In Part 1 of this series on sleep, I established a list of sleep tips that can help any of us sleep better. In this post, we start with the first of those tips and explain how having a regular waking schedule can help you sleep better.
- Establish a regular waking time, regardless of your morning schedule
One reason that so many of us experience problems getting enough sleep (and getting quality sleep!) is because we fail to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. We stay up late (especially on weekends), assuming that we will catch up on sleep a day or two later. This turns into a game where we are constantly playing catch-up; trying to feel truly rested, but never achieving that goal.
Effects of Body Rhythm on Sleep:
When we maintain a regular sleep / wake schedule, our body’s natural signals remain in sync, allowing optimal rest at night and optimal alertness during the day. This natural rhythm of sleep is discussed in detail on a page by the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School – a summary of their explanation is as follows.
The image here illustrates an ideal day: the body’s sleep drive (shown in gray) increases throughout the course of the day, but so does our body’s alerting signal (shown in orange). When in balance, our body’s sleep drive peaks and is alleviated at night during the same time that our body’s alertness signal subsides (allowing restful sleep). As you can see, maintaining a regular sleep / wake schedule will help keep these two signals in sync – and keep us alert during the day!
Sideline: A Case Study in Catch-Up!
However, if we fail to maintain a regular sleep / wake schedule, our body’s natural rhythms fall out of sync – making feelings of rest and alertness difficult to achieve – even on days where we allow ourselves to sleep in.
As the next illustrations show, staying up late on a Saturday (left) and sleeping in on Sunday (right) may leave you feeling moderately alert on Sunday – but the effect of your delayed alerting signal will carry over into Monday morning, making it harder to wake up then instead. Thus begins a day long case of the “Mondays”!
What you need to remember is that our overall alertness is determined by two internal body signals – and each is independent of the other. By staying up late and sleeping in, you may be able to reduce your sleep drive to normal overnight levels but you offset your body’s alerting signal. By throwing the two signals out of sync, you affect your quality of sleep for the following night (or nights).
The moral of the story is that sleeping in to “catch up” on rest does not work like you think it might. If you are serious about improving your sleep, you will want to minimize your late nights and do your best to wake up at a consistent time every day to keep your signals in sync!
Sleep to Maintain Body Rhythms:
As you can see from the explanation above, wake time does have an affect on your body’s ability to sleep and feel rested. Having a consistent wake time is perhaps the least-mentioned sleep tip you will find, but it is the logical starting point of any sleep schedule: only by planning a consistent wake time can you plan a proper sleep time. Both are necessary to allow for a consistent amount of sleep each night!
To keep your sleep schedule in sync with your body’s natural rhythms, it is important to maintain proper, consistent waking times throughout the week – not just on weekdays.
Summary: Establish a Regular Wake Time!
To do this, I suggest you examine your daily calendar for the entire week and choose one waking time that will work for every day of the week. Be realistic about how much time you need in the morning to get ready. How long does it take to get ready for class or for work? Factor that in. Ensure that the waking time you choose gives you the time you need in the morning to prepare for the day (and leave time for breakfast!).
If you are a college student and have varying M-W-F schedules compared to T-Th schedules – resist the temptation to sleep in on your “late” days. If you are in the working world, resist the temptation to sleep in on weekends compared to your weekdays.
If life happens and you get to sleep a bit late on a particular night, do your best to get up at (or very near) your normal wake time the following day – this will help minimize any shift in your body’s sleep signals. Maintaining synchronized sleep signals will allow better sleep the following night, and will help you catch up on alertness sooner!
So to gain better sleep, always start with Step 1:
1. Establish a regular waking time, regardless of your morning schedule
See the next post covering Step 2 of proper sleep (coming soon):
2. Establish a regular bedtime that works with your new waking schedule
Photo Credit (Alarm Clock): Old Alarm Clock by elbambolo bambolina
Photo Credit (Sleep Graphs): The illustrations here are merely screenshots taken from a fully interactive graphic hosted by Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, and I encourage you to check out their full explanation here: You and Your Biological Clock.