There’s a reason we tend to feel sleepy around the same time each night — and why, if we don’t set an alarm, we tend to wake up at the same time in the mornings. As long as we’re not pulling all-nighters or traveling across several time zones, our bodies tend to want to follow consistent sleep patterns (which is key for getting the high-quality sleep we need).
Our sleep schedules do vary from person to person, depending in large part on the environmental cues we give our bodies — when we set our alarms, when we are most active during the day, when we eat, and when we let ourselves hit the pillow. (1)
And because our sleep schedules depend on the signals we send our bodies — such as “it’s not time to go to bed yet, there’s another episode of The Crown queued up on Netflix I should watch” — that means we can send our bodies signals to adjust our sleep schedules, too. Just because you’re in a rut of going to bed at 2 a.m. doesn’t mean you can’t change that! If you do want to get your sleep schedule back on track, you’re going to need to reset your body clock. Our body clocks regulate our bodies’ circadian rhythms — the patterns of physical, mental, and behavioral changes, including sleep patterns, regulated by body temperature, hormone secretion, and external factors like light and darkness — according to the National Institutes of Health.
Our body’s master clock is located in a part of the brain’s hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which receives light information from the retina in the eye and sends the information to other parts of the brain, including the gland that releases the sleep-signaling hormone, melatonin, says Rochelle Zozula, PhD, a sleep specialist and owner of Sleep Services International in Bridgewater, New Jersey. “Light suppresses that production of melatonin, which is directly involved in sleep initiation,” she says.
That means the light signals you send your brain, whether from sunlight or from glowing computer and cellphone screens, are some of the key factors that can either keep your sleep schedule on track, get it back on track, or throw it off significantly.
Why Our Sleep Schedules Get Off Track Because our body clocks, which control our sleep schedules, are sensitive to light, things like how much sunlight we’re exposed to throughout the day and what types of light we’re exposed to at night affect our sleep schedules.
Additionally, things like traveling across time zones or staying up a lot later than usual can throw off sleep patterns, because we’re asking our bodies to sleep at different times than our bodies’ internal clocks are telling us to sleep. Similarly, people who do rotating shift work, such as overnight workers or truck drivers — for whom it’s difficult to stick to a consistent sleep schedule — tend to have difficulty with sleep because their body clocks run on a different schedule than they’re allowing their bodies to follow.
It’s problematic, not only because on a day-to-day basis, having a misaligned body clock and sleep schedule can result in poor sleep quality (and you not getting the sleep you need), but over time, that misalignment has been found to be linked to several chronic health problems, such as sleep disorders, obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder, among others.
Having a severely misaligned body clock and sleep schedule is itself considered a sleep disorder. About 1 percent of adults have advanced sleep phase disorder, according to the National Sleep Foundation, meaning they go to bed early, from 6 to 9 p.m., and wake up early, between 1 and 5 a.m. (3)
Others, especially younger people, may experience the opposite — delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), or going to bed extremely late and waking up late. It’s estimated to affect as many as 15 percent of teenagers, according to the Cleveland Clinic. (4)
“DSPS is a circadian rhythm disorder associated with an inability to fall asleep at the individual’s desired time [typically they fall asleep several hours later] and an inability to wake up at the desired time,” says Dr. Zozula. “Due to the individual’s daytime obligations, a person with DSPS may be forced to wake up earlier and go against their natural circadian tendency.” This can lead to chronic sleep deprivation, poor performance, and depression.
10 Tips for Resetting 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 to 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.”
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. “It needs to know, what is your desired time to get up. And the brain expects that people more or less wake up at the same time every day. The idea of weekends or travel across time zones is foreign to how the brain works. That’s what throws it off.” It’s also about changing your state of mind and looking forward to tomorrow with a sense of purpose. “You need a reason to get out of bed,” notes Pelayo. “I like to make a distinction between getting out of bed and waking up. They’re not the same thing. You need a reason that you enjoy to get out of bed.”
Be strict about sticking to your sleep schedule. Once you have reached a workable bedtime and a consistent wake up time, don’t allow yourself to stray from it. Even one late night can ruin the progress you’ve made. Predictability is key.
Avoid exposure to light before you want to sleep. According to research published in June 2014 in the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology, exposure to evening light can shift your body clock to a later schedule. (5) And study authors note that “reducing household light exposure before bedtime is a simple and effective step towards reducing circadian misalignment.” When possible, if you’re trying to go to sleep earlier, avoid bright and outdoor light close to bedtime (that includes light from cellphone, laptop, and TV screens) and keep your surroundings dim at night.
Avoid eating or exercising too close to bedtime. Exercise can wake you up, explains Pelayo. And food can give you heartburn, which could keep you up. Also watch out for caffeine and nicotine, both of which are stimulants.
Set the mood and create a relaxing bedtime routine. Take a warm bath and play some relaxing music, for instance. Make sure your bed is comfortable, the room is dark, and the temperature is not too warm. “You want people to look forward to sleeping. Going to sleep should not be a chore,” adds Pelayo.
Try melatonin (with monitoring by a health professional). Melatonin supplements might help, but there could be side effects for some people, as well as contraindications with other medicines (both prescribed and over-the-counter). So check with your doctor before trying this strategy.
Try light therapy to readjust your rhythm. Consider “bright-light therapy,” a timed exposure to bright light in the morning. Though you can do this under a doctor’s care, Pelayo notes that over-the-counter devices marketed for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can be used for shifting your circadian rhythm. “It’s really very safe,” he notes, “though it’s a good idea to make sure you don’t have any eye disease, any diseases of your retina, so you should have your doctor check you. But most healthy, young people with good vision can just use the devices for seasonal affective disorder with very little likelihood of running into trouble.” It’s most effective to use the light as close to your wake up time as possible, Pelayo adds. “Hours later, the light won’t matter, it won’t shift your cycles.” You want your brain to understand that your wake-up time is dawn.
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. 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, she or he 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 always come eventually.”