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Rise and shine? Well, not exactly

By Julia Sommerfeld, health editor

What it is:  Soleil Sun Alarm, a dawn-simulator alarm clock ($79.99)

Image: Soleil Sun Alarm

What it claims to do:  Gently nudge you awake by gradually increasing the intensity of its built-in light, designed to mimic a sunrise. You can set your fake sun to rise over 15, 30, 60, 90 or 120 minutes. And if you're a deep sleeper you can end your sun rise cycle with the back-up beeper, radio or strobe light. The maker claims that waking up to light resets your internal clock, making it easier to rise on subsequent mornings.

My experience:  In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I'm nocturnal by nature and have never met an alarm clock I like. Whether they beep, make soothing rainforest sounds or blare my very favorite song, I find alarm clocks to be singularly sadistic; it's a cruel irony that it takes three of them to wake me every morning.

So you can understand why I was hopeful about the sun alarm's promises of a kinder, gentler start to my day.

Boy was I in for a rude awakening.

I set the sunrise for the standard half-hour cycle, ending with a back-up beeper and strobe light at 6 a.m., just in case the simulated sunshine didn't do the trick.

But instead of waking up peaceably to the early glow of the simulated morning light – which I completely missed because my internal night owl grabbed a pillow and covered my face – I awoke to my Pomeranian marching in place on my chest and barking at my pillowed face. When I uncovered an eye, I discovered that the sun alarm was approaching peak intensity. I felt like I was in the white flash scene from one of those nuclear holocaust movies. Half-blinded, I could only make out a fluffy outline doing some sort of panicked gymnastics routine all over the bed, ending with a dive roll on my husband's head. He started shouting at the dog, but as soon as he opened his eyes and discovered that the dog was simply trying to alert us to the fact that a nuclear bomb had gone off in our bedroom, he started shouting at me. To add to the pandemonium, the back-up alarm and strobe light kicked on.

The good news is I got up, walked the dog and even got to work early. The bad news: My husband was mad at me all morning.

This scene was pretty much repeated every morning for a week, except I skipped the strobe light finale for fear of inducing seizures. (After Day 1, my husband said I had exactly one week to finish my business with this alarm clock or else he was moving out.)

But as it turns out, even unplugged and stashed in a drawer, the sun alarm is the gift that keeps on giving.

The clock's maker claims that the dawn-simulator helps reset your biological clock and can transform you into a morning person. That didn't seem to work for me; mornings are still as difficult as ever. As for the dog, she's woken up every morning since at 5:30 a.m., bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

What the expert says:  "For someone who is naturally a morning person, this is probably a pleasant way to wake up," says Charmane Eastman, director of the Biological Rhythms Research Lab and a professor at Rush University in Chicago. "But the type of person who has trouble waking up isn't going to be transformed; they'll probably just put a pillow over their face."

If you're an intractable night owl hoping to become more of a morning person, waking up to morning light is a bright idea, says Eastman, herself nocturnal by nature. But while the sun alarm's light source is ominously called a "high intensity Krypton bulb" and certainly felt insanely bright to this user at 6 a.m., a single bulb is not nearly powerful enough to reset your biological clock, Eastman says. For that, you need real sunshine or, if you wake up before dawn, a light-therapy lamp using full-spectrum bulbs.

The best way to train your body to wake up earlier than it likes, Eastman advises, is to always rise at the same time every morning, even on weekends. As soon as you're up, get outside as soon as possible, go out on the balcony, walk the dog, whatever it takes to get sun on your face and body; this helps convince your body that you are indeed supposed to be awake and helps make future mornings less of a shock to your system.

Bottom line:  If you have trouble getting your dog up in the morning, you might want to get this alarm clock.