You ever notice how you typically get tired and wake up around the same times every day? That’s called your sleep schedule: Wake up at 7 a.m.; go to bed at 10 p.m. But as you’ve probably learned firsthand, it can be annoyingly easy to interrupt. Stress, travel, kids, a deep Reddit dive on a murder mystery you read about that keeps you up until 1 a.m. (We’ve been there too.) While any small disruption can set your zzz’s off course, learning how to fix your sleep schedule is challenging but totally doable. We asked Andrew Varga, M.D., a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, for the best tips for getting our sleep schedule back on track after it’s fallen off the rails.
1. Understand the Mechanisms for Sleep
The body, she is a complicated one. While you don’t have to go to medical school to figure out exactly why or how the brain tells your body and organ systems to fall asleep, if you’re wondering how to fix your sleep schedule, you should have a basic understanding.
So we’ll let Dr. Varga do the talking: “Our sleep schedules—which are dictated by our internal clocks—are affected by two processes that act in concert to control sleep drive. The first is the homeostatic drive for sleep.” In other words, the longer one stays awake and goes without sleep, the more you want to sleep.
Dr. Varga continues, “The second process is the circadian drive for sleep that is most strongly impacted by exposure to light.” More light, less sleep. This system is a little more behind-the-scenes, but you can definitely address it (see #2). According to Dr. Varga, “These two processes typically act in concert to make sleep drive highest at night when exposure to light has usually decreased.”
2. Stop Staring at Screens Before Bed
Scrolling through your phone in bed is nothing new. But just because it’s common doesn’t make it healthy. The blue light from the screens on our beloved devices can trick the brain into thinking it’s still daytime, messing up our circadian rhythm, the physiological cycle that informs our sleep. Dr. Varga explains, “Electronic devices with backlit screens emit a very high percentage of blue wavelength light. Exposure to blue light from any source—including TVs, cell phones, laptops, e-readers and tablets—late in the day has the effect of advancing our circadian phase, meaning it makes it so that one will become naturally tired later in the night.”
The lesson here? Invest in an old-school alarm clock so you can leave your phone outside the bedroom. (Psst: It’s also better for your sex life.)
3. Go to Bed a Little Earlier Each Night
After you’ve become used to falling asleep at an ungodly hour every night, it’s unreasonable to expect your body to be tired enough for sleep at an earlier time out of the blue. Like anything else, it’s a process that might take some time.
“Making the change gradually is usually beneficial,” Dr. Varga advises. “A college student who has been going to bed at 5 a.m. for the past four years will have a difficult time suddenly trying to go to bed at 10 p.m. because they now have a job that requires them to be at work at 8 a.m. Greater success is likely if adjusting the sleep schedule can be done over time.”
For example, someone who’s used to falling asleep at 4:30 a.m. should try to go to sleep at 4 a.m. one night, then 3:30 a.m. another night and so on until they’re at a more desirable time.
4. Take a Small Dose of Melatonin
According to Dr. Varga, a low dose of melatonin—a concentration of 0.5 to 1 milligram (talk to your doctor, of course)—can be taken three to four hours before the intended bedtime. This will help ease you into a peaceful sleep at a much more reasonable hour.
5. Use Blue Light When You Wake Up
Yes, blue light is a no-no when you’re trying to go to bed, but it can be your friend when you want to be awake. Blue light boxes, like this popular one from Amazon, mimic the same type of light that prohibits us from falling asleep in order to help us wake up at the same time every day—a key component to fixing your sleep schedule. Dr. Varga explains that for folks suffering from a circadian phase problem, exposure to blue light at the right time can help wake you up so that you’re actually tired by bedtime. Wash yourself in that blue light for 20 minutes after your desired wake-up time and let it work its magic. (Thanks, Amazon.)
6. Keep a Sleep Journal
Understanding what it is that keeps you awake at night—say, the tendency to reach toward your nightstand for your phone, midnight snacking or going for a run at 9 p.m.—is key to repairing this broken sleep cycle. Track your nocturnal habits and see what contributes to a good night’s sleep and what leads to hours of tossing and turning. Excommunicate the latter from your routine.
“Realize that blue light, food and exercise are all environmental signals for waking up,” Dr. Varga says. “This means, in the hours before one’s intended sleep time, it is best to avoid these wake-promoting factors and figure out which you’re guilty of committing.”
7. Exercise in the Morning
Yes, squeezing some exercise into your routine is great for your overall health, regardless of the time of day...unless you have a damaged sleep schedule. Duh. For people who are having trouble falling asleep at night, Dr. Varga recommends working out in the morning as it can “promote wakefulness and possibly make it easier to fall asleep later on.” If that’s not doable, Dr. Varga says to make sure any exercise is completed at least three hours before the sleep onset time (i.e., the time you want to fall asleep) since exercise will energize you.
8. Use Melatonin and Blue Light When Adjusting to New Time Zones
Your sleep schedule takes quite a hit when you travel into a different time zone. Suddenly you’re in a place where the sun sets hours earlier or later than you’re used to. But Dr. Varga’s main advice is to utilize what you already know: Take a low dose of melatonin about three to four hours before your desired bedtime once you’re in the new time zone, and bust out the bright blue light for at least 20 minutes after the desired wake time in your destination.
If you’re flying from Denver to London, for example—a seven-hour time difference—try taking melatonin at 7 p.m. once you’re in London in order to fall asleep about three hours later. Use a blue light box the next morning when you’re ready to start the day—say, 8 a.m. in London—to help your sleep processes readjust to the new time zone.
9. Stick to Your Bedtime
Saturday and Sunday mornings might have been snooze-the-day-away free-for-alls when you were in college, but it’s wrecking your sleep schedule now. Try to work toward waking up and getting out of bed at the same time every day—regardless of when you have work—to get your sleep and wake times on track.
“Much of it is about personal limit-setting, recognizing the environmental factors and personal habits that have the capacity to disrupt one’s sleep schedule,” Dr. Varga says, “and trying to minimize the variance in daily sleep onset and offset time, particularly between weekend and weekday times.”
10. Give It (Some) Time
There’s a difference between a temporarily interrupted sleep schedule that can be rerouted via lifestyle changes and a bit of patience, and a chronic problem that might need a doctor’s help. Give it a go on your own at first, but if the problem persists for more than a few weeks, it’s time to call in the pros.
“It is known that it can take two weeks for one’s sleep schedule to normalize when crossing a significant number of time zones, like Tokyo to New York City,” says Dr. Varga. “So I think working one’s sleep schedule for that long is probably OK. But it also depends on the degree of disruption and how chronic the problem has been. For highly disrupted schedules that have been a problem for months to years, it may be beneficial to see a sleep medicine specialist as soon as possible.”
There’s a balance here of taking your sleep schedule seriously—it is, after all, one of the most important factors in our overall health—and not stressing about it so much that it becomes the very reason you’re not sleeping. Heed the doc’s advice, work the steps and try to relax. The Sand Man is on his way.