Did you know that the human body has a sort of built-in clock? This internal clock is known scientifically as the circadian clock. The National Sleep Foundation states that our internal circadian biological clocks regulate the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day. Our circadian clocks follow a sort of rhythm (circadian rhythm) that dips and rises at different times during the day. It is this clock, and its rhythms that help us fall asleep each night and wake the next morning.
However, there are times when our sleep cycle gets thrown off of its normal rhythm. It can happen when you work a late shift, stay up all night with a fussy baby, stay up too late studying, or travel between time zones. It happens quickly, and easily, and you’ll know when it’s happened when you feel that out-of-sorts grogginess throughout the day. You may also find that it has become difficult to fall asleep or wake up at the right times.
Once you are thrown off your rhythm, it can be difficult to get back on track. However, you can use these tips to help reset your sleep cycle and put an end to those sleepless nights and sleepy days:
- Stick to a bedtime routine. A healthy sleep cycle relies heavily on routine. Perform the same activities every night, at least an hour before bed. Take a warm bath or listen to calming music. Stay away from electronic devices and television. Your body will get a cue that it is about time to fall asleep. Also, make sure you go to bed at the same time every night.
- Make your mornings bright. Our internal clock takes many of its cues from light. Our bodies are generally wired to wake-up and be alert when it gets light out and get tired and sleep when it’s dark. In the morning, open the shades, turn on bright lights, or take a walk in the sunshine if possible.
- Keep your nights dark. At least an hour or two before bed stop the use of electronic devices. The bright lights from television, computer, and cell phone screens trick the body into thinking it is still daytime which upsets the natural rhythm that triggers sleep, waking, hunger, and other biological functions. So do away with the devices and dim the lights to send a signal to your body that it is time to sleep.
- Get your exercise. WebMD states that people who exercise at least 150 minutes a week sleep better at night and feel more alert during the day. However, when you exercise can make a difference in how well you sleep. Doing a high-intensity cardio workout, like running, late in the day can disrupt your sleep. Try and do those kinds of activities before lunch or as close to lunch time as possible. If you exercise later in the day, do something calming. Some yoga and stretching before bed can help you get a better night’s rest.
- Watch what you eat, and when you eat it. Avoid eating a big meal late at night. The liver, pancreas, and other organs have their own clocks that respond to food, and eating too late can throw them off rhythm. Also, eating late will cause your body to store more fat and you could gain weight! Research has also shown that certain foods can have either a positive or negative impact on your sleep. You can read more about those here.
- Keep your naps short. An afternoon nap can help you get that boost of energy you so desperately need to get through the rest of your day. However, if you nap too long, your body may think that it is time for your “main” sleep. This will put you into a deeper state of sleep, and make it much more difficult to wake up, and may even leave you feeling sleepier than before. The perfect nap time is about 20 minutes. You get the restoration you need without going through all of the sleep cycles.
- Avoid caffeine late in the day. Coffee wakes you up in the morning and it will do the same in the evening. Researchers at Michigan’s Henry Ford Hospital’s Sleep Disorders & Research Center and Wayne State College of Medicine found that caffeine consumed even 6 hours before bedtime resulted in significantly diminished sleep quality and sleep quantity.
- If you have to, use a sleep aid. Once in a while, using a sleep aid is OK. You just don’t want to rely on them for long term use. WebMD says that for some sleep problems, like jet lag or shift work, melatonin may help you get back on track. Melatonin is a hormone that your body naturally produces. Taking melatonin supplements may help override your circadian clock if it’s out of rhythm.
- Minimize the effects of jet lag. If you can, try and switch to your destination’s schedule in advance to minimize jet lag. Within a few days of your trip, start to move your bedtime closer to the time you would go to bed there. If it is six hours later there, then go to bed an hour or two later each night and get up an hour or two earlier in the morning. Do the same before you return home.
- Stick to a single shift. Working late or overnight can throw your cycle way out of rhythm. If you must work late, try and maintain the same schedule. If you are a night shift worker, when you leave work in the morning put on a pair of sunglasses. Keep them on until you get inside to limit your exposure to light. When you get home make sure you sleep for the recommended seven to nine hours that you need.
If you find that you are having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep over a prolonged period of time, then you may be experiencing symptoms of a sleep disorder. A sleep study can help you understand what is causing your sleep issues, and help you create new sleep habits to get the rest you need.