How to Fix Your Sleep Schedule

If you have fallen into a sleep schedule that’s not working for you, because you’re having trouble getting up in the morning, staying up later than you want, or whatever the case, what can you do? Try taking these steps to get your sleep patterns on the track that works for you:

  • Adjust your bedtime, but be patient. If you’re aiming to go to sleep earlier, try slowly scaling back your bedtime until you are at the desired hour. Often you may need help from a physician with this. “As a general rule, it’s easier to push away sleep than to advance sleep,” says Rafael Pelayo, MD, clinical professor at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and the Stanford University School of Medicine in California. “So you could stay up later an hour at a time, but going to bed earlier is hard to do.” To get to sleep earlier, Dr. Pelayo recommends going slowly and in small increments, adjusting no more than 15 minutes earlier every two or three days.
  • Do not nap, even if you feel tired. Napping can interfere with going to sleep at night. Pelayo recommends scheduling exercise when you feel like napping. “The exercise will chase away the sleepiness. Then you can save up that drive to sleep for later,” he says.
  • Do not sleep in, and get up at the same time each day. Being consistent is important in maintaining a functioning sleep schedule. Get a good alarm clock and don’t hit snooze. “The clock in your head needs instructions,” says Pelayo. The brain expects that people more or less wake up at the same time every day — and either doing so or not serves up those instructions to the brain. “The idea of weekends or travel across time zones is foreign to how the brain works. That’s what throws it off,” he says. Once you’re in a good pattern when it comes to bed and wake times, stick to it as best you can. Even one late night can disrupt the progress you’ve made, Pelayo says. Predictability is key.
  • Avoid exposure to light before sleep. Research shows that exposure to evening light can shift your body clock to a later schedule.

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    Remember: Light sends signals to the brain that it’s time to be awake. If you’re trying to go to sleep earlier, avoid bright and outdoor light close to bedtime (that includes light from cell phone, laptop, and TV screens) and keep your surroundings dim at night.

  • Avoid exercising too close to bedtime. While staying active during the day generally promotes good sleep, a workout too close to bedtime can help keep the brain and body on (by upping heart rate and body temperature) and make it tougher to sleep.

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    Some research suggests that evening workouts can improve sleep, as long as you aren’t exercising within an hour before bedtime, but it depends somewhat on the individual and how your body responds to exercise.

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    If you are going to exercise later in the day, consider choosing low- or moderate-intensity workouts, which will be less stimulating; and be sure to incorporate a cool down at the end of your workout.

  • Watch what you eat close to bedtime. Try to avoid snacks packed with sugar, which could cause a sugar spike, as well as caffeine and nicotine, both of which are stimulants. Spicy, acidic foods may also cause heartburn or acid reflux.

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    If you’re feeling peckish, you can reach for a light snack like tart cherries or kiwis, both of which have been shown to promote sleep.

  • Set the mood and create a relaxing bedtime routine. Take a warm bath and play some relaxing music, or do something else you find relaxing. Make sure that your bed is comfortable, the room is dark, and the temperature is not too warm. “You want to look forward to sleeping. Going to sleep should not be a chore,” adds Pelayo.
  • Use sunlight to your advantage. Exposure to sunlight (or other bright light) when you wake up helps tell your body that it’s time to be awake and helps set your circadian rhythm for the whole day, so that your body indeed feels sleepy when it’s time to go to bed.

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    Exposure to natural sunlight is ideal, but if there’s no sun or you can’t get outside, there are special indoor lights to help.

  • Schedule a visit with your healthcare provider. If your sleep schedule is interfering with job and other responsibilities, if the above strategies don’t work, or if you’re struggling with sleep in any way, tell your doctor.

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    Sleep affects our functioning and our health now, as well as our long-term health. Chronically not getting good sleep can do a lot of damage, and there are healthcare providers out there who can help. If your primary care provider does not have expertise in sleep, they can refer you to a sleep specialist who can help.

How long it will likely take to reset your clock depends on what’s causing you to be off. If you’re simply adjusting after being in a different time zone, “the rule of thumb is that it usually takes one day per time zone,” Pelayo says. “But some people take two weeks to adjust if it’s a really long trip.”

For people with a condition like DSPS, getting back on track depends on how long the pattern has been entrenched. “We tell people to wait one or two months,” says Pelayo. “If people have had poor sleep for years, they’re surprised when they start getting better. And when you’re surprised about your sleep getting better, that wakes you up, because you’re not sure it’s going to keep working. It takes maybe two months for the novelty of sleeping well to wear off.”

Changing your sleep schedule (particularly if you have delayed sleep phase syndrome) isn’t easy, but with the proper discipline it can be done. “Don’t get upset with yourself, because it just makes the problem worse,” Pelayo says. “Know that sleep will come eventually.”

With additional reporting by Deb Shapiro and Carmen Chai.

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