Numerous things can throw off your sleep schedule, from the mundane (shift work and jet lag) to the stressful (sleep disorders and recent life upheavals). When it happens, we might find ourselves staying up until 4 a.m. and waking up at noon.
Once our biological clocks are thrown off, it takes time and effort to get them realigned. It’s possible, though, to recalibrate your clock by planning out your day and sticking vigilantly to a sleep schedule.
How Do We Sleep and How Much Is Enough?
We get sleepy at night because of our bodies’ circadian rhythms. Our circadian rhythms follow the light-darkness cycle, waking us up when it’s light outside and telling us to fall asleep when it gets dark.
When we fall asleep, we cycle through four different stages of sleep, starting with non-REM sleep and moving to REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. As the night continues, we spend more time in the REM sleep stage.
The first stage consists of light sleep. During this time, our heartbeat, breathing, and muscles start to relax. In the second stage, our brain activity continues to slow and our body temperature drops. The third stage of deep sleep refreshes our body for the next day, as the body repairs and regrows tissue, augments bones and muscles, and reinforces the immune system.
The fourth stage of sleep is the REM stage, where our eyes move rapidly side to side, and our brain activity, breathing, and heart rate levels spike. This is the stage where we have the most vivid dreams.
Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep—however, athletes need at least 10 hours. You may also need more sleep if your rest is interrupted, as your sleep cycles reset if you’re awakened, causing you to need more time to reach your full measure of stage 3 sleep and REM sleep.
Set Up A Consistent Sleep Schedule
You can’t fix your sleep schedule if you don’t have one. Start going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. You should stick to your regular schedule even on the weekends, as sleeping in can throw off your internal clock.
Try to avoid doing too much in the evenings, as it may overly energize you. Keep your evening activities to two or three things—try tackling your chores in the morning or during the day, to better unwind at night.
A bedtime routine can make it easier to fall asleep. Turn off your electronics an hour or two before bed, as the blue light can trick your body clock into thinking it’s day—some devices include a night-time mode that reduces blue light, but we recommend a complete shut-down.
Spend the last hour or so before bed doing soothing activities—take a warm bath, read a print book, or write in a journal about your day.
Try to avoid napping throughout the day. If you must nap, keep it under 30 minutes and avoid naps past early afternoon to minimize sleep problems at bedtime. The exception is if you’re an athlete—a 2018 study found long naps can help athletes get the extra sleep they need.
Get Some Sun
As we explained earlier, your sleep patterns are influenced by the presence of sunlight. Our brains stop producing the sleep hormone melatonin when we’re exposed to light and begin production again when it’s dark to induce sleepiness. This light effect is also why we recommend shutting off electronics in the evening, as the bright lights halt melatonin production, preventing you from falling asleep.
Getting sunlight first thing in the morning wakes you up. Open the curtains or go for a walk after you get out of bed.
Consider a weekend of camping with your smartphone shut off to maximize your exposure to natural light and get your biological clock in sync. A 2013 study found that a week of camping without electronics improved the sleep habits of participants, as they went to bed earlier and woke up earlier.
Getting enough natural sunlight can be difficult if you often work night shifts. Try to spend some time outside before the sun sets and wear sunglasses when you get off work to trick your brain into thinking it’s dark out. You can use blackout curtains to keep your bedroom dark and light bulbs designed to mimic sunlight when it’s time to wake up.
Set Up Your Bedroom for Quality Sleep
Try to reserve your bedroom for sleep only. If you often exercise, watch TV, or catch up on work in your bedroom, then thoughts of these tasks may preoccupy you when you try to sleep.
Set your bedroom thermostat to between 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit—you may have to do a little experimenting to find your perfect temperature. Use breathable bedding and ensure your room is well ventilated.
Keep your bedroom dark with blackout curtains, or use an eye mask to block out light. Consider turning your alarm clock away from you, both so the LED lights don’t disturb you, and so you don’t become an anxious clock watcher.
Place your alarm clock away from your bed, so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. Moving your alarm prevents you from just hitting the snooze button, and once you’re out of bed, you’ll find it easier to get up.
If noises bother you as you try to sleep, wear a pair of earplugs to bed—but check that you won’t snooze through your alarm. Make sure you can still hear it or use an alarm that doesn’t require sound, like one that mimics sunrise or vibrates to wake you up.
Your mattress can keep you from a good night’s rest if it’s in poor condition. If your bed feels lumpy or if you sink into the middle, it’s time to replace your mattress.
Your pillow might need replacing as well, particularly if you wake up with neck pain or headaches from poor support. The best pillows mold around your head and neck to support both.
Watch Your Diet
Give yourself at least two to three hours between meal times and bedtime, so your food has time to digest.
If you need to adjust your sleep patterns, consider fasting. Our circadian rhythms are partially determined by when we eat, with the act of eating and digesting a meal waking us up. Fasting resets our circadian rhythms, according to a Harvard study.
However, going to bed hungry can also keep you awake, so if you need a light snack before bed, go ahead and munch.
Cut down on caffeine as well. Don’t consume any soda, coffee, tea, or even chocolate six hours before bed, as that may keep you from a good night’s sleep.
Scientific evidence suggests that regular exercise can improve your quantity and quality of sleep. Try to work out at the same time every day, as a 2012 review theorizes that we perform best at certain times of the day through repetition and adaptation.
Try to save your intense workouts for earlier in the day—light evening exercise can help you fall asleep, but strenuous workouts an hour before bed may leave you struggling to sleep.
Planned Sleep Deprivation
This is an extreme step, best done under doctor supervision or at least with a doctor’s permission. Essentially, you pull an all-nighter and stay awake to better fall asleep at bedtime.
Planned sleep deprivation is a part of chronotherapy and has been used to treat depression. However, relapse is possible if you’re not vigilant about sticking to your sleep schedule and take steps to keep your circadian rhythms on track.
We strongly recommend speaking with your doctor first before trying this tactic. And if you do decide to deprive yourself of sleep, clear your schedule and stay at home. It’s not safe to drive while sleep-deprived, and your performance will suffer from lack of sleep so you won’t be up to accomplishing most tasks.
What If I Can’t Sleep?
We all have nights when sleep escapes us, and you may find it difficult to fall asleep at your set bedtime the first couple nights of adjusting your nightly routine.
It’s important not to stress when you can’t fall asleep, as that will only wake you up. Instead, give yourself 20 minutes to fall asleep, then get out of bed to do a calming activity—reading a print book, drinking a cup of warm milk or herbal tea, or a few gentle stretches to release tension. Avoid turning on too many bright lights, as it may prevent you from falling asleep.
Return to bed when you start to feel sleepy.
Speak With a Doctor
It’s normal to have occasional sleep problems, but if you frequently have trouble falling asleep and changing your habits isn’t improving your sleep quality, you should speak to your doctor or a sleep specialist. You may have an undiagnosed sleep disorder.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long can it take for your sleep cycle to reset?
It may take a few days to a couple of weeks. Be patient, as sometimes slow, gradual steps are the best way to make a lasting change.
Does waking up to use the restroom ruin sleep?
It can, particularly if you’re getting up more than once a night. If you find yourself waking up multiple times a night to empty your bladder, you may have nocturia and should speak to a doctor about it.
Did We Help?
Good sleep habits are the best way to fix a disordered sleep routine. Avoid electronics at least an hour or before bed, set up a bedtime routine, and make sure you’re sleeping on the best mattress for you. If problems persist, talk to your doctor to discuss potential diagnoses and treatment options.