Stepping over the one-year marker since the start of the pandemic, it seems accurate to evaluate that life has, indeed, gone off the rails since then. And, amidst the craziness of life now lived predominantly indoors, a spiraling sleep schedule is simply one of the key features of this existence. Sleeping (actually sleeping—going to bed and continuing to scroll through Instagram on your pillow doesn’t count) at 4 AM, waking up at noon, and still feeling drowsy? It’s a familiar picture for many. What’s worse is when this becomes the norm for your body, making it more difficult to wake up early or on time when you need to. This is due to the fact that your body has a built-in, bona fide, internal clock known that, by instinct, knows when to wake you up and put you down for sleep. It’s a 24-hour cycle of waking and sleeping that is known as your circadian rhythm. Despite this internal clock being instinctual, however, it is still extremely malleable and susceptible to external elements. This is both good and bad. On one hand, it means that continuous exposure to the wrong combination of externalities can put you in the position for a sleep schedule straight out of your worst nightmares. On the other, it means that knowing what to avoid and what to get more of can help you correct your sleep schedule as easily as you turned it upside down. Read on for some tips on righting the rhythm of your sleep to get some much-needed, restorative rest.
A Few General Rules To Play
Be Strict and Consistent
If you’re really dedicated to getting your sleep schedule back on track, you absolutely need to be strict with sticking to the schedule that you set for yourself. Remember, this is a routine. In order for it to be effective, you must be consistent. You want to form good sleeping habits to help your body know when to wind down and wake up without the internal fight every morning and night. So, before you start, choose a (realistic) bedtime and a rise time and hold yourself accountable for making these the goal Every. Single. Day. This might mean resisting the urge to sleep in an hour or two (we feel your pain—we really do) or forcing your hand to click the X before Netflix’s all-too-convenient ‘Next Episode’ timer automatically drags you down into the rabbit-hole of, actually, the next four episodes of the series (again, we feel you). Consistency is key, and all that.
But, Also, Be Patient
However, while keeping to the schedule that you set for yourself is truly central to resetting your internal clock, it is still important to be patient with yourself. Don’t expect your body to automatically shift from the 3 AM to 12 PM shift all the way to the 10 PM to 6 AM shift in two days. It will take at least a week, maybe more, depending on how drastic of a change you’re looking to make, so work your way to your end-goal incrementally. Work your way back in 15 or 30 minute increments, only shifting when your body has already gotten used to the new routine. Likewise, no matter what schedule you choose, make sure that you are at least getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to put your brain and body in the right position for taking on the day. Go easy on yourself. You’ll get to your ideal sleep schedule soon enough, as long as you give your body the time to adjust and absorb the changes.
Leading Up to Bedtime
Eating Early—And Not At All Right Before
Sometimes, the midnight munchies are so real and, when they are, they are so tempting to give in to. However, despite any argument that you might have that leftovers just taste better in the wee hours of the night, you really should resist the urge to eat right before your bedtime if you are trying to reset your sleeping schedule. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, food intake near the period where you are set to sleep was observed to be negatively associated with the quality of sleep. So, make sure that during your sleep reset that you are swallowing that last delicious morsel at least three hours before your head hits your pillow.
Resist the Mid-Day Nap
In the middle of the day, especially if you’re currently embracing that WFH lifestyle, the caffeine from your morning coffee might be starting to wear off and your couch’s siren-call for that mid-day nap is hard to ignore. But ignore you must! Remember: stick to the schedule. Taking a nap in the middle of the day will definitely disrupt the routine that you are setting for your internal clock. What’s more, if you continue to give into those naptimes, you could potentially shorten the time that your body spends asleep at night, making you more tired the next day and making it that much easier to justify a nap again. If you’re feeling yourself beginning to lose focus and drift off, simply allow yourself to take a step away from whatever you’re doing at the time. Shut your laptop, close your phone, roll you neck a few times and stretch or meditate for twenty minutes. But do not make your way over to a cushy surface with a 1 hour timer on your phone and a promise to be more productive when you awaken.
A Time to Exercise
If you find yourself motivated to do so, exercising regularly can have great benefits on the sleep schedule that you are attempting to manifest into your life. Exercising daily or three to four times a week can help your body ease into a regular circadian rhythm by synching it to respond to the time that you spend working your muscles. Evidence also shows that moderate amounts of exercise can increase the body’s production of melatonin at night, which can help in improving the regulation of your sleep schedule. Timing is everything, though. If you exercise too close to your set bedtime, you risk keeping yourself up with the stimulation. Morning workouts are your best shot for setting yourself up for a pumped-up day and a mellow night.
Natural Light in the Day…
As it turns out, lighting is everything when it comes to regulating your circadian rhythm. During the day, you’ll want to expose yourself to as much natural light as possible. This is especially true in the mornings, where you might want to consider forgoing those black-out curtains that you bought for extra privacy at the beginning of quarantine in order to allow the morning sun to shine on you when you wake up. Waking up with the sun is just natural, it was the way humans existed before electricity and those mood-lights that change to every color of the rainbow. It’s nature’s signal to wake up, and your body knows it. So let the sunshine in! It’s the daily reset that your internal clock needs to ensure that, come bedtime, you are actually, truly, positively, tired and ready to hit the sack.
In the Bedroom
… But No Artificial Light at Night
Remember when we mentioned light is everything? Well, the absence of light during your bedtime is just as important as the presence of natural light during your waking-time. Whereas sunlight is your body’s natural trigger to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, darkness is the signal for your body to start producing melatonin—that sleep hormone that you want to catch those Z’s. So, at night, for at least two hours before your bedtime, dim or, better yet, turn off completely all of the bright lights in your area. This light conditioning will also help your brain know that it’s time to start winding down for the evening. As with all of these steps, keep consistent with this.
Especially Avoid Blue Light (No Screen Zone)
We get it: reading a few chapters of your phone’s current must-read or watching a few episodes of your favorite TV comedy might be the only way that you feel you can end your day without anxiety. But while it might feel like a necessary part of your relaxation routine, chances are that you are doing your sleep schedule a great disservice by exposing your orbs to the harsh blue light of screens. Like with other artificial lights and exercise before bed, this has to do with the suppression of melatonin production and stimulation. Try to keep away from the screens for at least two hours before bed while you’re working to reset your circadian rhythm. It doesn’t mean that you have to cut YouTube videos from your nighttime routine completely, it just means watching them before the interval set aside for getting ready to enter your sleep cycle.
Go Soundless for Sound Sleep
It might also be tempting to listen to your favorite sleep playlist, a manifestation video, or a podcast before/while you fall asleep. However, even if you aren’t actively listening to your chosen comfort-noises, your brain does continue to process sound even as you are fast asleep. Instead of melodies or audiobooks, try a white noise machine to rely on to sooth yourself to sleep. With this, there will be nothing for your brain to work to focus on except flushing out the stress of the day to reset for a new one through sleep.
Last but not least is temperature. According to a sleep study from the National Institutes of Health, temperature is one of the most essential factors to ensuring quality sleep. So, in your quest to get your sleep schedule to where you need and want it to be, make sure the temperature of your room is no lower than 54°F (12°C) and no higher than 75°F (24°C). Your body’s internal temperature naturally drops to prepare for sleep, so anything within this golden zone will set you on the right path for a night of real and regular rest.
Sleep is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of living your life in the best, most productive, and most meaningful way. When you’re fully rested and when you get up early enough to enjoy the morning and be awake and alert to take it in, there’s really nothing like it. Resetting your sleep schedule and re-aligning your circadian rhythm can be the key to brightening up your days and mellowing out your nights. Just keep to your routine. Tomorrow is a new day, followed by a new night, and a new chance for better sleep.