure you get enough sleep and minimize the damage. If you need to wake up early at the cost of your brain, avoid the insomnia trap! Insomnia trap is a vicious circle of:

  1. going to sleep too early to get more sleep,
  2. failing to fall asleep in time (or worse, waking up prematurely),
  3. feeling even more tired on the next day, and
  4. going to sleep even earlier on the next day to catch up with the lost sleep.

It is better to go to sleep at a natural hour (i.e. a bit later), wake up early, suffer a degree of sleep deprivation, and hope for a phase reset that will make it possible to continue on the designer schedule. For a solution to the insomnia trap see: Curing DSPS and insomnia.

If you cannot reset your phase and still feel tired when getting up early on a regular basis, consider choosing a job that is acceptable for your body, not the other way around. Your long-term health and well-being is at stake. If you absolutely cannot live without an alarm clock, you can at least start from changing your mindset about the importance of sleep and ensure you do not impose wrong habits on your children. Perhaps the young ones will be lucky enough to work in a flex-time system that will make it possible to get sufficient amount of undisturbed sleep. At least, do not set a bad example!

Wake up the President

President Bill Clinton was woken up twice by telephone during the night of April 22, 2000 before the infamous I.N.S. raid on the home of Miami relatives of the young Cuban exile Elian Gonzales. He was probably the most often disrupted and sleep deprived president in history. Only after a heart surgery did Clinton take diet, sleep and (real) exercise seriously. Those interrupted nights would definitely influence his performance and the quality of his decisions! Has anybody thought of a rule: Do not wake up the president? A rule that could only be revoked in a true national emergency? President G. W. Bush (b. 1946) was woken up when an American spy plane landed in China in 2001. He was also woken up after a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 2002. George H. W. Bush (b. 1924) and Hilary Clinton made "waking up in the middle of the night" part of their presidential campaign and prowess. It seems that only Ronald Reagan had pretty strong rules for protecting his own sleep. He also famously napped during some cabinet meetings. He slept through a couple of international events without an apparent negative impact on his somewhat delayed decision-making. Critics would say he slept through the entire Iran-Contra affair. Was Reagan so protective of sleep because he understood the role of sleep better, or perhaps he was just a bit lazier than other presidents? I don't know. However, he sure set a good example.

Alarm clock monsters

Andrea K. wrote to me with skepticism:

"Take the alarm clock away from a typical person and they won't just wake up on their own at their desired time and they will miss work, school, or whatever. An alarm clock can't be that bad for you because of the simple fact that most people use it and I never noticed any problem with them :) Everyone in my family has been using one since they were children, and no one suddenly went crazy or began to mutate into a monster (yet)!"

When you use an alarm early in the morning in order to get to work or to school, you cut off the later stages of sleep. If the intrusion into natural sleep is not large (e.g. from minutes to an hour), the damage may be limited and hard to notice. Alarm clock will do far more damage if it cuts deep into the middle of the night sleep. You can compare the use of alarm clocks to smoking or eating hot dogs. The harm is not great enough to be instantly noticeable. It took the public many years to largely accept that "smoking is bad" or "fast food is bad". It is hard to quantify the degree of damage. However, as we move to knowledge society where our intellectual performance becomes increasingly important, the effects of sleep deprivation will come under closer scrutiny and alarm clocks are bound to gradually fall out of favor. Unlike hot dogs, they are already universally hated by their users. Most people are able to somewhat adapt their sleep to their schedules if their routines are regular enough. When those people need to resort to the use of the alarm clock, they cut less of their sleep and the damage is proportionally smaller. Nevertheless, we should always strive at eliminating alarm clocks altogether. Most of all, we should protect our kids from suffering interrupted sleep!

References

  1. Stickgold R., "Sleep-dependent memory consolidation," Nature / Volume 437 (October 27, 2005): 1272-1278