You Snooze, You Lose.

By: Rachel Yarmush  |  August 25, 2015


Waking up in the morning is not easy- especially as a college student. It would be one thing if we were leaving our comfortable beds to catch a flight to a place where there are no exams, presentations, or papers to hand in. However, the reality of facing a long day of lectures, labs, studying, homework, and presentations makes many students want to live in blissful denial for just a few more minutes. In those moments, the snooze button is a precious gift to mankind. However, there is a catch when it comes to the snooze button- it is no friend at all. It is actually detrimental to our sleep cycle and the rest of the day.

At the onset of sleep, the body releases melatonin along with serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness, into the bloodstream to soothe the body enough to drift off into the sleep cycle. The sleep cycle is made up of REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep is a stage in which the body and brain relax. On the other hand, REM is very much an active state. First comes non-REM sleep, then a shorter period of REM sleep, and then the cycle repeats itself.

There are three phases of non-REM sleep that are all completed before reaching REM sleep. During the first stage the eyes are closed but it is easy to be woken up. Next is light sleep, which prepares the body for deep sleep by slowing the heart rate and dropping body temperatures. The third stage is deep sleep. It is very difficult to be aroused, but if done, results in disorientation for a few minutes. It is in this third stage that the body repairs and re-grows tissues, builds bone and muscles, and strengthens the immune system.

REM sleep usually happens around 90 minutes after falling asleep. Each subsequent REM stage lasts longer than the previous REM stage. The final one lasts as long as an hour. In this stage, heart rate and breathing quicken. Dreams occur since the brain is more active.

The only way one can benefit the full restorative benefits that come from sleep is if they received the required amount of REM and non- REM sleep that night.

The body has several mechanisms to prepare for waking up. The brain sends out signals to release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and the body’s core temperature rises. This creates the feeling of alertness, and we enter a lighter sleep in preparation for waking up. Rafael Pelayo, MD, sleep specialist at the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center, says that this starts about two hours before the body feels ready to wake up.

Alarms disrupt the sleep cycle and cut the wake-up preparation processes short. Therefore, it is understandable that you may be tempted to reach one arm out into the cold and hit the snooze button. If you are suddenly woken while amidst the deepest stages of the sleep cycle, it actually may be beneficial to snooze for a bit longer. This will allow you to reawaken from a different stage of sleep-such as REM- when your body is closest to its wakeful state. However, on the flipside- if you’re already in REM, snoozing can send you into a deeper stage of sleep, making things worse.

The snooze button does not give you the results you may think, as it does not give you a chance to finish up those last few minutes of the sleep cycle. It does not help you wake up feeling alert and full of energy. After hitting snooze and drifting off, your brain starts its sleep cycle from the beginning. Thus, when the alarm rings for the second time, you are likely at an even deeper, earlier stage of your sleep cycle.

Robert S. Rosenberg, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Centers of Prescott Valley and Flagstaff, Arizona, explains that hitting the snooze button repeatedly has two negative consequences. Besides beginning a new sleep cycle without enough time to finish it, hitting snooze over and over fragments the extra sleep, so it is of poor quality. These two realities can result in persistent grogginess throughout the day, along with moodiness, cognitive problems, and trouble paying attention.

A neuroscientist and researcher at Harvard Medical School, Jeanne Duffy, agrees that those minutes spent snoozing are of worse quality sleep than if you would initially just set your alarm for a few minutes later. Pelayo explains that just like more interruptions at night cause a feeling of tiredness throughout the day, when you hit snooze you are mindfully choosing to constantly disrupt your sleep! Each time the alarm goes off, the body and brain are surprised and confused, not knowing whether to prep for waking up or go back to sleep. This is just a waste of your time in bed and out, because the negative effects persist after you wake up with sleep inertia.

Sleep inertia is defined by the National Sleep Foundation as “the feeling of grogginess and disorientation that can come from awakening from a deep sleep.” This state slows down decision-making abilities, impairs memory, and hurts general performance after leaving bed. Being woken from a deeper sleep would cause more potent sleep inertia. Kenneth Wright, a neuroscientist and chronobiology expert, explains that this feeling of grogginess is a result of displaced melatonin. Due to social jetlag, the misalignment of biological and social time, melatonin only dissipates two hours after waking as opposed to while we are asleep.

If only we could just synchronize our sleep more closely with natural light patterns, it would become much easier to wake up. How’s that for a solution to dissipating the sleepiness that sends your hand to the snooze button?

While the “most practical” solution may be to go to sleep at sunset and wake up to the sound of cuckooing rooster, there are other solutions that won’t have you wondering what you’re doing up at the literal crack of dawn. Perhaps try tricking your circadian clock. It is naturally wired to wake you up in the presence of sunlight, so try exposing yourself to light early in the morning to help you feel energized at the beginning of your day.

Rosenberg advises that one should consistently turn in earlier. This includes weekends as well. It would also help to banish devices such as smartphones, digital tablets, and laptops from your room, because the blue light they emit decreases the amount of melatonin released and impacts your sleep. He also advises putting the alarm clock out of reach, thereby forcing you out of bed, and preventing you shutting out the annoying monster preventing you boarding your flight to your dreamy island.

Other suggestions include adopting a more regular sleep schedule. The body loves predictability, and with enough habit, you shouldn’t even need an alarm clock at all! While it is a stressful concept, setting your alarm for the time you absolutely must wake up (i.e. the last snooze) is essential. And, heating up your room may help if your alarm goes off before your body temperature has sufficiently risen. The extra bit of heat may just be the push you need to venture out of bed and begin your day.

In short, you lose by hitting snooze. You lose out on waking up in the right stage of the sleep cycle. You lose on beginning your day with energy and alertness. And, you lose on having non-fragmented, satisfying sleep.

Change your habits- become a winner.