Dethroning the Almighty Snooze Button

12_06_13aMy mother told me I could do anything I put my mind to. She was wrong. I cannot wake up early easily. I confess: I am a chronic snoozer. My sister is the same way. We set our alarm clocks and can press the snooze button for up to an hour! The funny thing is that I can set my alarm with the best of intentions of getting up on the first ring. I try to get the intention in my mind before I go to sleep by repeating the mantra of “I will wake up on time and be productive,” and meditate on the specific task that needs to be done early in the morning (like writing this post). Inevitably, the alarm goes off, and in the fog, I manage to justify why just 10 more minutes of sleep will be okay. My morning mind precisely contradicts my night mind. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I have slept for 10 hours or 3 hours. When I really think about this scientifically, it makes no sense. Hitting the snooze button every 10 minutes for an hour is really doing me no good. Why don’t I just set my alarm an hour later?

It turns out there are many articles on this subject, and it turns out there really is no benefit in terms of sleep that comes with a snooze function. To understand why, let’s take a look at what sleep is all about.

While no one really knows why sleep is necessary, there is much information about what our brains are doing when we sleep. Two main types of sleep are characterized by a Rapid Eye Movements (REM) phase and a non-REM phase. These phases can be divided into five stages:

Stage 1 is the point where you are just falling asleep. This is a transition phase from awake to light sleep. You may be easily awakened and may not even realize that you had dozed off. Your brain produces slower waves called theta waves, which range from 4-7.5 Hz. Theta waves are also generated during meditation. In Stage 2, your heart rate and breathing begin to slow down. Your brain still generates theta waves, but will exhibit “sleep spindles,” which are short, rhythmic bursts of activity. Stage 3 is another transition phase from light to deep sleep.  Here your brain begins to develop delta waves, which are very slow frequencies at 0.5-4 Hz. During Stage 4, your brain has settled into the delta stage and you are in a deep sleep. This phase of sleep has been shown to be important for health. Sleepwalking often occurs during this phase.

Stages 1-4 are non-REM stages. REM begins in stage 5 and this is when you are most likely to dream. Your brain waves return to alpha levels (7-14 Hz), and heart rate and breathing begin to increase, which is similar to when you are awake. The difference between stage 5 sleep and being awake is that during this phase, your muscles are paralyzed. The theory is that your muscles become paralyzed intentionally while you dream so you can’t physically act out your dream (which would be dangerous when you are not conscious).

12_06013bAll 5 stages of sleep take about 90 minutes to complete. Each phase varies in length, with stage 5 getting longer as the number of cycles increase. Looking at the progression of sleep, pressing the snooze button for 3, 5, or 10 minutes, really isn’t going to give me any kind of sleep that will help me feel more rested. In fact, it may make me actually feel less rested because I am consistently interrupting my brain as it attempts to enter a cycle! So why do I have this habit and how do I break it?

Many people have many different suggestions on how to wake up on time. Some involve conditioning such as putting the alarm across the room so you actually have to get up to shut it off. For some, that is very effective. For my sister and me, it hasn’t proven annoying enough for us to break the habit. There are actually some phone apps (e.g. Math Alarm Plus or Alarm Clock Xtreme) that make you solve a math problem or play a brain game to shut off the alarm. The theory is this will force your brain into alpha waves and a conscious state. This is definitely something I will be trying soon.

Another trick to try is timing your sleep so that you set your alarm at the end of a sleep cycle or in approximately 90 minute intervals. The issue is that everyone’s sleep cycle time is a little different. Well, as you can imagine, there are apps for that too! These apps (e.g. Sleep Cycle linkto: require you to place your smart phone on your bed while you sleep. Because your body movements are slightly different in different cycles, this app estimates what cycle you are in based on your movements. The theory would be that this app could tell you not only how long it takes you to cycle through the five stages, but maybe even help you predict how many cycles you need. It is recommended that adults get 4–5 sleep cycles or 7.5–9 hours of sleep each night, but it varies depending on the individual.

Do you have a hard time waking up in the morning? What have you tried to remedy the situation?

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Karen Reece

Senior Research Scientist at Promega Corporation
Karen is a Senior Research Scientist in Nucleic Acid Technologies at Promega. She has a BS in Biochemistry and MS and PhD in Physiology, all from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Karen was born and raised in Madison, WI and every time she would think of moving away something would come up, so she just decided to stay. When she’s not doing research and/or development, Karen enjoys the local music scene (particularly Hip-Hop), playing the cello and singing, and fighting for social justice.

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