Sleep Specialists Say ‘Social Jetlag’ Is Ruining Your Natural Bedtime Routine

Photo credit: Carmen Martínez Torrón – Getty Images

Even if you keep yourself to a strict bedtime each night, there’s so much more to maintaining a good sleep schedule and achieving healthier sleep habits. Sleep patterns play a crucial role in how well-rested you may feel, especially over time — despite hitting a consistent amount of sleep every night (even within your recommended range), you can still find yourself feeling unprepared for busy schedules in the day ahead if you’re stuck in a late-night rut.

Sleep hygiene, or the collective steps to ensure you’re enjoying your best sleep on a regular basis, can look and feel very different for each individual based on one’s lifestyle. This usually depends on when you may need to be up and active or working, as well as when you eat meals; translating to a different sleep schedule and subsequent habits. In any case, your body is often relying on cues surrounding these daily routines in order to regulate what’s known as your internal circadian rhythm. Nestled in a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, your circadian rhythm is largely governed by the environment you’re in or by other cues in your surroundings, like a gradual shift from light to dark.

But issues involving hormones, body temperatures and metabolic influences may also impact your circadian cycle, even after just one night’s worth of disruptions or significant changes.

There are a few ways you can work to reverse any disturbance to your sleep schedule and be extra considerate of your circadian rhythm to set yourself up for better sleep tonight. Try troubleshooting your sleep schedule by doing a reset; follow along as we highlight proven tricks and tips for getting back to a good night’s sleep.

How to reset your sleep schedule:

If you’re trying to improve your sleep hygiene but don’t know where to start, try working your way through this list of proven tactics before moving on to other resources available to you.

1. Build-in pockets of break times during your day — especially before bed.

Taking time to wind down in the hours leading up to sleep is indeed important. But often people who are experiencing disruptions to their sleep routine are in the midst of an overbearing schedule that extends throughout the entire day and into the evening. If you’re having trouble staying asleep at night, it may be due to a condition known as hyperarousal, explains Jade Wu, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University.

“It’s basically because your body and mind are too revved up,” she says. “The problem may be what you’re doing, or failing to do, during the day. You must make sure you have time to rest, instead of being on the go all day long.”

Being busy, either physically or through mental exhaustion, is an easy way to tire yourself out — but if you’re not building in periods of time to allow yourself to rest, this may lead to disrupted sleep functions later in the evening. This is especially true for people who are working right up until their bedtime; simply shutting off a computer or stopping chores and making a beeline for a dark bedroom doesn’t ensure immediate sleep.

2. Practice a soothing function prior to bed.

It goes hand in hand with scheduling breaks throughout your day, but offsetting stress and cortisol in your body (the hormone that stress produces) is essential to set yourself up for a mindset that’s conducive to sleep. If you can tell that the day’s stress is following you into your bedroom at night, Wu advises focusing on a relaxing ritual in the hour before you lay down to signal to your brain that it’s time to shut down for the evening.

The activity can be something of your choice, and it can be as simple as zoning out over a favorite show or scrolling through a social media feed — as long as you’re putting boundaries in to ensure you’re not self-sabotaging your bedtime. Sleep specialists have long advocated for meditation or journaling during this time, or even something physical that can be practiced easily in your quarters, like yoga or stretching exercises. Whatever you choose to do, be sure to consistently practice it within the hour you plan to turn off your lights and put your head on the pillow; building this routine may help guide your circadian rhythm over time.

“Make sure to have some dedicated time to process your thoughts, too, or else they’ll be pent up and ready to disrupt you during the night,” Wu adds. “If you’re prone to overthinking or worry during the night, get out of your head and into your body with mindful breathing or another exercise beforehand.”

3. Monitor what you eat and drink at night.

Your metabolism has a direct impact on your body’s internal clock, says Rebecca Robins, Ph.D., a sleep medicine instructor at Harvard Medical School and sleep expert to Oura. Some of the things you consume at night may be obvious culprits for keeping you awake: Caffeinated beverages and sugary sweets, which stimulate you and keep you up later than you may intend. Spicy or acidic foods may also trigger acid reflux or heartburn which may keep you up longer than you’d like.

Alcohol is a nervous system depressant and may seem like it helps you get to sleep, but research confirms that booze before bed may reduce the quality of your sleep by impairing your rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Alongside a heavy meal late in the day, these kinds of dietary choices may impact you over time — and definitely impacts sleep quality if you have a temporary disruption in routine.

Stick to decaffeinated teas and other soothing beverages, and try reaching for a portion-controlled unprocessed snack if you’re hungry before bed; fresh fruit or even a dose of lean protein can help lull you to sleep. There is a wide range of foods that you can incorporate into your end-of-day routine which promotes better sleep if your snacking habits are impeding bedtime.

4. Invest in an air purifier and air conditioning as necessary.

Many people may already know that sleeping hot is one surefire way to damper the quality of your sleep and set yourself up for tossing and turning during the night. A National Institutes of Health (NIH) review suggested that temperatures higher than 75°F in your bedroom overnight (as well as below 54°F in cooler months) may prompt you to have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep during the night.

But temperature and a good air conditioner isn’t the only factor to consider when it comes to the air inside your bedroom. Poor ventilation and air quality may impact your lungs and overall sleep quality, especially if you have pets or share your bedroom with more than one person.

“If you have a small bedroom and share it with other humans or animals consistently, the air quality may not be ideal for good quality sleep,” Wu says, adding that humans’ oxygen saturation levels drop significantly as breathing becomes more shallow during certain stages of sleep. “Keep doors and windows open if possible to keep the air flowing.”

5. Limit your exposure to light in the hours before bed.

Whether it’s light emitted from an electronic device or if you’re someone who needs to sleep during the day to work at night, you need to curtail your exposure to light in order to stimulate your body into a good period of sleep.

For most, this means dimming or turning off lights in your home and in your bedroom; doing so may prompt your circadian rhythm to communicate to your brain to produce melatonin, a sleep hormone that makes you feel naturally tired and drowsy. This includes light produced by electronic screens, from television and computers to smartphones that you may wish to use while lying in bed.

On the flip side, you’ll harness natural light and other devices in your home to help you feel more awake when you need to be — a key regulatory function of the circadian rhythm. “When we spend all day indoors, we don’t get enough broad-spectrum light exposure, which makes it harder for our circadian clocks to function,” Wu explains. “At least half an hour of outdoor light during the day can improve sleep quality.”

6. Try sleeping a bit longer.

If you’re frequently fighting to drag yourself out of bed in the morning despite sticking to a strict bedtime, this could be your body’s way of signaling that you’re just not getting enough sleep. “If you are falling short of the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep for adults, you might consider trying to build in a bit more time into your routine by adjusting your bedtime slowly,” Robins advises.

You may need to adjust your sleep habits on a seasonal basis, too, due to the limited amount of sunshine that most experience during the winter. This is especially true if you’re experiencing what’s known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is much more common and goes undiagnosed in many individuals with mild cases.

“Our brain is less able to understand when it should be tired and when it should be alert [during the winter],” she adds. “If this is an issue for you, try to get outside and into the light when the sun is up to help train your brain to understand appropriate sleep and wake times.”

7. Don’t categorize your sleep routine between weekdays and weekends.

Sticking to a strict schedule and good habits during the weekday and then slacking off on weekends may seem innate for some; after all, you don’t have to wake up when you’re not at work or in school. But doing this on a cycle can easily damage your quality of sleep and make it impossible to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, due to a phenomenon that sleep experts call “social jetlag.”

“When we sleep and rise at very different times on workdays versus days off, it’s like we’re traveling multiple time zones throughout the week and getting jetlagged,” Wu says. “This confuses our circadian clocks, making our sleep quality and daytime functioning worse.”

If you’re finding that you’re having a lot of trouble getting to sleep or are feeling particularly restless on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday, social jetlag is likely a root cause — and a key indicator you’ll need to maintain a recurrent wake-up time each morning to avoid the issue. Organizing your sleep schedule around a consistent wake-up time rather than a consistent bedtime will ensure your circadian rhythm helps you truly feel sleepy at the end of the day rather than tossing and turning in bed.

8. Avoid getting into bed when you don’t feel sleepy.

This is also true for someone who frequently wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. Consistently using your bed to signal your brain that it’s time to sleep — rather than simply lounging, eating a meal, binging shows or doomscrolling — can become part of a routine that helps those who frequently are tossing and turning from becoming frustrated and being unable to sleep.

“If you toss and turn after getting back into bed, start over again — get out of your bed and only get back when you actually feel tired,” Robins advises, adding that people can also use this tactic if they have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Setting boundaries in your bedroom to truly delegate sleeping to your bed on its own can be very helpful if you can’t seem to find a solution for tossing and turning on end. Don’t try to adhere to a bedtime by begrudgingly laying in bed if you feel alert and awake; try other techniques listed in this guide to calm down, and feel out your circadian clock to really know when you’re ready to lay down and hit the pillow.

9. Skip naps and hold out for your bedtime.

Taking a power nap seems like a good solution if you’ve recently experienced an interruption in your sleeping routine — whether it’s traveling into another time zone or simply because you’ve been sleeping poorly at home recently. But napping can inevitably cause you to feel more tired and groggy than you did before in most cases, as it only takes between 60 and 90 minutes for your body to slip into REM sleep, and waking up from that prematurely contributes to this sensation.

To avoid impacting your circadian rhythm, try avoiding naps altogether — if you can’t skip a nap for whatever reason, be sure to keep it to 30 minutes or less and make it as early in the day as possible. Doing so may leave your circadian clock better positioned for a regular bedtime later, as Mayo Clinic officials have noted.

10. Don’t quit your current sleep habits cold turkey.

This may sound counterintuitive, but you can’t expect results overnight — adopt all of these techniques and new objectives on a rolling basis, as abruptly changing your sleeping habits can easily lead to more disaster before any growth. One key aspect to think about is an adjusted bedtime; it’s very easy to dip into sleeping time than it is to make more of it, so be easy on yourself at first.

Both Robins and Wu, alongside many other sleep experts, advise easing into a new, optimized bedtime by training yourself to get into bed earlier in 15-minute increments every three days. If you have a sleep routine already, including wind-down activities, bumping these up too can help impact your circadian rhythm naturally over time.

Temporary issues that may be impacting your sleep schedule:

A disruption in your sleep schedule and subsequent quality of rest can be expected due to a myriad of lifestyle choices, most of which you can immediately address by using some of the tactics we’ve highlighted in the sections above.

You should expect that your sleep schedule will be impacted due to issues like:

  • Pulling an all-nighter

  • Traveling through multiple time zones on long-haul trips

  • Jet lag on extended trips

  • Temporary evening work shifts

  • Light pollution at home

  • Temporary illness as well as stress and anxiety

While it’s normal for your sleep schedule to be temporarily disrupted or impaired due to these issues, there may be other root causes behind declining sleep quality that you’ll need help addressing. Since having an inconsistent sleep schedule often quickly leads to poor sleep, chronic health issues or lifestyle choices that are leading you to experience sleep disruption should be addressed with your healthcare provider. Without working to reverse these chronic disruptions, research suggests that poor sleep quality and an impacted circadian rhythm can lead to depression, other sleep disorders, seasonal affective disorder (known as SAD), as well as physical drawbacks like an increased risk of obesity and diabetes.

Sleep can easily be impacted by lifestyle choices that you may need help from a doctor in managing in the long run; namely, proper nutrition, sustained exercise and stress management, explains Ali Rodriguez, M.D., an Arizona-based OB-GYN and women’s health expert to health technology brand Oura. “A lot of people don’t realize that exercise, for example, helps our sleep; moving your body for at least 30 minutes five days a week contributes to better sleep,” Dr. Rodriguez says.

Mental health may also come into play and require a helping hand, Robins adds. “Managing stress across the day is important and can help with sleep; research suggests those who practice meditation and mindfulness get better sleep and take a bit less time to fall asleep than those without these skills,” she says.

When it’s time to see a doctor: One key indicator is a chronic toss-and-turn that lasts for more than 30 minutes. If you’ve experienced this issue almost every night during the week and have done so for more than 3 months, it’s time to seek out medical input. This time frame remains true for most sleep issues, like chronically waking up in the middle of the night — or having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Dr. Rodriguez stresses checking in with your healthcare provider is also crucial when you can no longer get through essential tasks within your daily routine. Given that current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures peg more than 70 million Americans as being influenced by underlying sleep disorders, some of which may silently impact circadian rhythms, there may be an issue that requires medical attention before you’re able to truly enjoy a good night’s sleep.

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