In a recent survey sponsored by SleepMoment, participants reported getting an average of 6.8 hours of sleep per night, and 27.9 percent reported taking 30 minutes or more to fall asleep. While sleep quantity is essential, so is quality. If you routinely have trouble falling asleep, wake up several times in the night, wake up feeling groggy, or have difficulty waking at all, it may be because your sleep schedule is out of whack.

Bedtime routines are not just for kids. Experts say maintaining a regular sleep schedule, including going to sleep and waking up at consistent times, can enhance your sleep quality and set the foundation for good energy and productivity levels during the day. Even more importantly, it can significantly affect your overall health and wellbeing. Here’s what you should know about sleep schedules and how to get yours back on track.

Circadian Rhythms: The Body’s Natural Sleep-wake Cycle

A master biological clock in your brain controls circadian rhythms. In 24-hour cycles, the clock coordinates various bodily processes, including physical, mental, and behavioral changes, to promote optimal function. Sometimes called a circadian pacemaker, this master clock is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus.

Circadian rhythms affect a range of systems, from metabolism to cognition and immunity. But one of the most critical circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle. When the sleep-wake process is on track, you’ll be able to fall asleep and wake up at consistent times. You’ll also enjoy more restorative sleep. However, when the cycle is off-kilter, you may experience insomnia or other sleep difficulties.

While different factors impact the sleep-wake cycle, perhaps the most significant is light, which is why most people naturally feel more tired at night and alert during the day.

When light enters the eye, it prompts the retina to send a signal to the brain via a neural pathway. When the brain receives the signal, it starts the 24-hour cycle, setting off a series of processes to promote wakefulness. This includes releasing the hormone cortisol.

As night approaches, the brain signals to promote sleep. For example, the endocrine system produces melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone, and body temperature drops slightly. It continues transmitting signals to support sleep during the night.

Sleep Schedule and Circadian Rhythm Misalignment

When your circadian rhythm is disrupted, and your usual sleep schedule is thrown off, it can make it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep through the night, and wake up the following day.

You may feel groggy, tired, irritable, and on-edge and have difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly. You may also find certain conditions, including depression, anxiety, stress, pain, and pre-existing illnesses, are heightened when you don’t get enough sleep.

Occasional difficulties sleeping are almost inevitable and may occur due to factors like sickness, travel, a late-night event, or stress. But while one or two nights of poor sleep may not have long-term or significant effects, prolonged periods of inadequate sleep can significantly impact your overall health and wellbeing.

Chronic insomnia or prolonged sleep deprivation can exacerbate or increase the risk of psychological and physical ailments, ranging from depression and anxiety to high blood pressure, weight gain, and stroke. A recent study featured in the New York Times also suggests that getting insufficient sleep during middle age may increase your risks of developing dementia later in life.

Exhaustion also undermines the immune system, hindering the healing process and making you more vulnerable to illnesses.

Various factors can throw off your usual sleep schedule and disrupt your natural circadian rhythms. These include working late or irregular hours, jet lag, a prolonged period of inconsistent bedtimes, anxiety, depression, stress, and certain medications.

Woman laying awake in bed

Eating or drinking late at night, especially alcohol or sugary or rich foods, can also disrupt sleep.

Circadian rhythm sleep disorders occur when your internal clock is thrown off, upsetting your sleep-wake cycle and interfering with your life and wellbeing. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), these disorders can involve trouble falling asleep, waking multiple times in the night, or waking up too early and being unable to fall back asleep.

Per the NHLBI, sleep cycle disorders may be short-term, caused by external factors like travel or your job, or chronic (long-term), resulting from internal factors such as age, genetics, or a health condition.

A Practical Guide to Resetting Your Sleep Schedule

If you think you may have a circadian rhythm disorder, there is good news. It’s possible to reset your biological clock, and many people can do so with lifestyle changes alone.

Here are some tips on fixing your sleep schedule to enjoy

more rejuvenating nights and energized days:

1. Establish a Relaxing Bedtime Routine

The first step to improving sleep hygiene is establishing a relaxing nighttime routine. Try to go to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends or while traveling.

Dim the lights and turn off all electronics, including TV, phone, and tablets, at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Research indicates blue light may inhibit circadian rhythms and make it more difficult to fall asleep. Instead of checking social media or watching TV, consider reading or meditating.

2. Set a Later Alarm Instead of Hitting Snooze

Many people set early alarms with ambitions to squeeze in an extra hour or two of productive daytime hours. However, if this results in you getting fewer than the recommended seven to eight hours of shuteye, it may backfire.

As soon as your initial alarm goes off, your body will exit deep sleep and initiate wakefulness. Even if you drift off again after hitting snooze, you won’t experience truly rejuvenating rest, no matter how many times you repeat the cycle.

Instead, stick to a consistent wake-up time that allows you to remain in a deep sleep for longer. If you want to wake up earlier, adjust your bedtime to reflect that. Sticking to a set wake-up time, even on weekends and while traveling, will help you fall asleep faster and wake up easier.

3. Fight the Urge to Take Long Naps During the Day

Napping can be tempting, especially when you didn’t sleep well the night before (or for several nights before). However, naps can disrupt your circadian rhythms and hinder your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. If you do rest during the day, keep it short—between 10 and 20 minutes—and do so in the early afternoon, if possible.

4. Be Intentional About Getting Natural Sunlight

Because the sleep-wake cycle is predominantly affected by light cues, getting sufficient natural sunlight can boost your energy levels during the day and help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly during the night.

Sunlight is also the best source of vitamin D, which plays a significant role in serotonin production, mental health, and immunity.

5. Don’t Eat Late in Evening

Try not to eat within two hours of bedtime or, if you have acid reflux or indigestion, three or four hours. Eating too close to bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, mainly if you’ve eaten a large meal or have digestive challenges.

If you need a late-night snack, aim for something light and easy on the stomach, such as Greek yogurt, air-popped popcorn, a handful of almonds, or cheese and fruit. Avoid anything spicy or sugary, which may cause heartburn, acid reflux, or a spike in blood sugar.

6. Moderate Caffeine and Alcohol Consumption

Like eating late, consuming too much caffeine or drinking coffee too late can make it challenging to fall asleep at night.

Generally, experts suggest consuming no more than 300 to 400 mg of caffeine a day (about three or four 8 oz. cups of coffee). Try not to drink coffee within six hours of bedtime.

As for alcohol, while it might help you fall asleep, studies point to its inhibition of sleep quality. Drink only in moderation and not within a couple of hours of hitting the hay.

7. Exercise Regularly

Exercise can have a range of health benefits, including improved sleep quality. Aim to get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every day. Just be sure not to work out too close to bedtime, as this might make it more difficult to drift off.

Take Back Control of Your Sleep Cycles

Understanding the body’s circadian rhythms and what factors influence your sleep-wake cycle is the first step to combating challenges.

While the occasional subpar sleep may not have any prominent or lasting effects, chronic difficulties can immensely impact your life and health.

Fortunately, armed with information and practical tips, you now have the power to set your sleep cycle back on track. If you continue to experience trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor to determine if other underlying issues may be causing the sleep disruption.