How To Fix Your Sleep/Wake Schedule For Good, According To An Expert

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As adults, for one reason or another, staying on top of a regular sleep schedule seems impossible. Whether we’re choosing work, our social life, or even just scrolling in bed, sleep seems to be something we feel we can modulate at will but according to experts, we’re actively harming our health.

HuffPost UK spoke with Jamie Clark, Senior Physiologist at Nuffield Health, who said: “Consistent, high-quality sleep is crucial for everything from cognitive function to immune health.”

Clark explained that it’s essential that people experience all of the sleep stages including REM sleep, which is essential for memory consolidation and learning, and non-REM sleep, which is essential for physical restoration, tissue repair, and immune function.

Clark added: “The primary goal of a sleep schedule is to establish regular sleep patterns that align with your body’s natural rhythms.

“This consistency helps regulate your body’s internal master clock, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up refreshed. A well-maintained sleep schedule can enhance overall sleep quality, improve daytime alertness, and support both physical and mental health.”

We discussed with Clark the importance of a sleep schedule and how to fix it.

How does a sleep schedule and wake up schedule work well together for optimal sleep?

Clark said: “A consistent sleep schedule, including both bedtime and wake-up time, synchronises your circadian rhythm with ‘sleep pressure’ peaking. 

“Sleep pressure builds up during the day due to the accumulation of adenosine, a metabolic by-product that promotes sleepiness. The longer you’re awake, the more adenosine builds up, making you feel increasingly sleepy as the day progresses.”

He added that normally, we sleep when both our circadian rhythm and peak in adenosine align.

“This synchronisation facilitates easier sleep onset and higher sleep quality.”

How long does it take to embed a sleep schedule/routine, both for going to sleep and waking up?

If you were hoping for a quick-fix, unfortunately, Clark indicated that it could take several weeks.

He said: “Initially, it involves conscious effort and consistency. An initial adjustment may take a couple of weeks if strict adherence. Consistency is rewarded within a few weeks as sleep onset and quality should improve.

“You likely start waking up more naturally at your set time. After several weeks of adherence, your schedule will be well-ingrained. You’ll fall asleep and wake up consistently with minimal effort.”

Okay, this sounds doable. Just need a little patience and perseverance.

What are the benefits to sticking with a wake-up schedule?

Clark said: “Sleep quality improvements such as deeper, more restorative sleep, and reduced sleep inertia are notable benefits.

“This leads to better daytime functioning, such as improve alertness, memory, cognition, and sustained energy levels. You’ll likely experience better mood regulation as well.”

Clark also highlighted that you’ll likely live longer without chronic disease and have a strengthened immune system.

Do the timings of activities like eating, exercising, screen time etc. impact sleep quality? – ie is exercising better in the day to energise us or at night to tire us out?

Clark said that ideally, you should finish your last meal at least 2-3 hours before bed. 

As for exercising, Clark said: “Generally, morning or afternoon exercise promotes better sleep quality, though it’s best to avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime as it increases alertness and body temperature, which can interfere with sleep.”

He also added that the blue light emitted from screens can surpress melatonin production, which can make it harder to sleep. He advised that we limit screen time at least an hour before bed and instead opt for reading or listening to soothing music.

What happens if we break our sleep schedule? Is it easy enough to get back into the pattern?

Clark said: “The consequences of breaking a sleep schedule include: disrupted circadian rhythm, making it harder to fall asleep and wake up at desired times, leading to irregular sleep patterns; decreased sleep quality,

“leading to fragmented sleep and reduced restorative sleep stages, impairing overall sleep quality; and cognitive and emotional effects, impairing cognitive functions and increased mood changes stress.”

… Oh.

How do you embed a sleep routine if you do shift work?

Clark said: “Shift workers often face irregular hours and frequent schedule changes, making it difficult to maintain a consistent sleep routine. However, strategies can be employed to manage these challenges.”

Clark advised using blackout blinds and ensuring that the room you’re sleeping in is cool and quiet.

He added: “Aim to get sunlight or bright light exposure during your shift and avoid these when preparing for sleep.

“Establish a pre-sleep wind down routine to signal to your body that it’s time to sleep, even during unusual hours. Maintain as consistent a sleep schedule as possible, even on days off, and adjust gradually based on how your body responds.”

He suggested that short, strategic naps before your shift may help to reduce sleep debt and boost alertness at work.

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