Come on! Does it really matter what time I go to bed at night? I mean seriously: can it make that much of a difference in the quality and duration of the sleep I’m going to get? The short answer: YES!
There are some people who, for whatever reason, get up at the same time every morning and go to bed at the same time every night.
There are others, who go to bed when they get tired and get up whenever they need to, then make up the difference on the weekends… or not.
Both strategies get you sleep, but which one gets you the best quality and duration you’re going to need to thrive as opposed to survive?
Before I give you the answer, let me first give you some background.
There really is a “sweet-spot” when it comes to sleep. It’s somewhere between seven to eight hours for the majority of people. Getting significantly more or less sleep can lead to a host of issues: higher risk of infections, depression, dementia, weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, higher risk of accidents (car and domestic).
Regulation of your sleep is based around your “Circadian Clock”, which is the body’s internal timekeeper. It helps control many processes throughout the day, from hunger to fatigue, that will impact your ability to function in an unpredictable environment. The majority of your behavioral, physiological, and metabolic functions rely on the Circadian Clock to control sequencing and occurrence of these interrelated functions. It is not something you want to tamper with…
We are biologically “wired” to be diurnal, which means that we are active during the day and sleep during the night. This makes sense on a lot of levels, especially if you go back and think about how we lived, for tens of thousands of years, relying upon the rising and setting of the sun to regulate our days and nights.
Even something as simple as staying up late, and getting up later on the weekends can have serious short term and long term effects on your health. Of course, this is nothing compared to the impact that doing shift work has on you physically and mentally. Even the effects of Daylight Saving Time has an adverse effect on large parts of the population and has been shown to increase the number of heart attacks, accidents, and visits to the emergency room; and we’re talking about just the difference of one hour.
Note that shift work has been identified by the CDC, and other organizations, as a factor in decreasing your lifespan and increasing your chances of cancer, heart disease, and mental health issues.
There is another aspect of your biological makeup that can influence how and when you sleep: your Chronotype. Chronotype is really a spectrum to cover people who go to bed early and get up early, to people who go to bed late and get up late. Most people fit land right in the middle of the spectrum, but there can be some outliers that are at the extremes. Also, your Chronotype will change as you age. Children tend to go to bed early and get up early, Teens tend to go to bed late and get up late. Adults, over the age of 20 and seniors, have a tendency to slide back into going to bed early and getting up early.
So… what does all of this mean?
First, you are “hardwired” to get up with the sun and go to bed as it goes down. We’ve kind of mucked with that whole process with the invention of fluorescent light bulbs, televisions, cell phones, and other blue light emitting items. Don’t get me wrong, blue light is not a bad thing, if it’s delivered at the right time; and that time is not late in the day or before you go to bed. NOTE: do some searches on “blue light” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Second, your circadian clock is how your body regulates itself. The more stable the process is, the more stable all of your biological functions become. The more erratic it is… well you get the idea.
Third, while your Chronotype will change as you age, you will be hard pressed to get away from the whole sleeping at night thing. Seasonal and personal differences might impact this, but for the most part, going to bed when it's dark and getting up when it’s light outside is going to rule this process.
Finally, given the most recent scientific information regarding sleep and recovery, here are five things you can do to get the highest quality sleep possible
- Get in the habit of getting up and going to sleep at the same time every day. This includes weekends…
- Get exposure to the sun in the early morning and in the afternoon. Avoid bright lights, limit cell phone and computer exposure, and television screens 90 minutes before you go to bed.
- Keep your bedroom dark and as cool as you can stand it. If you can’t get your room dark enough, you might want to consider getting a sleep mask. Optimal bedroom temperature is going to be in the low to mid-sixties. Not too cold and definitely not too hot.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol eight hours before bedtime. Caffeine has a half-life of eight hours, so even that gap may not be enough depending on your sensitivity to it. Alcohol, well you might think that it helps you get to sleep, and it sort of does, but it is going to wreak absolute havoc on your sleep quality and duration.
- Creating a bedtime routine will let your body know that you are shifting gears from time to be awake, to time to be asleep. Keep it simple, but dimming the lights well before bedtime, changing into loose, comfortable clothing, and reading are all a good start.
That should give some idea about what is involved in the whole process of being awake and going to sleep, as well as give you some reason to really put some thought into what time you go to bed at night!