When it comes to sleep schedules, I'm a bona fide 'night owl' through and through. Early morning alarms give me the heebie-jeebies and the idea of hitting the gym at 6 am genuinely fills me with terror.
Suits actress Meghan has long waxed lyrical about her early morning regime. During the heyday of her lifestyle blog, The Tig, the mother-of-two penned an ode to her 4.30am wake-up call, describing the early hours as a "vital time that sets the tone for our day ahead."
Former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, is also a stickler for a 4.30am alarm. During a candid chat with Prevention magazine, the author spoke about the ways in which motherhood had shifted her morning routine.
"So I started getting up at 4:30 in the morning and going to the gym," she explained.
"With exercising, the more you do it, the more you get into it. And the more you see results, the more you're pushing for the next level. That's when it just clicked for me."
Interestingly, Michelle and Meghan's divisive routines are somewhat reminiscent of bygone sleeping habits. According to professor A. Roger Ekirch, our preindustrial ancestors were accustomed to a phenomenon called 'biphasic sleeping'. In lieu of one single compressed sleep favoured by modern society, people would enjoy two sleeping periods - one at sundown, and one at dawn.
These split segments of sleep opened up a new window of opportunity for socialising, performing chores, prayer and physical intimacy. But why would anyone willingly want to abandon their duvet cocoon in the name of productivity? Aren’t we already running the risk of subjecting ourselves to burnout? And is it actually any good for us?
In an effort to answer my own burning questions, I tried waking up at 4.30am for a whole week… Keep scrolling to find out whether my puffy eyes got that extra bit puffier, or whether I quickly shapeshifted into an early bird à la Meghan Markle. During the process, sleep expert Lucy Shrimpton was on hand to offer some crucial nuggets of advice.
Simply put, Monday morning was a struggle. I snoozed my alarm until 5.00am before slowly peeling myself away from my bundle of pillows. Not knowing what to do with myself, I kicked off my day with a spot of self-care…In an attempt to feel slightly less slumberish and puffy, I whipped out my gua sha and spent a good five minutes slowly sculpting my face and contouring my eye socket area.
Did it make any difference? I'll report back in a month's time. I left for work promptly at 7am and subjected myself to the thundering jolts of the Northern line before duping myself into buying an oat latte from Starbucks. Later in the afternoon, I was surprised to discover that I didn't feel like an extra on Zombie Apocalypse.
Usually at this point in the day, I'm stifling my yawns and craving a sugary pick-me-up, but the need wasn't there. Is it normal to feel a rush of productivity in the twilight hours? "There are potential benefits but only if the early waking is following an early bedtime too," sleep expert Lucy explains.
"Waking up super early after insufficient sleep will lead to poor health but coupled with an early night, starting the day before the rest of your world wakes up can provide undisturbed focus time to be very productive."
Again, I hit the snooze button at 4.30am. I allowed myself to savour an extra 15 minutes in bed before deciding that I needed to take this seriously and get to grips with these early starts. I did a few bits of boring admin: I inhaled a concoction of vitamins to ward off any pesky colds, I finished packing for an upcoming trip, and I folded away stacks of fresh laundry. So glamorous.
Admin complete, I headed into work early (resisting the lure of Starbucks this time) and dived head first into a busy day. By the afternoon, I was somewhat deflated and desperate for an early night. Seeking some much-needed R&R, I rounded off the day with an extended shower routine and a comforting bowl of veggie stir fry.
Sadly it's not just a question of nourishing food and a quasi-spa like shower routine. Sleep expert Lucy suggests early risers also limit the amount of tech in the bedroom. Sharing some tips, she told us: "Keep electrical items to a minimum. A temperature of 18-20 degrees centigrade is ideal.
"Clean, cotton bed linen that feels good. Dim lighting for bedtime to support the release of the sleepy hormone melatonin. Totally pitch dark for sleep time and wear an eye mask if need be. Keep the bedroom for sleep so no home office in the room and try to keep it uncluttered as this can cause micro stress and distraction when you need calm."
I carved out some time first thing for some reading (albeit from the comfort of my bed) and relished having that extra time in the morning to kickstart my imagination and get my brain into gear. Later in the day, nonetheless, I did feel the effects of my 10pm bedtime and felt physically drained.
As Lucy explains, "It's not just about the number of hours but the quality of sleep. We sleep in roughly three hour cycles so eight hours is a bit of a myth. We all need at least seven hours of sleep but optimal sleep will be around seven and a half hours or nine hours for different people.
"Even though many people believe they do just fine on far less sleep, it will not be without negative effects which they have no idea about. To stay healthy and ward off early onset dementia, carve out a healthy seven hours minimum."
My alarm went off at 4.30am and the first thing that struck me was the sound of raindrops crashing on my windowsill. Comforting but also a tad soul-destroying. Embracing Meghan's love of yoga, my day started with a 15 minute full body stretching session.
Despite generally avoiding exercise in the morning, I found that a soothing, gentle stretch was just the ticket. There's something so cathartic and deliciously wholesome about surrendering yourself to those puppy poses. Did I feel more energised later in the day? In short, yes. I didn't have that sluggish feeling that usually strikes at around 4pm.
Lucy tells us: "Exercise in the morning is a great way to generate energy and has a lasting impact on your mood and your day. Exercise in the morning not only provides the benefit of additional calories burnt during the day but will also set you up for a restful night's sleep."
What about exercising in the evening? "Exercising late in the evening is not advisable (though it's better than no exercise at all) because your body will have to fight against adrenaline so even if you do feel sleepy, your heart rate will be raised and your quality of sleep will not be as good," Lucy says.
The toll of waking up at 4.30am every morning was starting to take its toll. When my alarm went off, I instantly felt the need to reseal my eyes and get that extra shut-eye. So much so, that I did actually end up drifting off to sleep for another 30 minutes…
By 5am I was fully awake and prepping a much-needed to-do list/finishing off a few bits for work. After reading about Meghan's love of herbal infusions, I swapped out my usual morning latte for a steaming cup of peppermint tea. The refreshing and flavoursome drink is a firm favourite amongst wellness gurus and is said to boost sleep quality, and in turn, help memory function and reduce low mood.
While the week got off to a good start, I did struggle to maintain Meghan and Michelle's early morning routine. As someone who generally struggles to fall asleep in the first place, I rarely woke up feeling fully refreshed and energised.
There was something quite nice about savouring those quiet moments before the rush of the day, but I've come to the conclusion that I'd rather spend longer in the evening unwinding with a few skincare treats and some stellar TV. If you've got your nighttime routine nailed, then this might be a good one to try, but if, like me, you're a nocturnal night owl, then I'd perhaps steer clear from those 4.30am alarms.
Lucy Shrimpton is the Founder of The Sleep Nanny helping parents and children get their best night's sleep - www.sleepnanny.co.uk
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