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A Wake-Up Call for Better Sleep

Sleep problems are nothing new. In the Middle Ages, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer movingly described the frustration of sleeplessness. William Shakespeare portrayed sleep deprivation so convincingly in his plays that many scholars assume the playwright himself suffered from insomnia. Even A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh counted sheep and Heffalumps (imaginary elephants) in his quest to fall asleep.

Today, sleep problems are approaching epidemic proportions. Some 48 percent of Americans say they sometimes can’t sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), a nonprofit organization that promotes sleep education and advocacy. And 22 percent report experiencing insomnia all or most nights, according to NSF surveys.

“When sleep is problematic, people often dread it,” observes W. Christopher Winter, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist and medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. People spend hours tossing and turning, hoping and praying for sleep to come, often feeling ever more hopeless as the night wears on.


What causes insomnia? Clete Kushida, medical director of the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and president of the World Sleep Foundation, cites a number of factors: everything from disease to depression to disorders such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. Chronic pain, some medications, stress, and lifestyle events such as job losses or divorce can also lead to sleeplessness.

Whatever the cause, insomnia is taking a toll—and not just on individuals. The average U.S. employee costs his or her company $2,280 in productivity loss every year because of sleeplessness, according to research in the medical journal Sleep. For the nation as a whole, that adds up to a whopping productivity loss of $63.2 billion due to worker fatigue.


Part of the problem, of course, is that many people don’t just have trouble sleeping: they have trouble waking up too. Their day begins with an unpleasant jolt, when a loud alarm clock or radio suddenly disrupts their sleep. They hit the snooze button; a few minutes later, they hit it again. And again. And again—sometimes a dozen or more times.

“People have to be up at 7 a.m., so they start waking up and hitting ‘snooze’” at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., Winter says. In most cases, people are better off with the extra hour or two of shut-eye and then simply getting out of bed on time, he adds: “Why voluntarily fragment your sleep?” (For most adults, seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep appears to be about the right amount, according to the National Institutes of Health.)

While buzzing, beeping, or blaring alarms may force people to get up, those options don’t typically generate a positive wake-up experience, says Michael J. Decker, a sleep specialist and associate professor in the school of nursing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In fact, being startled awake by noisy devices “may make us feel worse on an already grumpy morning,” he says. For more research on the wake-up experience, see “The Snooze Factor.”


If there’s a common thread woven through the experts’ advice on how to sleep well and wake up refreshed, it’s this: understand the power of light—especially in the morning.

A strong dose of light first thing in the morning can offset grogginess, Kushida says. Patients who give themselves about 30 minutes of light exposure shortly after waking are more likely to feel alert all day.

Meanwhile, there’s evidence that waking up gradually in response to light—as if dawn were illuminating the room naturally —is not only more pleasant, but yields benefits all day long. “The presence of light prior to awakening has been shown to increase our body’s level of cortisol, which is a neurohormone that helps to prepare our brain and body for the stressors of the day,” Decker explains. Extra light and cortisol in the morning allow people to adapt better to stress throughout the day, helping them deliver peak performance.


Experts offer the following tips for ensuring a good night’s sleep:

Finally, you may also consider purchasing a natural sleep-aid device. A number of products can help you fall asleep and wake up more peacefully.

The Withings Aura device combines a sleep sensor, bedside light and sound device, and a smartphone app, to track body movement, breathing and heart rate during the night. It also emits soft light and sound programs to help ease you into and out of sleep cycles. For more information, visit