Here's What Time You Should Be Waking Up, According to Sleep Researchers

woman stretching in bed

AdobeStock / JenkoAtaman

J.P. Pressley
J.P. Pressley104
Writer, Entrepreneur, Jocky-Nerd/Nerdy-Jock

If you had a 9 a.m. meeting tomorrow, it would be easy to decide what time you need to wake up. Of course, this time would be dependent on factors such as travel time, your morning routine and the like, but by in large it’s not a difficult thing to decide on and actually follow through with. 

But what about the average day where you don’t have much going on. How does one determine the answer to the common question: “What time should I wake up?”

How much sleep do people need?

While the exact amount varies person by person, The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends that adults get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Again, this amount varies due to factors such as an individual’s exercise routine and age. 

For example, NSF also notes that as little as six and as many as 10-11 hours of sleep per night may be appropriate for young adults aged 18-25. Similarly, six and 10 hours of sleep, respectively, may be appropriate for adults aged 26-64. Overall, however, it is advised that people aim for that ideal 7-9 hours of rest and straying away from less than six and more than 11 hours of sleep per night.

And this 7-9 hours of rest should be consistent, every night. Lack of consistent sleep has been shown to affect mental health, including increased suicidal ideation, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorder and depression. Further, changes to sleep cycles have also been shown to affect health, increasing, for example, your risk of diabetes and heart disease. And having an irregular sleep pattern is effectively changing your sleep cycle every night.

How do you find your ideal wake-up time?

Answering the question of “what time should I wake up?” is a bit more involved than merely picking a time that allows you to get through your morning routine and to work on time. Of course, that is an important factor in deciding when you should wake up, but it’s often wise to consider other factors in addition. For example, what are the best hours to sleep? And what time is healthy to wake up?

In a Time article about this first matter, Matt Walker, PhD, head of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkely, notes that “When it comes to bedtime, there’s a window of several hours—roughly between 8 PM and 12 AM—during which your brain and body have the opportunity to get all the non-REM and REM shuteye they need to function optimally.” 

Dr. Allison Siebern, associate director of the Insomnia & Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Stanford University, adds onto this by saying that “your genetic makeup dictates whether you’re more comfortable going to bed earlier or later within that rough 8-to-midnight window.” Thus it can be said that, while the exact time varies by individual, it is ideal for people to go to bed within the four hours before midnight each night in order to experience the best sleep.

From here, a healthy time to wake up is simply 7-9 hours after you go to sleep. As is often noted by successful businesswomen, fitness trainers and others, however, waking up early in the morning certainly has its benefits. And these benefits, such as increased productivity, are certainly worth sacrificing sleeping in, even to the point of waking up at 5 a.m. every day.

What is a sleep cycle?

This article has referenced sleep cycles quite a bit. But what exactly is a sleep cycle? A sleep cycle is the oscillation between the slow-wave and Rapid-Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. While what happens to your body throughout this four-phase cycle is extremely detailed, the gist is as follows.

  • Phase One: Your eyes are closed due to the alpha and theta waves that your brain produces to slow your eye movement, but it’s extremely easy to wake up. This phase generally lasts the first 5-10 minutes of one’s falling asleep.

  • Phase Two: Your brain produces sudden increases in brain waves known as sleep spindles, placing you in light sleep. Your heart rate slows and your body temperature drops as your body prepares itself for deep sleep.

  • Phase Three: Your brain produces slower delta waves, ushering you into deep sleep. Your body becomes less responsive to outside stimuli, making it significantly more difficult for you to be awakened. The brain then produced even more delta waves, and your body performs self-healing during this restorative stage of sleep.

  • Phase Four — REM: Usually starting about 90 minutes after first falling asleep, the first period of REM lasts about 10 minutes, and this number continues to increase in conjunction with each period unto the point that the final one may last up to an hour. During this final phase of sleep, the brain becomes more active. This is when dreams occur, breathing quickens and heart rate and blood pressure increase. The average adult undergoes five to six REM cycles (not entire sleep cycles) per night.

Tips for sleeping better

The internet is filled with both logical and fantastical tips, myths and more for how to get better sleep. Here are just a few of the more common and sensible ideas.

  1. Stay on a consistent sleep schedule. This article has already gone into detail about the importance of doing this and the danger of refraining.

  2. Exercise. In general, those who exercise consistently sleep better than those who don’t. We’re not talking about two-plus hours in the gym everyday. A simple 10 minute daily routine will do the job.

  3. Eyes off the screen. Our devices emit blue light reminiscent of the sun’s brightness and thus confuses the brain to the point that it stops producing melatonin, a hormone that give our body the cue that it’s time to sleep. As this blue light affects the body in numerous detrimental ways when consumed right before bed, it’s best to just set the screens aside.

  4. Watch your food consumption. Consuming coffee or soda in the afternoon can both delay when and affect how you sleep just as much as eating right before bed. Just as you’d prepare for a crucial late night business meeting throughout the day, prepare for your night’s rest throughout the day via your food consumption.

As has been shown, answering the question of “what time should I wake up?” isn’t as straightforward as many people think. But as we dedicate a third of our life to sleeping, taking the time to consider when you go to sleep and when you wake up, in addition to how to improve the quality of your sleep, is of extreme importance. And now armed with the information presented in this article, you can seize control of this vital aspect of life.

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J.P. Pressley is a writer, filmmaker, entrepreneur, and an asthmatic former two-sport college athlete (basketball and track). Is he a jockey-nerd or a nerdy-jock? The world may never know. You can learn more about him at his personal website.