I would like to offer you a new way to view one of the most fundamental daily activities we do – getting up in the morning. Some would say that it is a mundane activity, others believe it to be akin to having to take nasty medicine as a child, yet still others think it’s best completely avoided whenever possible!
But, just like starting to practice a new musical instrument, or learning to draw, paint, or sculpt, getting up in the morning is a real art, which can be practiced with the right technique and know-how, mastered, and finally enjoyed to the full. For this art, just like any other, conscious practice and technique are required. If we just randomly blow into the flute, or unthinkingly dab the paintbrush on the canvas, we will never become a true artist. Similarly, we must be conscious about the art of getting up (more on this later).
Now, as a scientist, allow me to get a bit sciencey for a moment: Have you ever wondered how we wake up? It’s to do with a gas produced in the body called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide, or NO for short, is made from protein in our diet and oxygen in the air. In the brain, NO is released by neurons and acts like the early-morning caretaker, quickly getting around the brain-building and switching on all the lights before the office-workers (our thoughts) arrive for the day. The NO-caretaker helps maintain brain activation, facilitating neural responses and collaboration. What a helpful fellow NO is!
Most of us will have noticed that, in general, how well we utilise the morning will determine how happy the remainder of our day becomes. The particulars of what we mean by using the morning well are personal and largely depend on our understanding of a good life. These may be a regular time out of bed, a refreshing shower, meditation, yoga or a short run, and time dedicated to enjoying a good relaxing breakfast, or all of the above.
But what do we do before we even get our feet on the floor? Well there is no doubt that the art of getting up in the morning is all about preparation. No-one suddenly becomes a great artist overnight, and for the art of getting up in the morning, good “sleep hygiene” is our preparation for success. What is sleep hygiene? This umbrella term is used by health professionals to show which habits before and during sleep offer the most restful and deep sleep, and it is a concept I discuss with my patients regularly in my clinic. The concept of sleep hygiene has evolved from the scientific research into promoting optimal sleep. Sleep hygiene refers to environmental and behavioural (often habitual) factors that relate to the quality of sleep we get.
- Go to bed at the same time each night. This is the most important factor. The body-clock loves regularity and timeliness. It helps us to become sleepy, which is the body telling us we are ready for bed.
- Get out of bed at the same time each morning. Regularity in rising helps to keep our body clock synchronised with our daily life. This includes avoiding the temptation of sleeping in the next morning after a late night. Sleeping in only serves to further disrupt the sleep-wake cycle.
- Exercise regularly every day. Between 30 and 60 minutes daily of aerobic exercise is ideal for most people. If you are not used to this amount, then it is advisable to gradually work up to it over a period of several months. This gradual increase is very important, especially if you are very stressed in life or have adrenal fatigue. Exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality and is best taken in the morning and before dinner in the evening. Exercising close to bedtime will leave the body too stimulated to ensure the onset of restful sleep. There is no doubt that keeping the body fit and strong will help you get up in the morning.
- Spend time out of doors and in natural light. Sunlight is important for producing melatonin, which is a sleep-promoting hormone. Paradoxically, these effects become active with the fading light of the evening. Sunlight early in the day is particularly helpful in synchronising your body clock. If you are unable to get regular direct sunlight, then consider buying some broad-spectrum light bulbs or light box and install in the rooms where you spend most of your time during the day.
- Make the bedroom as restful as possible. This includes keeping the temperature cool (but not cold) as well as keeping beeping watches and ticking clocks out of earshot.
- Ensure the room is dark. During sleep, light should be kept to a minimum. If you do not feel rested and refreshed the following morning, it may be due to too much light in your bedroom preventing you from achieving sufficiently deep sleep. Even a very small amount of light may have detrimental effects on sleep quality. As a guide, a few minutes after you have turned out the bedroom light (when your eyes have adjusted to the dark) if you can see any detail of pictures on the bedroom wall, then your room is probably too light. This is usually from street lights illuminating your bedroom. Black-out curtains may be beneficial in blocking outside light and helping you achieve the optimal stages of deep sleep. However, black-out curtains may disturb your ability to wake the following morning with light from the rising sun. Some people have found dawn simulation lights (also called sunrise alarm clocks) very effective. These lights gradually reach full brightness over about 30 minutes. Alternatively, a cheaper option is to use a plug-timer on a lamp in your bedroom and set it to turn on at the same time each morning. The digital timers are best. Try using a broad-spectrum (daylight) light bulb on the lamp. If the light is too bright then try it in the hallway outside your bedroom. Even small changes in light can penetrate your eyelids and start the body’s waking process.
- Use the bed only for sleep. Some people use the bed as a second sofa. Watching television, studying, reading and telephoning are all common behaviours that stimulate the brain and can disrupt sleep. These are best avoided and ensure the bed is associated only with sleeping. The brain makes associations between places (bedroom) and behaviours (sleeping) and these need to be reinforced. Make sure the bed is for sleeping and sleeping happens in bed.
- Take medications as directed. Both prescription and over-the-counter medications may cause you to become alert or sleepy depending upon their chemical composition. The instructions that come with them should be heeded. Try and avoid varying the time of day you take your medications.
- Be comfortable and relaxed. If you are cold in bed, warm the room or wear warm pyjamas. Warm hands and feet are particularly important. You may wish to consider an electric blanket. If you have uncomfortable pillows, mattress or bedclothes, replace them. Many people have benefited from memory-foam pillows and mattresses/mattress toppers. You spend approximately eight hours in bed so you do not want to be uncomfortable. I run a special clinic for people with Parkinson’s Disease, and their movement in bed can be greatly aided by the use of silk pyjamas and bed sheets.
- Have a bath. A warm bath about an hour before bedtime can definitely lead to happiness! It causes the body’s temperature to rise and then fall, which can promote sleep. If you are particularly stressed, try adding Epsom salts to the bath water. Epsom salts contain the essential mineral magnesium, which has been shown to promote relaxation and can be safely and easily absorbed through the skin from the warm bath water.
- Understand your sleep requirements. Many people need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. How much do you need? Each individual has different requirements, which can vary according to the degree of physical, mental and emotional stresses encountered during the day, as well as the quality of sleep at night. When given the opportunity, some people find that a 15 – 20 minute nap during the middle of the day is refreshing, though longer than 30 minutes can disrupt your body clock, as can napping in the evening. Try and be realistic in how much sleep you need.
Okay then, your first homework for this self-study course in the art of sleeping is to put into practice the 11 sleep hygiene factors listed above. Give yourself a week at most to establish your practice. This will prove to be a great start and lead you in the right direction of how to be happy in getting up in the morning.
In the following section, we will be looking at some factors that may interfere with good quality sleep and reduce your happiness in facing the day. I’ll also tell you about a rather neat trick that really helps you get out of bed! Until then, sleep well, and remember that the moment you wake up is one of the most important moments of the day.
Now let’s take a look at some factors may interfere with good quality sleep.
- Engaging in stimulating activity just before bed. Playing a competitive game, watching an exciting film or television programme or having an important family discussion stimulates your mind and can lead to these thoughts spilling into the bedroom. Worrying about or planning the next day may be a natural thing to do, but try and deal with them as much as you can earlier in the evening. Put your worries to bed long before you go to your own bed.
- Avoid drinks containing caffeine in the late afternoon/evening. Caffeine is a common constituent of coffee, tea and soft drinks. If you “cannot get through the day without a coffee,” then there may be health-related issues that you should discuss with your doctor or nutritional therapist. The stimulating effects of caffeine can stay in your blood for up to ten hours following consumption. So that innocent cup of coffee in the mid-afternoon to see you through the remainder of the day may be keeping you from sleeping properly at night.
- Did you know: Going to bed hungry is a no-no, but regularly missing a proper breakfast in the morning in favour of a snack later in the morning is a risk factor for diabetes. In addition, the average cost of breakfast at home is only 43p per person, whereas buying breakfast after leaving the house could set you back £3.09!
- Avoid staying in bed if you are unable to sleep. You cannot force yourself to sleep. If you do not fall asleep in 20-30 minutes, then get up, leave the bedroom and do something boring, keeping the lighting fairly dim. Do not switch on the computer or television! When you are tired, go back to bed. Over time, this helps your mind associate bed with sleeping.
- Keep children and pets out of your bed as much as possible. Research has shown that parents sleeping with young children sleep less and have more disturbed sleep. Also consider what this behaviour is doing for the child, who has sleeping habits of its own to develop.
- Avoid repeatedly looking at the bedside clock to see how much sleep-time you have lost. Digital clocks with bright numbers are distracting, and obsessing over the time will make sleep less likely if you are having problems nodding off. If this is the case for you, then move the clock from the bedside table to the floor.
- Stop smoking. Easier said than done. However, nicotine is a stimulant and contributes to reduced quality and duration of sleep.
- Avoid using alcohol to help you sleep. Alcohol may assist with falling asleep, though it often leads to more night-time trips to the toilet and causes you to awaken early. Alcohol is also responsible for fragmented sleep patterns and can worsen snoring and sleep apnoea (cessations in breathing during sleep). If you regularly go to the toilet during the night, try drinking less of all fluids in the evening.
- Do not rely on sleeping pills. Sleeping pills have a role when there is some life event or circumstance that may temporarily cause you to have trouble falling asleep. But they should always be considered a temporary solution. Some tablets cause you to feel sleepy during the day and when you stop them, the withdrawal effects may prevent you from falling asleep at bedtime.
To close: Why did I describe getting up an an art? Well, the dictionary definition of art as “the quality or expression, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” Getting up in the morning is not something many people associate with beauty! Some even find it a somewhat ugly experience.
The beauty or ugliness of this art comes when we look at what follows when we leave our bed. For many people, getting up leads to a rushed, almost panicky experience of getting ready to dash out the door and go to work: taking a quick shower, pulling on our clothes, and if we’re lucky, having a quick breakfast.
But what could be more natural, normal, and indeed beautiful than getting up in the morning? Much of the art of happy awakening comes from re-associating what the morning means to us. Re-setting our paradigm. The morning is an experience to be enjoyed, relished and appreciated. For a start, we can be grateful we didn’t wake up dead! Sometimes we are lucky enough to be getting out of bed with a beautiful sunrise. But even if we need to get up before dawn, there is something special and magical about being awake in the hushed, calm hours of the morning, before the rest of the world starts to stir.
To achieve that special feeling, we need to take our time instead of rushing. That doesn’t mean lounging in bed waiting for the snooze alarm to go off; there is a yawning gulf between rushing and procrastinating. Taking time to feel gratitude for the morning is a key way to enhance your waking experience and help you get up in the morning.
Someone who knows all about real happiness is Sri Chinmoy, author of The Jewels of Happiness. He was once asked a question by someone who was having difficulty getting up in the morning following late nights. (Remember that the body requires regularity and routine, so sleeping in would only worsen the situation.) Sri Chinmoy’s answer is one that has proven to be most effective with my patients. He says: “[When you go to bed] try to feel that you will have a sound sleep for twenty-four hours. Then as soon as you wake up in the morning, try to feel that you have slept for twenty-four hours. Never think that you have slept for only three hours or four hours. It is the mind that convinces the outer consciousness. The conscious mind alone can satisfy you. If your conscious mind tells you that you have slept for twenty-four hours, then you will believe it. This is not self-deception. It is self-control in the conscious mind. We say that we have slept for twenty-four hours because the figure twenty-four gives us the feeling that we have had a considerable amount of rest, a more than adequate amount of rest. This figure has enormous strength. We may not sleep for even four hours, but the figure twenty-four immediately gives us a sense of satisfaction, relief and fulfilment. In this way we can get up early in the morning.”1
As we become proficient in sleeping and waking up, we can quite legitimately tell people who ask us what skills we possess, that we have mastered the art of happily getting up in the morning. I assure you that after their initial confused expression, they will be fascinated to hear about your fabulous technical ability, which enables you to face each day with happiness.