With the days getting shorter and the clocks due to go back on October 30, people are once again thinking about their autumnal sleep habits, with one study suggesting that, come October, the optimal time to wake up is 7.28am.
According to the analysis, from home experts Duette, the average sunrise time in October is 7.28am, supposedly making this the best time to start the day, Stylist reported. Meanwhile 5.54pm (which is the average time of sunset) is the best time to start winding down for the evening.
While waking up at a specific time might sound like the answer to all our problems – particularly for those who struggle to feel refreshed in the mornings during darker months, the research has a few holes in it because it doesn’t really take into account the hundreds of other factors that influence our sleep.
Yes, daylight helps us get up and go, but there are so many other factors at play here. If you start work early, getting up at 7.28am might not leave you enough time to get ready, let alone commute. Your children might wake up earlier than 7.30am, meaning you have to (*sobs*) get up, too. You might work night shifts, in which case you definitely shouldn’t be getting up with the sun if you only got in at 5am.
Our sleep is regulated by our internal body clock, which is actually a mass of 20,000 ‘clock’ cells located in a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. “It is responsible for keeping every biological process we have on time,” explains sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows, clinical director of Sleep School, whose mission is to help people get a better night’s sleep.
“It instructs the brain when to sleep and when to be awake,” he tells HuffPost UK. “But it does everything else: it tells us when to eat, when to fast, when to be strong and when to be weak. And this is what we call our 24-hour circadian rhythm – it’s helping to initiate this 24-hour pattern which tells biological processes when to be active and when to be inactive.”
This amazing system tells our bodies to deactivate certain processes – like our bowel movements – when we’re asleep. And when we wake up, these processes are switched back on again, like a well-oiled machine.
The body clock is kept on time by a combination of factors, including some external environmental factors, like the rise and fall of the sun. “And this is what they’re kind of getting at [with the research],” says Dr Meadows.
“We’re very sensitive to the rise and fall of the sun because we’ve evolved to live on a planet that rotates between light and dark. So when the sun rises, that sunlight hits the light-sensitive cells in our eyes which then triggers the body clock to release cortisol and give us that ‘get up and go’.”
Light and darkness helps to synchronise our body clocks to the time zone we’re on. But they aren’t the only factors impacting our wake time.
Our daily habits – such as when we choose to go to bed and when we choose to get up – also help to synchronise our body clocks. There are more variables, too. “One of the biggest factors is our chronotype,” says Dr Meadows, “so this is the influence of our genetics on our sleep timing.”
Morning people – or larks – find it easier to get up and go in the morning and their attention levels are pretty high. Evening people, or owls, are the opposite – they are more alert later in the day, and therefore prefer to go to bed later and get up later.
Then there are other factors which will vary from person to person, such as the time your partner or children get up, the time you start work, the time you eat breakfast or have that morning cup of coffee.
Waking with the sun might be useful to some, but generally it’s best to go with what your body is telling you. “If we want the best advice straight off, it’s make sure that you’re getting enough sleep because that will then influence when you wake up,” says Dr Meadows.
Roughly 97% of the population will need somewhere between six to nine hours of sleep per night, he adds, and the key to telling you’ve had enough is that you wake up feeling refreshed rather than needing numerous coffees to get going or wanting to nap midway through the morning.
A recent survey of 2,000 people by Sleep School, which runs an insomnia support app, found 58% of respondents do not feel refreshed when they wake in the morning.
If you’re getting a solid eight hours each night but still waking up like an extra from Shaun of the Dead, it might be the quality of your sleep that needs looking at instead. Some factors that can influence sleep quality include: poor mental health, high caffeine or alcohol consumption, underlying sleep disorders, being a new parent and – particularly given the cost of living crisis – financial stress.
Ultimately, Dr Meadows’ advice for sleeping well throughout the year is relatively simple. And it doesn’t involve a set wake-up time or bedtime, but rather places the importance on keeping up with a routine all-year round – even at weekends.
“Going to bed and getting up at the same time every single day is possibly the best habit you can do not only for your sleep, but also for the whole of your health,” he concludes.