When should we go to sleep each night? This is the question that plagues many contemporary adults as we battle an ever-filling schedule of work, family, friends, and everything else in between. There never seems to be enough hours in the day to get through it all, let alone manage a restorative sleep. With the freedom of adulthood, we spend one night drinking wine until 1 am; the next, we are asleep on the couch by 8 pm. Our slumber is off-kilter and moulds around our other requirements. Does it matter?
Why We Need Sleep
Recall one night of minimal sleep, and its lingering effects are evident. Clearly, it’s difficult to function when we haven’t slept appropriately. We need rest to keep us going, prepare our brains for the day, and simply get by. We become moody, irritable and find it difficult to think clearly. Not only that, but sleep supports our immunity, as well as gut and mental health.
The hours we so hesitantly give over to sleep are, in fact, well-spent: the body detoxes, and cells repair and rebuild. Healing takes place here, so to go without has consequences.
Tapping Into The Circadian Rhythm
The circadian rhythm is often talked about but, arguably, little understood by most of us. Essentially, it is our internal body clock. It tells us when to wake up and when to sleep, dictated by the sun and the subsequent release of hormones. With the rise of the sun, we should also wake, and at its fall, we should slow down and drift off, in line with the release of melatonin (aka the “sleep hormone”).
Talk of the circadian rhythm is all well and good, but modern technology, lighting and life schedules make listening to this clock more difficult in practice. Unnatural light sources - particularly the blue light variety emitted from our screens - throw this entirely off balance. Alongside this, our cortisol levels should naturally decline throughout the day. Cortisol should peak our alertness in the morning, yet high levels of stress mess with the intended design and the effect often continues into the wee hours. Regardless, the circadian rhythm is a crucial process that should be respected and adhered to as much as possible.
Onto the big question: When should I go to sleep each night?
Alas, there is no definitive answer - no one-size-fits-all solution. Ultimately, it’s a personal thing.
In saying that, most experts agree that the average adult requires between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night. In an ideal world, we would slumber at 10 pm and rise at 6 am, closely aligning with the sun; however, this doesn’t work for all. Some of us are night owls, and others are geared more naturally towards the morning, so keep this in mind when scheduling your sleep too. For the most part, this is out of our control and genetically dictated. Consider how rested you feel after waking and whether you experience waves of drowsiness throughout the day: these are good signals as to whether you are receiving enough sleep.
The most important thing is sticking to a regular schedule: waking up and going to bed at the same time each day (even on the weekend). This way, your body creates some sort of rhythm, making it much easier to both fall asleep and wake up.
This practice is also beneficial for mental health. One study found that an irregular sleep pattern significantly impacted and increased the risk of depression amongst young adults. Consistent routines are even more important than ensuring an adequate amount of sleep each night, it seems. The study showed that a varied schedule led to lower mood, regardless of the hours spent in slumber. A poor sleep schedule is also linked to diabetes, obesity, and other sleep disorders.
How To Sleep Better
Admittedly, most of us could probably sleep better than we currently do. We may need to reset our schedules to revive the circadian rhythm or simply work on our sleep hygiene (the healthy habits that promote a good night’s rest). Besides sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, we can uphold many other practices to help make the slumber both sweeter and more beneficial. Keep these in mind if you are seeking sleep nirvana.
- Tap into the light. Upon waking first thing in the morning, expose yourself to light. Throughout the day, make sure you spend time in the sun or bright lights, continuing the natural circadian rhythm. As evening comes, start dimming the lights and consider using other sources - candles, lamps, and other less harsh options.
- In a similar vein, ditch your devices before bed - anything from two hours to half an hour prior is recommended.
- Exercise regularly, but make sure you are doing so at least a few hours before going to bed. The increase in cortisol will keep you going otherwise.
- Create a relaxing night-time routine. Find what works for you, but this could include: dimming the lights, taking a bath, sipping tea, reading a book, journaling, diffusing oils. The aim is to reduce your stress levels and promote the sleepy feeling.
- Get up when the alarm goes off or your natural rhythm signals. Don’t snooze!
Better sleep makes for a better, more functional life. It’s time we take control of it and optimise our health.