Are you an early bird or a night owl?
Do you wake up feeling tired, even after seven hours of shut-eye? Or do you jump up refreshed when the alarm rings?
The answers to these questions will be different for you than for your partner, sister, or best friend. That’s because everyone has individual sleep patterns and needs, directed by their own internal ‘sleep clock’.
If your sleep clock gets disrupted, you will definitely feel the effects. Why? Because sleep is an essential building block of a healthy body and mind. Let’s explore why that is, how your sleep clock works, and how to fix a messed-up sleep schedule, so you can get back on track and get the sound, regular sleep you need.
Why is sleep so important, anyway?
During sleep, the body and brain undergo vital healing and repair. When you sleep, your body is rejuvenating, discarding dead cells and building new tissue. Sleep helps balance hormonal production, too. That’s why sleep feels so good.
How does sleep affect the immune system? While sleeping, the body increases production of cytokines, which are proteins that instruct the body’s immune cells to fight infection and inflammation. There is a reason why you sleep a lot when you are sick; sleep is a key to fighting and preventing illness.
Sleep is an essential physical function, like eating. You can’t survive without sleep. The longest recorded period that a human has survived without sleep is 264 hours, or just over 11 days! But the negative impact of sleep deprivation will start way before that, after just 24 hours. Why? Because the human body runs on a 24 hour sleep-wake cycle.
Understanding how your sleep clock works
Adults tend to sleep an average of 7 to 9 hours every night, followed by 15 to 17 hours of wakefulness. In normal conditions, this pattern repeats fairly consistently. An individual will wake up naturally at a similar time every morning, and begin to feel sleepy and ‘ready for bed’ at around the same time every night. This varies for each person, of course. Some people start feeling sleepy by 9pm, while others feel alert until late into the night. This is due to the ‘sleep clock’ that we all have, also known as the ‘circadian rhythm’.
What is the circadian rhythm?
The word “circadian” comes from Latin – circa means “approximately” and dian means “day”. The circadian rhythm is the body’s natural internal processes that regulate the approximate 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Although the human circadian rhythm is fairly similar between individuals, each person’s is slightly different depending on their unique genetic and physiological makeup, as well as environmental factors.
The primary driver of the circadian rhythm is the light of day and dark of night. The changes in light over a 24-hour period trigger the brain to know when it is time to be awake and active, and when to wind down and go to sleep.
The circadian rhythm is very complex and delicate. Even minor changes can have a big impact. For example, drinking coffee in the evening stimulates neurotransmitters in the brain, causing wakefulness just when you would naturally be getting sleepy. Too much light shining into the bedroom can ‘trick’ the brain into thinking it is daytime, tripping up the circadian rhythm and keeping you awake when you should be asleep.
How can you adjust your sleep routine?
Everyone knows that we ‘should’ be getting 8 hours of sleep a night. And we also know that when we sleep well, we feel better. However, life happens, and there are many reasons why your sleep schedule might get out of control, including:
- Working night shifts
- Caring for a baby who wakes in the night
- Living in a noisy neighborhood
- Travel and jet lag
- Consuming caffeine, alcohol or other stimulants before bedtime
- Behavioral habits, such as binging Netflix till late at night
- Uncomfortable sleeping conditions – sagging bed, too hot, too bright
- Stress or difficult emotions
A messed-up sleep routine is no fun! When sleep is disrupted, the body, mind and mood are all affected. Here are some of the consequences of lack of sleep:
- Irritability and sadness
- Inability to concentrate
- Physical symptoms, like headaches or nausea
- Increased susceptibility to illness
- More accident prone or clumsy
- Feeling apathetic
- Drowsiness in the daytime
Fortunately, a sleep schedule that is out of whack can be fixed, but it takes patience and consistency.
Think of it this way: if you want to get fit, you need to exercise regularly and build up your strength and stamina. It will take time, but with the right behaviors and habits, you can reach your healthy goal.
The sleep clock is much the same. If you are asking “how to fix my circadian rhythm?”, the answer is by developing regular, healthy habits during the day and night that support your body’s natural needs and rhythms. Over time, those habits well reset your inner clock and improve your sleep schedule and sleep quality too
Can medical treatments fix a sleep schedule?
Some people opt for sleeping tablets or other relaxation medications when they are feeling sleep deprived. These can only be prescribed by a physician and may be addictive and have side effects. While medical treatments might be necessary for extreme insomnia or other sleep disorders, most people will be able to fix their sleep schedule just by making some adjustments to their lifestyle and sleep habits.
10 ways to fix your sleep schedule
If your sleep schedule is out of sync, you can fix it by changing some of your daily habits and routines. Here are 10 things you should do to reset to a healthy sleep clock and get the proper rest your body and mind need:
- Light for the day, dark for the night
The circadian rhythm naturally synchronizes to the changes in light. The first sunlight streaming through the blinds in the morning indicates to your brain that day has come, prompting you to wake. Similarly, the dark of nightfall prompts the brain to release melatonin and make you sleepy. In our modern world, electricity, TV screens and smartphones mean that we are overexposed to artificial light in the evening hours, causing many of us to go to sleep much later than we should. Try to match your light exposure to the time of day, to support your circadian rhythm and help you sleep and wake at the optimal times. For example, stop using your smartphone for an hour before going to bed, and use a dimmer light in your living room in the evening to create a relaxing ambiance.
- Do relaxation exercises
Doing regular relaxation exercises is a great way to create a calmer mental state overall, which will improve your sleep cycle too. In particular, doing relaxation exercises in the evening before going to bed can help you let go of the busy-ness of the day and fall asleep more easily.
There are several relaxation exercises that are easy to do and very effective, such as deep breathing exercises or mindfulness meditation. Make sure to practice regularly, preferably every evening at the same time, to reinforce your circadian rhythm and relax into sleepiness. A relaxation device can be a useful tool to get the most from your relaxation exercises. For example, the Reflect device uses biofeedback to track and display your physiological rhythms in real time, so you can actually ‘see’ when and how you are calming down. This is an excellent skill that you can use to learn to relax and fall asleep more easily.
- No napping
If your sleep schedule is disrupted, you may find yourself needing to nap to make it through the day. It is best to avoid napping, and keep the daytime strictly for waking activity and nighttime for sleeping. If you nap regularly during the day, this may take some time to get used to. Try to adjust your bed time gradually, and go to bed a bit earlier every day, while phasing out the daytime naps. After a week or two, the sleep clock should have settled into a nap-free routine.
- Exercise daily
The circadian rhythm is actually very simple: night is for sleeping and day is for activity. You can reinforce this pattern by adding physical activity to your daily schedule. Not only is it healthy and good for you, but it will also tire out your body, so you sleep more soundly. It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you choose: walking, jogging, swimming, weightlifting – any physical activity is great! There’s one important rule: don’t exercise for a few hours before going to bed. In the evening, your body should be winding down from the day and getting into sleep mode. Don’t disrupt this process. Exercise during the day, or even better, in the morning.
- Avoid exposure to noise
Noise is a stimulant – it engages the brain and makes it work harder. Plus, noise is not relaxing. In the evening and especially in the hour before bed, avoid exposure to stimulating or disruptive noise, such as TV shows, rock music, drilling and hammering. If you live on a noisy street, think about using noise-reducing curtains. Relaxing noises are fine, such as deep sleep music, or even a white noise machine.
- Mind the room temperature
The best temperature for sleep is not too hot, not too cold, but a comfortable 65 degrees F (18 degrees C). During the night, as you sleep, the circadian rhythm causes the body to cool down its core temperature. In the morning hours, around 5am, the body starts to warm up again. If the room is too hot or too cold, it disrupts the body’s natural temperature changes, which causes you discomfort and makes it harder to sleep. Take care to keep the room comfortable and ventilated, and make sure your bedding is just right for the season.
- Be comfortable
A prerequisite for a good night’s sleep is comfort. If your mattress is too soft or too hard, or the pillow is not right for your neck, you’ll find that your body can’t relax, which makes it difficult to sleep. Even if you do manage to fall asleep, you’ll likely wake up often, or toss and turn during the night, which won’t be restful. It’s wise to invest in a good quality mattress and experiment with different pillows to make sure you are set up for the best possible sleep rhythm.
- Eat early
If you’ve ever had a big meal before bedtime, you’ll know that it is not a good idea. During sleep, the body is busy with self-repair and rejuvenation. Eating before bedtime gives the body another job to do – digestion – which puts added strain on its natural nighttime processes. Plus, lying down with a full stomach can cause indigestion, heartburn and other physical discomfort, which will disrupt sleep and unsettle your sleep clock.
- Fasting can help
Fasting can be a good tool to reset a disrupted sleep clock until you are back into a regular rhythm. Like sleep, the body’s hunger rhythms are also tied to the circadian rhythm. The body naturally expects and craves substance during the day, when food is available and needed to support physical activity. Overnight, the body expects to fast, going into rest mode until morning when the fast is broken, at “break-fast”. For people who are trying to overcome jet lag or a messed-up sleep schedule, it is a good idea to fast for 16 hours overnight for a few weeks – for example, eat an early dinner at 4pm, and then eat breakfast at 8am. Once your body clock is reset and you are sleeping well, you can go back to normal meal times. (But remember to avoid eating for a couple of hours before going to sleep, as much as possible.)
- Keep a regular routine
Humans are creatures of habit and routine. Our bodies are built that way – when we stick to regular schedules for sleeping, eating and exercising, we tend to function better and feel better too. If your sleep clock is disrupted, one of the best things you can do to get back into a healthy rhythm is by going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. Over time, the body gets accustomed to the routine, and will more easily and naturally adhere to it.
That leads to the next question: what is the best time to go to sleep and wake up? There is no single answer that is right for everyone. Each person has their own unique sleep clock. That’s why some people love to stay up late and sleep in, while others go to bed early and rise with the birds. There are other factors to consider too, such as shift workers who may not have the luxury of a set schedule, or new parents who are attending to a colicky baby at night. It’s up to the individual to find their best time to go to sleep and wake up, but as a rule of thumb: adults need around 8 hours of sleep a night (give or take), so a sleep schedule of 10pm to 6am, or 11pm to 7am may work well for you.
How long will it take to fix your sleep schedule?
If you are suffering from a messed-up sleep clock, you are probably chronically tired and looking for a quick fix. But when it comes to the circadian rhythm, there is no such thing.
The circadian rhythm doesn’t get out of sync after just one or two nights of poor sleep. It takes several days or weeks to really mess up your sleep clock. Similarly, getting your sleep schedule back to normal also takes time. No, you can’t fix your sleep schedule overnight! You need to give it several weeks, but with persistence and commitment to good sleep habits, you will slowly settle into a better routine, and start enjoying the beneficial effects of healthy sleep on your mind and body.