Have you ever come back from vacationing in a different time zone and felt unable to get back to your regular sleep schedule? Or maybe you had a few days of working late and sleeping late and can’t quite return to normal once your work schedule gets back on track. Whether it’s jetlag, shift work, or an overly long nap, changing your sleep routine can have more than a day’s worth of consequences.
One or two nights of inconsistent sleep and wake times might not make a difference in the grand scheme of things, but a consistently inconsistent sleep schedule can lead to long-term troubles. It’s important to stay on top of your sleeping habits to avoid developing a disorder such as insomnia. Good sleep hygiene is the best way to fix your sleep schedule and ensure that you get enough sleep and wake up feeling rested the next day.
1. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene is a collection of behaviors that help create a consistently good night’s sleep. There are a number of ways to practice good sleep hygiene and ensure healthy sleep. But the key goals are to:
- Create an environment conducive to sleep
- Form a routine that syncs with your body’s internal clock (also known as your circadian rhythm)
- Avoid the pitfalls of getting a good night’s sleep, like napping for too long or hitting the snooze button
Doing these things will create a positive feedback loop. A feedback loop is the reinforcing effect of a behavior. Following the same routine each night trains your brain and body to go to sleep at a certain time, thus creating a loop where you eventually automatically become tired at that time — ultimately improving sleep quality.
Some of the best sleep hygiene techniques involve relaxation, while others involve developing habits around certain devices and nightly tasks. All are intended to help you fall asleep easier and wake up feeling refreshed. Let’s dive into the specifics of these techniques and practices.
2. Control the Light
Light exposure at particular times during the day and night are an important component of sleep hygiene. Your biological clock is naturally tied to sunlight, and modern technology (including the light bulb) can disrupt your body’s sleep cycles. Using (and blocking) light strategically is a great way to adjust your environment to make it more conducive to sleep. Here are four ways you can control the light in your bedroom.
Reduce Your Screen Time
Why not start with the hardest task on the list? It’s among the most important. In today’s digital age, it’s likely that you’re winding down after a long day’s work with your favorite TV show or iPhone game. You might also be reading a book or magazine article from a backlit laptop or tablet, or scanning social media. Staring at screens is not a benign activity when it comes to prepping your brain for sleep.
Your phone, computer, and TV screens all emit blue light. Blue light delays the production of melatonin. Melatonin is the sleep hormone your brain produces to prompt you for sleep. When your eyes take in blue light, it tells your brain that it’s still daytime and there’s no need to prepare for bed.
There are two ways to approach the blue light problem. One way is to turn off your screens after the sun goes down. In most cases, that can be pretty challenging (or at the very least, not sustainable). The second option is to block the blue light. Many devices have a “Night Mode;” this setting shifts the display colors to the warmer end of the color spectrum, so it blocks blue light and emits more red and yellow tones. However, recent studies have found this “Night Mode” is not all that effective, anyway.
For the TV, however, such a feature isn’t available… yet. In this case, either keep your TV off after sundown or consider using blue-light blocker glasses while watching your evening TV shows. Professional video gamers use these to save their eyes from the stress of constantly staring at a screen, but you can use them to reset your sleep schedule, too.
Dim the Overhead Lights
Similar to blue light, the overhead lights in your home can also delay melatonin production. Bright lights hit the retina of your eye and signal the pineal gland to hold off on producing melatonin. The best way to combat this problem is to add dimmer switches to your overhead lighting and begin dimming the lights at least an hour before bed. Another option is to switch from overhead lighting to smaller lamps at least an hour before bed.
This way, your eyes signal to your brain that light exposure has reduced, and it’s time to start making melatonin.
Get Blackout Curtains or an Eye Mask
If your job or lifestyle does not require you to be up at the crack of dawn, there is no reason for sunlight to beam through your windows in the early morning hours.
Much like blue light staves off the production of melatonin, the bright light of the morning sun signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up. This is true even when the light hits your closed eyelids. Blackout curtains delay this signal and allow you to sleep in. This way, your wake-up time doesn’t have to come with the sunrise. Eye masks can effectively block the morning sun, too.
If you’re a shift worker whose hours require a middle of the night wake time and middle of the day sleep time, blackout curtains or eye covers can help you adjust your sleeping patterns with your job requirements.
Use the Sun (or a Lightbox)
This next piece of sleep hygiene advice might seem to contradict the previous section, but in fact, it doesn’t. Interestingly, sunlight helps regulate your sleep cycle when used strategically. Studies show natural light exposure at the same time every day helps get your body clock on track. Sleep disorders and mood disorders like Seasonal Affective Disorder and even certain kinds of depression can greatly improve with strategic exposure to natural light.
To use sunlight this way, open your blackout curtains at the same time every morning if your window gets direct sunlight. Even better is to walk outside and let the sunlight hit your face and body for five to ten minutes (or even longer if you have time) right as you’re waking up each day.
In the winter months (or again, if you’re a shift worker), you might not have the option of using the sun for this light exposure. That’s when light therapy comes in handy.
Light therapy can come in the form of a lightbox or a portable light. These lights mimic the sun’s rays (without any harmful UVs, of course). They activate the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the feel-good hormone that helps you wake up each morning and uplifts your mood.
But of course, controlling the light isn’t the only way to create a bedroom that promotes sleep.
3. Set Up Your Sleeping Environment
Your bedroom should be a haven for sleep. We recommend reserving your bedroom for sleep and sleep alone, as this strengthens your brain’s association that bedtime equals sleep time. Creating a peaceful space for yourself encourages your senses to power down for the night, allowing you to sleep soundly.
In this section, we offer suggestions to help you set up your space:
- Remove distractions.
- Invest in the best mattress. Comfort, support, and heat dispersion are all factors to consider when shopping for a new mattress.
- If you have a TV in your room, consider removing it or placing it inside a media cabinet with closing doors, and avoid watching TV in your bedroom in the evening.
- Avoid using your bedroom as an office and keep your laptop out of your bed.
- If you use your cell phone as your alarm clock, make sure it’s face down and no light is shining at you from your nightstand.
- Use dim lamps in your bedroom at night and avoid turning on the overhead lights at least an hour before bedtime.
- Make sure your bedding is soft and cooling. New bedsheets can go a long way toward keeping you comfortably at rest during the night.
- If you have trouble relaxing, diffuse soothing essential oils like lavender or chamomile. This helps infuse the room with a calming aroma.
- Set the temperature to cool so that sweat and heat don’t wake you at night.
- Run a fan on low to keep air circulating.
- Use a comfortable pillow for your sleep style. Avoid pillows that are so fluffy that you have to crane your neck to sleep, and choose something supportive like memory foam or latex.
How to Form a Bedtime Routine
Forming a bedtime routine prepares you mentally and physically for sleep each night, and creating the right routine is a good way to fix your sleep troubles. These nightly tasks can be as unique as you are. However, there are some general guidelines to help you wind down beyond just dimming the lights.
This might seem obvious, but don’t start getting ready for bed at the time that you want to be in bed. Give yourself at least an hour to get everything done. This way, you can have time after you’ve brushed your teeth, showered, and washed your face to relax before drifting off to sleep.
If body pain keeps you up or wakes you in the middle of the night, consider light stretching before bed to ease your body into sleep mode. Don’t overdo it or get your heart rate up too high, as you should avoid vigorous exercise right before sleep. But light stretches — especially for the hamstrings, hip flexors, lower, and upper back — can help stave off lower back and shoulder pain.
Read a Book
This one is tricky depending on you as an individual. If you’re a person who gets engrossed in a story, then you should avoid reading anything too exciting. Instead, try reading something calming or uneventful.
Use either a real, paper-based book or an e-reader that doesn’t have a blue light source (avoid reading from your tablet unless you’re blocking out the blue light with an app). If you plan to try reading to calm your mind, do it on the couch or in a chair instead of in your bed.
Try Mindful Breathing Exercises
If you have trouble dozing off, try mindful breathing exercises. There are a number of mindfulness apps available to help you slow your breathing and calm down before going to bed. These encourage falling asleep, staying asleep, and getting deeper sleep.
These options aren’t your only choices for setting a bedtime routine. Use what works for you to get your mind and body relaxed and ready for bed. There are also some things to avoid doing to help get you sleeping and waking on a regular schedule.
4 Pitfalls to Avoid While Fixing Your Sleep Schedule
Just as there are tons of tips to help you establish a healthy sleep pattern, there are also some things to avoid doing. Just like before, the first one is likely the hardest.
1. Avoid the Snooze Button
When you fall asleep between snoozes, you are beginning a new sleep phase, only to interrupt it nine minutes later with the next alarm. By doing this, you’re actually making yourself more tired.
2. Minimize Napping
Unless you’ve pulled an all-nighter, napping will likely set you back when it’s time for nighttime sleep. If you need to take a nap, try power napping for 20 minutes tops at least five hours before bed. This will get you through a short phase of sleep, just enough to recharge and keep your day going.
3. Avoid Late Evening Exercise
We would never recommend skipping a daily workout, but exercise should be timed right to avoid messing with your sleep schedule. If you prefer an evening workout, stick to lighter activities such as jogging, stretching, or pilates. High-intensity training and weightlifting should be reserved for the morning and afternoon hours.
4. Avoid Late-Night Meals
Heavy, greasy meals right before bed can result in heartburn and acid reflux. To prevent indigestion from keeping you awake, keep dinners small and try introducing some of the best foods for sleep into your diet.
Are You Prepared to Reset Your Sleep Schedule?
Practicing good sleep hygiene is the number one way to reset your sleep schedule. Whether you’re a shift worker trying to reverse your body’s natural clock or have just returned from a faraway vacation, getting your sleep back on track is crucial to your daily wellbeing. Understanding the science of sleep can help you get back to your regular routine as quickly as possible.
Control your light, set up your sleep space, and develop a bedtime routine to ensure you’re getting your best night’s rest.