Catching the Zzzs: How to Maintain a Normal Sleep Schedule

The whole world seems better when you've had a full night's sleep, and if you don't believe me, you're JUST FRIGGIN' WRONG. Studies show that getting enough sleep during nighttime hours can make you less irritable, help you lose weight, and reduce your risk of cancer and other totally bogus-time diseases.

Over the years I've tried some wacky sleep schedules. In high school, I used to go to sleep when I got home from school, wake up for dinner, stay up until forever doing homework, sleep for whatever hours I had until I woke up at 5am to talk to my boyfriend, go to school, and nap any time I had 10 minutes or more to kill. In grad school, I would wake up at 4am to work the 5am-9am shift at Target and then go to classes all day until 6:30pm and be asleep at 8pm. Here are some tips for maintaining a regular sleep schedule, from someone who's adapted to some pretty crazy sleep situations:

1. Understand that sleep time is habitual. Plenty of people have said things to me like "I just can't sleep for 8 hours straight" or "If I try to go to bed earlier I won't be able to fall asleep." This might be true in the short term, but remember that your sleeping schedule is a life habit your body has developed over time. When you first try to change your sleep schedule, there will be some lag time. Don't judge the results of changes you try to implement until you've been using them for 1-2 weeks.

2.) Remove distractions. Light from the TV, your phone, or a computer makes your brain think that it should still be awake. When you go to bed, turn things OFF. It's good for you and the environment too! If you have trouble sleeping in a quiet environment, try using a fan next to your bed, or go old-school and burn yourself a mix CD for that Walkman buried in your closet. It's easy to turn on either one of those without bringing in light that keeps you awake.

3.) Plan ahead. The average person needs 8 hours of sleep a night, but the range is generally 6-9 hours. Just because your body doesn't seem to want to sleep longer than 6 hours right now doesn't mean you don't need more than 6 hours of sleep - it might just be used to sleeping for 6 hours. (Try 1-2 weeks of giving your body 8 full hours to sleep - after a couple of weeks of allowing extra sleep time, your body should wake you up after a consistent number of sleep hours. Then you'll know how much sleep time to plan for!) If you have to wake up at 6am, you should be asleep at 10pm. It takes the average person 15-30 mins to fall asleep, which means that you should be in bed by 9:30pm.

4.) If you can, sleep at night. Your body is a machine designed to sleep at night and do stuff during the day. This is evidenced by the fact that we, as humans, don't have awesome night vision and need vitamin D (which is activated by sunlight) to stay healthy. This might be bad news for you night owls out there, but your body won't be as happy sleeping from 4am-12pm as it will be sleeping 11pm-7am. It's just a fact. If you work a swing or night shift, and can't sleep at night, it's important to expose yourself to as much sunlight as you can - leave the blinds open when you sleep, if possible. When I worked at Target, the night staff told me about a study that showed the cancer rate to be as much as 30% higher among night shift workers because of their deprivation of sunlight. Don't risk your health if your job doesn't require it - avoid vampirism!

5.) Don't give up! Training your body to have a nicer sleep schedule isn't always easy. You might have a couple of nights, at first, where you feel like you're laying there forever without falling asleep. If you don't fall asleep within 5 minutes of laying down, don't give up, don't move, and don't get out of bed! Laying there and being still will send your body a signal that this is recharge time, whether you're sleeping or not. As your body gets used to you being inactive at a particular time, it will learn to get tired at that time - it just takes some persistence. This is good advice for those with insomnia too - even if your body can't seem to sleep, laying there for 8 hours will leave you less tired in the morning than if you toss, turn, and have several glasses of warm milk.

6.) Make sleep changes gradual. If you're currently going to bed at 2am and you figure out it'd be best to go to bed at 10pm, you're looking to make a pretty big change in your bedtime. Rather than jumping to a 10pm bedtime right away, try going to bed one night at 1:30am, the next night at 1am, the next night at 12:30am, and so on, until you're down to 10pm. This will let your body adjust to sleeping at a new time and to having more time to sleep at once, making your life a lot easier!

What helps you fall asleep and stay asleep at night? What are your tricks for waking rested and refreshed in the morning? Tell me in the comments below!

-June the Homemaker

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