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Hooray! You’re finally getting seven hours of sleep. But how you’re sleeping feels kind of random. One night, you’re in bed by 11 p.m. and sleep until 6 a.m. The next night, you’re in bed by 1 a.m., sleep an extra hour and then take a nap later. But the important thing is that you’re getting enough sleep, right?
Well, it’s not quite so simple. This inconsistency can be almost as bad as not getting enough sleep, explained Dr. Charles Czeisler, Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Your body wants to start the sleep cycles at a certain time (typically after dusk, but artificial light pushes that back). By going to bed at different times every night, you're confusing your body.
This confusion created by inconsistent bed and wake times means people miss important stages of the sleep cycle.
Throughout the night, people experience three stages of non-REM and one stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep over 90-minute chunks of time. The brain cycles over and over as you sleep. And while you might be getting the recommended seven hours a night, because of the inconsistent schedule, you might be missing a cycle or two. This affects the quality of your sleep, and may result in waking up groggy and tired.
Having a regular bedtime ensures people go through all their sleep cycles, which is essential to overall health and plays an important role in storing long-term memories or learning new behaviors.
Plus, you should have no problem waking up at the same time every day.
Setting a regular bedtime is easier than you think and starts with three crucial behavior changes:
1. Set a bedtime alarm.
While most people wake up with an alarm, Czeisler recommended using an alarm for bedtime, too. Set a reminder for the same time each night as a warning to head to bed.
This consistency means the brain is primed to feel sleepy at the same time, making it easier to catch some Z's. It even works if you can't schedule seven hours. “If you are consistently sleeping five hours at the same time, your brain will go through the same sleep cycles,” he said. “Not that I am advocating shortened sleep.”
2. Allow time to unwind.
When people come home and fall right into bed, they’re likely to struggle. Why? The body is still reeling from work, dinner, the game or that conversation with friends. By setting a regular bedtime routine — something as easy as brushing your teeth or reading — your body will recognize the signs, slow down and get ready to snooze.
3. Set some mood lighting.
Everyone knows that screens at night wreck circadian rhythms, but even light bulbs keep the brain awake.
“All those photons are affecting the circadian system. Particularly, light at night is going to be shifting your circadian system westward. If you are living in New York, your circadian system … will be between California and Hawaii,” Czeisler said.
As the night goes on, gradually limit your exposure to light. Turn off the overhead lights. Use light screens or night shift to dampen the blue light on devices. Seeing less light means that the body will naturally become sleepy.
By making sleep a priority, you should be able to set a normal sleep schedule in very little time. If you're still struggling after two weeks of following the practices outlined above, you should visit a sleep doctor.
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