Set a consistent sleep schedule: why it matters and how to do it
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My next few posts are dedicated to sleep.
Because sleep is fundamental to achieving almost everything else. Without good quality sleep we are less productive, more stressed, less energetic and more irritable.
High quality sleep is important for losing weight and building strength. It’s essential for sensible decision making and the ability to focus. And it’s key to willpower.
So, essentially, whatever your goals might be, good quality sleep is a part of achieving them!
I’ve already talked about how I fixed my sleep issues. But in this series I am going to break down the most important principles of sleep and explain why they matter and how to actually make them work for you.
We start with this:
Set a consistent sleep schedule
We have all heard this tip right? One of the principles of good sleep hygiene is to have a consistent sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time each night, and — more importantly — wake up at the same time each morning.
Why does this help?
Well, our body thrives on routine. If we wake up and go to sleep at the same time for a period of time, our internal clock adjusts. If we combine this with a morning and evening routine, we can help our body recognise when it’s bedtime, and we’ll start to automatically feel sleepy at that time.
Equally, if we wake up at the same time every day, eventually our body will naturally wake us up then, regardless of if we have an alarm clock set or not.
How does setting a consistent sleep schedule work in real life?
The truth is, most of don’t have such routine lives that sticking to a consistent bedtime is that easy. We may have social events that keep us up late. A really good book might keep us up all night. Or we might visit with friends who stay up later than we do.
This is why having a consistent wake-up time is more important than a consistent bedtime. It’s much easier to get up at the same time each day, as social commitments and parties rarely happen in the early morning!
We can get by on less sleep for a day or two, but eventually we need to repay the ‘sleep debt’.
To repay sleep debt, we have a choice: go to bed earlier, or take a nap during the day. We are naturally sleepy between 1.30pm-4pm, and a nap of between 90-120 minutes allows us to go through all sleep stages.
Going to bed early allows us to have a longer sleep period, without affecting our wake-up time. Because we only need a longer sleep period for as long as it takes us to pay back the sleep debt, after one or two early nights we’re back to normal function and can delay our bedtime back to a more normal time.
Set a consistent sleep schedule – how to go to sleep at night
Of course, there’s a difference between going to bed and going to sleep, as anybody with a sleep disorder will tell you.
There can be a number of underlying medical reasons for insomnia, including mood disorders like depression and anxiety (as well as stress in general), illnesses like cancer or kidney disease or conditions like sleep apnea, asthma and allergies.
In addition, various medications can interfere with your sleep, as can alcohol, caffeine and other recreational drugs.
Finally, hormonal fluctuations affect sleep, so if you have a period or are menopausal you’ll probably find your sleep is affected.
Given all this, it’s hardly surprising many of us will struggle with insomnia at some point in our lives.
Here’s some basic things that you can do that will help maximise your chances of going to sleep quickly:
- Take a bath or shower before bed, and keep your bedroom temperature cool. A cooler core body temperature is associated with sleep, while a warm body temperature is associated with wakefulness. A bedroom temperature of about 65°f or 18°c is ideal.
- Dim the lights and avoid screens. Blue light disrupts melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone’. Rather than watch TV before bed, try reading a book, writing in a journal or doing a jigsaw puzzle.
- Listen to music with 60-80 beats per minute. This can help lull you to sleep. Relaxing classical music is a good choice.
- Try a deep breathing exercise. The 4-7-8 breathing technique is meant to be particularly good at helping you fall asleep.
And of course, if you have trouble falling asleep at night, you should avoid caffeine and alcohol in the afternoons and evenings.
The half-life for caffeine is about 4-6 hours.
It takes around 1 hour to break down one unit of alcohol, which equates to about 2-3 hours to clear one glass of wine or one pint of beer.
Set a consistent sleep schedule – how to wake up in the morning
It’s easy for me to say ‘wake up at the same time every morning!’ but I know from experience how hard this is.
I’m naturally an evening person. It’s hard for me to wake up, and I have spent long periods of time hitting the snooze button over and over… and over.
My willpower in the morning is extremely low!
However, when I started a sleep course, I had to commit to a specific wake up time. Here’s what I did to help make that happen.
- I bought a ‘sunrise’ alarm clock*. Light helps stimulate you to wake up, and I did find that it helped me feel less groggy in the morning.
- I also put my phone downstairs with an alarm set. In order to switch off the alarm, I had to get out of bed and walk downstairs. (As an aside, I did try putting it on the other side of the room, and then in the hallway. I was entirely capable of getting out of bed, going to it, hitting snooze and then going back to bed. It takes me a long time to stop being groggy…)
- I started drinking water when I woke up. Keeping a glass on your nightstand helps with this. After not drinking for 8-9 hours while we are asleep, it’s easy to be dehydrated on waking. Dehydration makes us tired!
- I gave myself something to look forward to each morning. Having something that made me happy each morning made me far less likely to dread the morning. For you, this might be a programmable coffee machine, so you wake up to fresh coffee. It might be committing to 10 minutes of yoga to stretch you out and make you feel happy. Or maybe it’s a decadent breakfast of croissants and honey, or a bearclaw. Whatever it is, if you remember it when you wake up, it’ll make getting out of bed that much nicer.
The truth is, when I travel to other people’s houses I still find it much harder to wake up in the morning.
Even after years of committing to a 6am wake-up, as soon as I’m in a strange bedroom with my phone next to my bed, I revert to hitting snooze and sleeping in. It’s how my brain is wired, and I try not to stress too much about it.
If I didn’t have a day-job, I’d delay my wake-up time to 8am, which feels much more natural. But I do have a job, and that’s life!
Set a consistent sleep schedule – babies, shift work and jet lag
Finally, let’s look at some of the challenges we might face when trying to set a consistent sleep schedule.
Those challenges might include:
- Babies (do I really need to explain why babies make a mockery of the idea of a sleep schedule?)
- Shift work (1 in 8 workers in Britain now regularly work night shifts)
- Jet lag (Fine if it’s an annual holiday, less fine if you need to constantly travel for work)
Babies and sleep
I have never suffered through the sleep deprivation associated with a newborn baby, but here are a few posts from parents that might help:
- The Real Mom’s Guide to Fighting Sleep Deprivation. Deborah Bonn shares her tips on surviving a new baby.
- Doing This One Thing While Breastfeeding Will Help You Get More Sleep. Mummy of Four gives some advice specific to those breastfeeding their babies.
- Getting Sleep With A Baby As A Part Time Insomniac. Queer Little Family gives advice to those who already struggle with insomnia and have a baby.
- 13 Ways to Cope with Newborn Sleep Deprivation. Nina at Sleeping Should be Easy gives advice on coping with sleep deprivation.
Shift-work and sleep
My husband does the night-shift, and it’s been an interesting journey figuring out how to help him sleep well. Here’s a few things we’ve found useful:
- Blackout blinds. We live in a rental property, so we couldn’t put up actual blinds. But we got a portable blackout blind* that is brilliant. You use suckers to stick it to the window or frame.
- Keep to the same schedule if you can. My husband works nights, and he doesn’t switch back during the weekends. It means he’s always up all night, and that can be hard – especially since it means we can’t go out on day trips. But not being chronically sleep deprived is worth it.
- Use a ‘SAD’ lamp* in the period when you first wake up. It helps keep your body clock aligned with your day and night. This will help you feel more alert and energetic during your awake period.
- Take a vitamin-D supplement*. If you rarely see the daylight it stands to reason that you are going to produce less vitamin-D. According to the NHS, you should take around 10mcg a day (and no more than 100mcg a day as it can be harmful). Take it when you wake up, as it can suppress melatonin production.
Ultimately, working a night-shift for a long period of time will impact your health. The good news is that after stopping working night shifts, your risk returns to normal after around 5 years or a more normal sleep-wake pattern.
Jet-lag and sleep
If you are regularly crossing time-zones, it’s going to have a similar effect on your body as shift work. It takes about a day to adjust to crossing one time-zone – so you can see why crossing several time zones at once takes a while to get used to.
Here’s some tips for reducing the impact of jet-lag:
- Adjust your schedule before you leave. Moving your bedtime and wakeup time forwards or backwards by 1 hour a day in the days leading up to your flight will help your body clock adjust slowly, and it won’t be such a big shock when you land in the new timezone.
- Or stay on home time. If your trip is short, then stick to your own timezone. Yes, this might mean getting up at 3am, but you’ll enjoy the time you do have much more.
- Control your exposure to light. By exposing yourself to light at certain periods and avoiding it at others you can help your body clock change. There is an app called Entrain that will help you work out the best times to do this. Or you can use an online calculator.
What challenges do you have in setting a consistent sleep schedule? Drop a comment below.
Benefits of a consistent sleep schedule
Your challenge: go to bed and get up at the same time every day for a month
A consistent sleep schedule is the cornerstone of your health. High quality sleep helps you focus, provides you with more energy, improves your mood and generally makes your life better.
It generally takes about a month for habits to become ingrained. So if you can make it through February with a consistent sleep schedule, including on the weekends, you’ll be well placed to have a great year of sleep.
What have you got to lose?
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