How to Fix Your Sleep Schedule

Our bodies have an internal clock that rotates between sleep and wakefulness over a 24-hour period, known as our circadian rhythm. This clock is located in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and responds to external cues that tell our body when it’s time to sleep. However, factors such as shift work, all-nighters, jet lag, and traveling across time zones can throw off our circadian rhythm. In this article, I will explore 12 ways to reset your internal clock and improve your sleep hygiene.

Proper exposure to light is essential for regulating our circadian rhythm. When we are exposed to light, our brain stops producing melatonin, the sleep hormone, making us feel awake and alert. On the other hand, darkness tells our brain to produce more melatonin, making us feel drowsy. To reset my sleep schedule, I plan my exposure to light. In the morning, I expose myself to light by opening the curtains, taking a walk, or relaxing on the porch. At night, I prime myself for sleep by turning off or dimming bright lights. I also avoid glowing electronic screens from computers, smartphones, or television, as they can stimulate my brain for several hours.

2. Practice Relaxation

Stress and anxiety can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Creating a relaxing bedtime ritual may reduce stress and its negative effects on sleep. I focus on calming activities, such as yoga, stretching, meditation, deep breathing, journaling, or drinking caffeine-free tea.

3. Skip Naps

If my sleep schedule is out of whack, I avoid naps during the day. Napping can make it difficult to go back to sleep at night. Long naps might also cause grogginess, which is the result of waking up from deep sleep. If I must nap, I aim for less than 30 minutes and nap before 3 p.m. so my nighttime sleep isn’t disrupted.

4. Get Daily Exercise

Exercise can help reset my internal clock and promote better sleep. Most of my tissues, including skeletal muscle, are linked to my biological clock. When I work out, muscle responds by aligning my circadian rhythm. Exercise also helps me sleep better by promoting melatonin production. Thirty minutes of moderate aerobic exercise may improve my sleep quality that same night. However, I’ll get the best results if I exercise regularly. I aim for 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity at least five times a week. Keep in mind that evening exercise can overstimulate your body. If I want to exercise at night, I do it at least one to two hours before bedtime.

5. Avoid Noise

A quiet sleeping environment is essential for a good night’s rest. Your brain continues to process sounds, even as you sleep. Loud, distracting noises can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. To remove loud noises, I keep my television out of the bedroom and turn it off before bedtime. I turn off my cell phone or use the “silent” setting. If I live in a noisy neighborhood, white noise can help me get quality sleep.

White noise is a soothing, steady sound that masks environmental noise. I can create white noise by using a fan, air conditioner, humidifier, air purifier, white noise machine, or by wearing earplugs to block outside sounds.

6. Keep It Cool

Just before bedtime, my body temperature drops to prepare for sleep. A cool bedroom temperature between 60 and 67°F (15 to 19°C) will help me feel comfortable and doze off. One 2012 study from the National Institutes of Health found that the temperature of the room where you sleep is one of the most important factors in achieving quality sleep. Anything below 54°F (12°C) or higher than 75°F (24°C) might disrupt my slumber, so I be sure to adjust my thermostat. I can also use an air conditioner or fan during warmer weather, or a space heater during cold weather. These offer the extra benefit of creating white noise.

7. Be Comfortable

A comfortable bed is crucial for a good night’s rest. Old mattresses and pillows can cause aches and pains, making it difficult to get quality sleep. Generally, experts suggest replacing your mattresses every 10 years and pillows every two years. I also get a new mattress or pillow if I wake up feeling stiff, or if I feel more comfortable sleeping on a bed away from home. The firmness of my mattresses and pillows is up to me. But if my mattress is saggy and my pillows are lumpy, it’s time for a replacement.

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8. Eat Early

My circadian rhythm also responds to my eating habits. A late dinner can delay sleep, so I eat my last meal two to three hours before bed. This will give my body enough time to digest the meal. Eating dinner around the same time each day will also get my body used to a routine. It matters what I eat, too. Heavy, high-fat meals might disrupt sleep because they take a while to digest. If I’m hungry, I eat a light snack. The best foods for sleep include a combination of carbs and protein, such as wheat toast and almond butter. I also avoid caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea, or energy drinks. As a stimulant, caffeine takes several hours to wear off, so I have my last cup before mid-afternoon. It’s also best to skip alcohol before bed. A nightcap might make me drowsy, but alcohol actually disrupts my circadian rhythm, making it difficult to sleep well.

9. Keep It Regular

If I want to fix my sleep schedule, I make one first. I choose a bedtime and wake-up time and stick to these times every day, even on weekends or days off. I try to avoid staying up or sleeping in for more than one to two hours. By following a regular schedule, my internal clock can develop a new routine. Over time, I’ll be able to fall asleep and wake up with ease.

10. Try Fasting

When I eat and digest food, my internal clock knows that I’m awake. That’s because metabolism and circadian rhythm are closely linked. On the other hand, fasting puts my body on “standby” so it can repair itself. Fasting is also a normal part of sleep. I try skipping food just before bedtime. Since fasting naturally happens during sleep, it may help me doze off. Plus, my body continues to burn calories during sleep. If I fast before bed, I’m more likely to feel hungry in the morning. This might motivate me to rise early, then return to a normal sleep schedule over the next few days. But remember, going to bed on an empty stomach can keep me awake. Fasting may be useful if I aren’t already hungry.

11. Consider Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates my sleep cycle. Melatonin is normally made by the pineal gland in the brain, but it’s also available as a supplement. It can promote relaxation, so people with jet lag or insomnia often use it as a sleep aid. At the proper dose, melatonin is generally considered safe. Always follow the instructions. Possible side effects include drowsiness, headache, nausea, and dizziness. If I’m taking other medications or have other health conditions, I check with my doctor before using melatonin.

12. Talk with Your Doctor

It’s normal to have sleep problems every now and then. Usually, changing behaviors or habits can restore my routine. But if sleep troubles persist, I visit my doctor. I might have an undiagnosed sleep disorder. If so, a sleep specialist can guide me through proper treatment.

The bottom line

Shift work, all-nighters, and jet lag can mess with my sleep schedule. Fortunately, practicing good sleep hygiene can get me back on track. Before bed, I avoid bright lights and heavy meals. I make sure my sleeping environment is comfortable, quiet, and cool. During the day, I stay active and skip naps so I can sleep better. If I still can’t sleep well, I visit my doctor.

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