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Here’s How to Gradually (and Safely) Shift Your Sleep Schedule

February 7th, 2022

Will the world return to pre-pandemic routines? It’s a question on many of our minds. As vaccination rates increase and the latest COVID surge begins to wane, offices and schools may soon be heading in the direction of in-person attendance, at least in a more concrete way than other points in the pandemic.  

If the idea of getting back into an earlier morning routine to accommodate commute times and in-office hours sounds like a struggle, you’re not alone. Many of us have shifted our sleep schedules later in the evening, often because our work or school arrangements allowed us to stay in bed longer each morning.  

Although going to bed early and waking up earlier may seem like a long-forgotten habit, by making some small and simple changes to your daytime and nighttime routine, you’ll be on your way to having a sleep schedule that accommodates the latest version of ‘pandemic-new-normal’.

What’s responsible for our sleep cycle? 

Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock that follows a roughly 24-hour cycle and regulates your sleep-wake pattern and other bodily functions such as hormone release and digestion. When it gets thrown out of sync, it may contribute to various health issues like depression, fatigue, daytime sleepiness, diabetes, obesity, low energy levels, insomnia, and other sleep problems.  

Many of us may have adopted habits that may throw off our circadian rhythm in the heat of the pandemic, either to cope with pandemic stress or because we struggled with separating work from our personal lives. Some of these habits include going to bed late, not getting enough sunlight during the day, napping excessively, drinking caffeine too close to the evening, eating too late at night, and so on, causing a disruption to your sleep schedule.  

Ideas to gradually set an earlier sleep schedule 

Considerable evidence suggests that a good night’s rest is essential for recovery, optimal daytime functioning, cognitive functioning, metabolic health, and heart health. And a lack of it is associated with poor physical and mental health and increased risk of chronic diseases.  

If you’re looking to adjust your sleep schedule, know that you’re taking an essential step towards better overall health. Here are ten ways to gradually accommodate your sleep schedule. 

1. Shift your daily routine 15 minutes ahead each day 

If you’re looking to make a lasting and meaningful change to your sleep schedule that includes waking up earlier in the morning, it’s best to do so gradually. This helps for a few reasons, mainly that slow change is generally easier to implement compared to big sweeping adjustments. It’s also better for your sleep health to slowly make changes, as too big of a swing in sleep schedule can leave you lying wide awake in the night, or feeling too drowsy in the morning. So, a great first step is to shift your entire daily schedule ahead by 15 minutes each day. This may include setting your alarm earlier, and cascade into eating breakfast, drinking coffee, working out, driving to work, eating lunch, and so forth. Continue it into the evening, and finish off  by going to bed 15 minutes earlier. The next day, try it again and see how it feels. Once you’re feeling good, you can start rolling back your routine an additional 15 minutes each day until you reach your desired morning start time.  

For even more ideas to add into your day to help ease the transition, check out the rest of our list. 

2. Make getting morning sunlight a daily routine. 

When you see the sun rising in the morning, consider it your cue to go out and take in some sunlight. You jolt up your energy levels and prepare yourself for a productive day by doing this.  

Sunlight helps support your circadian rhythm, as it signals your brain to be awake and alert because it’s daytime.  

Research shows that daylight may help you go to bed earlier, increase your sleep duration (some studies suggest that an extra hour spent outdoors increases sleep time by 30 minutes), and enhance sleep quality.  

3. Be intentional with self-care. 

Stress may increase your cortisol levels, and this hormone keeps you awake and aroused, even when your body should be relaxed and winding down for sleep.  

Try to be intentional about managing your stress levels by engaging in self-care activities such as journaling, meditation, yoga, deep breathing, taking walks, and other activities that ease your body and make you feel lighter.  

Studies have shown that stress may disrupt sleep quality, and self-care activities may help manage your stress levels and help you fall asleep easily and sleep better.  

4. Add in exercise to your day. 

Another way to support your circadian rhythm and create an ideal sleeping pattern that helps you go to bed earlier is by including exercises into your routine. Also, consider adding exercises to the earlier hours of the day as exercising late in the evening may stimulate your body. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) mentions that one out of four people don’t maintain adequate physical activity levels. If you’re one of them, know that increasing your activity levels may lead to a more efficient and refreshing nighttime sleep for you.  

Many studies suggest that exercise promotes sleep quality and duration. The good news is that you don’t have to engage in vigorous physical activity to get these positive sleep outcomes as moderate exercises achieve better results.  

5. Refresh your bedroom. 

It goes without saying that to help your body fall asleep at certain times, your environment should be sleep-friendly.  

To make your bedroom a sleep haven, try to keep it tidy, comfortable, cool, and quiet. If you live in a busy neighborhood, you can use white noise from a white noise machine or white noise apps to drown out background noise and help you sleep undisturbed.  

Also, invest in comfortable mattresses, pillows, and pajamas that support uninterrupted sleep.  

6. Avoid eating late at night. 

If you’re trying to follow a set sleep schedule, try to eat at the early hours of the evening—at least 4 hours before bedtime. Dining close to bedtime may cue your body to stay awake for longer, making falling asleep immediately more difficult.  

Also, an older study suggests that eating late at night may disrupt your sleep pattern and impair your sleep quality and quantity.   

7. Avoid blue light when it’s close to bedtime. 

Blue lights from your electronic devices like your phone, tablet, or laptop may affect your circadian rhythm and impair the release of melatonin around evening time, keeping you awake and unlikely to fall asleep at your ideal sleep time. 

A 2017 study suggests that blue light may impair sleep health and worsen sleep problems. The study then recommended that people wear amber lenses to protect their eyes from blue light, so their sleep quality is unaffected even as they use their devices. 

8. Follow a relaxing bedtime routine. 

Another way to help your body follow through with your sleep schedule is by creating a set of relaxing activities that lead up to bedtime.  

These relaxing activities may include meditation, taking a hot shower, reading a hard copy and unexciting book, stretching, e.t.c. 

Every time you take on these activities, you prepare your body to fall asleep when you desire.   

9. Limit alcohol and caffeine intake to daytime.  

Alcohol and caffeine can affect your sleep times, quality, and duration. To maintain a regular sleep schedule, try to avoid taking them in the evenings. 

A study suggests that taking caffeine even at 6 hours before bedtime may keep you alert, reduce sleep time by an hour, and disrupt sleep. The study recommends that you take caffeine at most before 5 pm to protect your sleep health. 

Another study suggests that although alcohol acts as a sedative, taking large quantities may impair sleep quality and lead to sleep disturbances. 

10. Stick to your bedtime routine. 

Consistency is critical for creating a sleep schedule that helps you sleep better and for longer.  

Try to go to bed at the same time of the night and get out of bed at the same time every day, even on weekends when you may be tempted to go to bed late and wake up late too. 

A sleep-wake routine trains your body to wind down and be alert at appropriate times. 

It may take some time for you to adjust your sleep schedule. But, if you put in the effort and discipline, you’ll thank yourself for building healthier sleep habits that will ultimately help you feel your best each day. Make sure to browse our library for more ideas to help you get the sleep you deserve!   

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