The Ideal Sleep Schedule

 In Blog, Sleep, Tips & Tricks

In a previous article, I shared with you that it’s essentially impossible for us sleep-deprived humans to accurately determine when we’re sleep deprived. Not only that, but it’s also really hard for us to properly assess our sleep quality outside of a sleep study. 

What does this mean?  You think you’re getting (good) enough sleep, but you’re not.

There are 4 important pillars to optimal sleep – regularity, continuity, quantity and quality. In this article (Part 1 of 4), I’m sharing with you the 5 surprising ways you may be interrupting the regularity of your sleep, why this is affecting your health and the #1 thing you can do to optimize your sleep schedule.

You’ve probably heard of your internal clock, or ‘circadian rhythm’. It’s basically your body’s way of telling time – and with it comes regularly scheduled hormonal, mood and energy changes.

You’re probably even more familiar with disrupting your internal clock – helloooo jet lag. But what you probably haven’t considered it how your day to day sleep schedule is regulated, or more likely, dysregulated. 

Over a 24-hour period, your brain is constantly taking in information from your external environment to determine what hormones should be released, when. Not only when you should feel awake or sleepy, but also when you should be hungry, when you should be releasing sex hormones, when your body should be undergoing repair and more.

A regular sleep-wake schedule keeps your body on track in all of these ways. Without it, your body has to attempt to compensate.

This usually shows up as…

  • Feeling tired no matter how much you sleep
  • Hitting an afternoon wall or ‘crash’
  • Getting a second wind in the evening
  • Feeling tired but wired
  • Having trouble falling or staying asleep

Here’s how my patients are commonly messing up their sleep regularity, and you may be too:

1. Social Jet Lag – aka staying up late on weekends. When you push yourself to stay up later than usual, you’re going to want to sleep in later. This throws your whole body clock off and you’re more likely to have trouble sleeping the night after you’ve slept-in. Sunday-night-itis sound familiar?

2. Light Lag – the jet lag caused by screen time. We are all over-exposed to blue light, the light that is dominant at midday. Our brain responds to seeing blue light by suppressing the production of melatonin, the hormone that tells our body it’s time for sleep. Studies have shown melatonin can be suppressed as much as 23-50% when using an iPad before bed. Even more surprisingly, one night of screen time before bed can disrupt melatonin production for 3 subsequent nights. This translates to a later ‘internal bedtime’, and ultimately, difficulty falling and staying asleep. 

3. The Java Jolt – I love coffee. I won’t tell you you can’t have it. But I will tell you that it takes the average person 12 hours to fully metabolize a cup of it. That means if you’re reaching for an afternoon cup of Joe, it won’t be out of your system until the middle of the night. I recommend limiting your last cup of caffeine to at least 12 hours before you want to be asleep.

4. Putting in a shiftIn 2007, the World Health Organization classified shift work as a probable human carcinogen (cancer causing agent) due to its impact on your circadian rhythm. Shift work may be necessary, but so is optimizing your sleep between shifts. 

5. Jet Setting – moving your body into a new time zone faster than your internal clock can keep up with has obvious effects on your sleep regularity. If you’re traveling for fun and just every so often, it’s probably not a big deal. If you travel time zones all the time for work, you need a circadian regulating plan. 

Here’s the thing: your brain and body love consistency. They’re also really easily able to pick up on patterns and habits – good or bad. Maybe you need to work on one of the 5 things listed above. Maybe you’ve got all those things in check and you’re still having trouble sleeping.

Regardless, the #1 thing you can do to start optimizing your sleep is to pick and keep a consistent wake up time. Even on weekends. Even after late nights. Even after tossing and turning during the night.

A regular wake up time will set your internal clock and keep it running on schedule. It will also help you fall asleep at a regular time – and a positive cycle will start!

Give it a try and let me know how you do!

PS – need a more gentler way to wake up at that regular time in the morning? I love using the app Sleep Cycle + Smart Alarm. You can set the alarm to wake you up in a light sleep stage in a specific time window. The result is an easy wake up instead of a jarring alarm. Check it out!


Sign up to the e-newsletter to receive Dr. Leigha’s bi-weekly articles, as soon as they are published, directly to your inbox!