How Can I Get on a Better Sleep Schedule?

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Sleep schedules vary a lot from person to person. Some are naturally “larks”—early to bed and early to rise—while others are “night owls.” Schedules shift with development, too, with babies typically being larks compared to older children; adolescents in particular often are on a later schedule, which can make it difficult to accommodate early classes.

Thankfully even night owls generally can align their schedules with the rest of the world. However, at times they may find themselves stuck in a cycle of late to bed, late to rise that’s hard to get out of.  For example, college students may go to bed and wake up later and later during winter break, and need to shift their schedule to one that’s compatible with academics as the new semester approaches.

If you find yourself in this situation, here are some recommendations for effectively getting on an earlier schedule.

1. Start in the morning.

Most people who try to change their sleep habits start by trying to go to bed earlier. Since sleep has a beginning and an end, it makes sense intuitively that we should adjust the start time. Unfortunately this approach is very likely to fail.

The problem is that you won’t have been up for enough hours in order to fall asleep easily, and so you’re likely to lie in bed for hours; the next morning you’ll probably stick to your typical wake time. There’s also a good chance you’ll get stressed out about not sleeping, which can lead to insomnia as your bed becomes associated with anxiety.

The better method is to think of being awake as having a start and an end, and adjusting when you start being awake. In other words, start by getting up earlier.

Ideally you can make this change gradually, so it’s not too difficult. For example, if you’ve been getting up at noon, start by setting an alarm for 11:30 AM. Gradually shift your wakeup time 15-30 minutes earlier as your body adjusts.

2. Get natural light early in the day.

One of the most effective ways to shift your 24-hour internal clock (or circadian rhythm) is to have exposure to bright light at the right time of day. For moving to an earlier schedule, that means getting natural light early in the day—preferably as soon as you wake up.

It doesn’t have to be for a long time (even 15 minutes helps), and you don’t need the Florida sun—being outside on an overcast day or sitting near a south-facing window can be enough. The light will signal to your brain that it’s time to be awake, and will suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone that tells your body and brain when to expect sleep.

On the flip side, avoid bright lights late in the day, like the glow of your tablet or phone, which can turn off melatonin production right when you need it.

3. Avoid caffeine later in the day.

If you’re getting up earlier, chances are you’re going to be sleepy at times during the day. The temptation to use caffeine to cope can be strong, especially around the mid-afternoon slump. However, it’s likely to keep you awake at bedtime, pushing your wakeup time later and delaying your ability to change your schedule.

What’s “later in the day”? A safe rule of thumb for most people is to avoid caffeine after lunchtime. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, it may need to be even earlier. (Of course, if your sleepiness is a safety concern—like while driving—do what you need to do.)

Instead of caffeine, try something like going for a brisk walk or doing calisthenics. If you’re able to go without it after lunch, you’re more likely to be ready for sleep come bedtime.

4. Be careful about naps.

Napping can have a similar effect to caffeine, making it harder to fall asleep when you’d like to. Our drive for sleep depends on how long we’ve been awake, and naps reduce that drive.

As with caffeine, the time of the nap is important; a 7:00 PM nap is going to be a bigger problem than one at 2:00 PM. If you do nap, aim to keep it short—no more than 20-30 minutes. And again, nap for safety reasons when needed.

5. Go to bed when sleepy.

Finally, be careful not to go to bed too early. It’s best if you feel like you could fall asleep relatively quickly once you lie down, to avoid spending a long period of time trying to wrestle your brain to sleep (see the first point, above).

On the other hand, you may be able to go to bed earlier than you think. Many people find that they get a “second wind” if they stay up past a certain hour, even if they were ready for bed earlier in the night. So take care not to push though sleepiness at night. By going to bed when your body is ready, you’ll have a better chance of getting up when your alarm goes off.

Some individuals on a late sleep schedule could have a condition like a Delayed Sleep Phase Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder that may require consultation with a professional. As always, consult a qualified medical professional before making major changes to your sleep. 

‘Night Owl’ Brains May Not Function As Well for Daytime Work

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A new study finds that “night owls” — those whose internal body clock dictates they go to bed and wake up very late — appear to have fundamental differences in their brain function compared to “morning larks.”

This suggests that night owls could be disadvantaged by the constraints of a normal working day.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham discovered that night owls, who typically have an average bedtime of 2:30 am and a wake-up time of 10:15 am, have lower resting brain connectivity in many of the brain regions associated with the maintenance of consciousness.

Importantly, this reduced brain connectivity was tied to poorer attention, slower reactions and increased sleepiness throughout the hours of a typical working day.

According to the Office for National Statistics, around 12 percent of employees work night shifts. It is well-established that night-shift workers often face huge negative health consequences due to the constant disruption to sleep and body clocks.

However, this type of disruption can also result from being forced to fit into a societal 9-5 working day if those timings do not align with one’s natural biological rhythms. Since around 40-50 percent of the population identify as having a preference for later bedtimes and for getting up after 8:20 a.m., the researchers say much more work needs to be done to investigate any negative implications for this group.

“A huge number of people struggle to deliver their best performance during work or school hours they are not naturally suited to,” said lead researcher Dr. Elise Facer-Childs, from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health. “There is a critical need to increase our understanding of these issues in order to minimize health risks in society, as well as maximize productivity.”

For the study, the researchers looked at brain function at rest and linked it to the cognitive abilities of 38 individuals who were identified as either night owls or morning larks using physiological rhythms (melatonin and cortisol), continuous sleep/wake monitoring and questionnaires.

The participants underwent MRI scans and then completed a series of tasks, with testing sessions being undertaken at a range of different times during the day from 8  a.m. to 8 p.m. They were also asked to report on their levels of sleepiness.

Self-identified morning larks reported being least sleepy with their fastest reaction time during the early morning tests, which was significantly better than night owls. Night owls, however, were least sleepy and had their fastest reaction time at 8pm in the evening, although this was not significantly better than the larks, highlighting that night owls are most disadvantaged in the morning.

Interestingly, the brain connectivity in the regions that could predict better performance and lower sleepiness was much higher in larks at all time points, suggesting that the resting state brain connectivity of night owls is impaired throughout the whole day (8 a.m.-8 p.m.).

“This mismatch between a person’s biological time and social time, which most of us have experienced in the form of jet lag, is a common issue for night owls trying to follow a normal working day. Our study is the first to show a potential intrinsic neuronal mechanism behind why ‘night owls’ may face cognitive disadvantages when being forced to fit into these constraints,” said Facer-Childs, who is now based at the Monash Institute for Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences in Melbourne, Australia.

“To manage this, we need to get better at taking an individual’s personal body clock into account — particularly in the world of work. A typical day might last from 9  a.m.-5 p.m., but for a night owl, this could result in diminished performance during the morning, lower brain connectivity in regions linked to consciousness and increased daytime sleepiness.”

“If, as a society, we could be more flexible about how we manage time we could go a long way towards maximizing productivity and minimizing health risks.”

The findings are published in the journal Sleep.

Source: University of Birmingham

Why Being A Night Owl Might Be Damaging Your Mental Health

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woman sleeping in bed

GETTY IMAGESCAIAIMAGE/PAUL BRADBURY

Not only is being a ‘night owl’ annoying when you have to get up for work the next day, it apparently affects more than just your body clock – it has a big impact on mental health, too.

According to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, people who are naturally early risers are less likely to develop mental health problems than those who go to bed late and sleep in.

The large-scale genetics study, conducted at the University of Exeter, used data from 250,000 research participants signed up to the private genetics company 23andMe, and 450,000 people in the UK Biobank study. Participants were asked whether they were a “morning person” or an “evening person”, and their genomes were analysed, revealing certain genes people shared that appeared to influence sleep patterns.

Lead study author Samuel Jones, a research fellow studying the genetics of sleeping patterns at the University of Exeter, said:

“Part of the reason why some people are up with the lark while others are night owls is because of differences in both the way our brains react to external light signals and the normal functioning of our internal clocks.

“The large number of people in our study means we have provided the strongest evidence to date that ‘night owls’ are at higher risk of mental health problems, such as schizophrenia and lower mental wellbeing, although further studies are needed to fully understand this link.”

The results found uncovered an apparent causal link between being a night owl and being more prone to depression, anxiety and schizophrenia – with evening types 10% more likely to develop the latter condition.

However, they found no increased risk of obesity and diabetes among night owls, despite what some earlier studies have said.

Samuel Jones said the conclusion is that night owls are more likely to have to work against their natural body clock in school and the world of work, which may have negative consequences on their mindset.

So, how can you go about adjusting your sleep schedule? Hope Bastine, sleep psychologist for high-tech mattress maker Simba, says we need to identify our individual sleep needs first.

“Experiment with your productivity and your performance rate and adjusting your time schedule to that,” she told Cosmopolitan UK. “Find a rhythm, a schedule, a lifestyle that really suits you, and that makes you feel in harmony with yourself. Make sure your sleep schedule is as non-negotiable as possible.”

Putting sleep first? Done.

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