A normal sleep routine can be disrupted by shift work, traveling, or even just a busier-than-normal schedule. While you can try napping to “catch up” on sleep, recent research has found that napping to make up for lost sleep isn’t the most effective, and your body prefers to follow a consistent sleep pattern, instead. Instead of battling with sleepless nights and groggy days, try these five techniques to reset your internal clock and get better sleep.
Each of us operates on a biological schedule that plays a big role in when we feel tired and when we feel awake. When our internal sleep clock is functioning normally, it sends our bodies signals to sleep in the evening and wake in the morning.
However, sometimes this sleep clock can fall out of sync, throwing your regular schedule out of whack.
This can affect your overall sleep quality while also making it difficult to fall asleep and wake up at the right times, ultimately leaving you sleep deprived or with “social jetlag” that can affect performance and moods.
If you find yourself with a broken sleep clock, there are a few strategies you can use to get back on track. Read on to learn about your sleep clock and how to reset it for better rest.
Understanding How Your Sleep Clock Works
Before we get into fixing the problem, it can be helpful to know what your sleep clock is, what it does, and how it works so that these strategies make sense.
The term “sleep clock” refers to several biological mechanisms that control the cycle of wakefulness and tiredness, led by the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) in the hypothalamus.
This cycle is also known as the circadian rhythm. When functioning optimally, this rhythm means you will get sleepy in the evening around the same time, and wake in the morning at about the same time each day.
As far as timing goes, normal biological variation exists, with some people naturally predisposed to earlier sleep-wake times and others to later sleep-wake times. To an extent, genetics influence sleep habits but behaviors and the environment also play a role.
Science doesn’t understand everything yet, but essentially the body’s internal clock is influenced by a combination of external cues (like sunrise/sunset and temperature) as well as internal cues (like hormones, neurotransmitters, and genes) and behaviors (like delaying sleep or activity levels).
Resetting Your Sleep Clock and Improving Your Rest
Based on the knowledge of our sleep-wake cycle and how the body’s circadian clock works, there are a few ways to adjust sleep schedules and fix patterns.
1. Manipulate Lighting
Research suggests that manipulating light exposure may help reset the body clock, particularly for disturbances caused by jet lag. Light remains a key focus of researchers, and is often a point of treatment for sleep phase disorders.
The daily cycles of lightness and darkness are a key “zeitgeber” or cue that acts on the mechanisms of your sleep clock and circadian rhythm. Retinal ganglion cells in your eyes detect light cycles and transmit information to your SCN. In the presence of light, the SCN prompts the pineal gland to produce melatonin (the sleep hormone). When melatonin levels are high (in the absence of light), you grow drowsy and fall asleep. When your body senses light again, it ceases melatonin production to wake you.
Essentially, this means you should follow earth’s natural cues. Expose yourself to natural sunlight and bright light in the morning and throughout the day. Start dimming lights in the evening as the sun winds down, with your bedroom being virtually black and devoid of any screens.
Of course, you’ll want to limit screen time and strategically avoid blue light while resetting your sleep schedule. Blue light can trick your body into thinking its daytime when it’s really dark outside. Devices such as laptops, televisions, and cell phones all emit blue light. The longer you expose yourself to this light in the evening, the longer melatonin production is delayed. To prevent hindering your own night’s sleep, utilize the Night Mode feature on your devices or avoid them altogether.
2. Fast, Then Normalize Meal Times
Digestion and metabolism also play a role in wakefulness and sleepiness. When you eat, and to some extent, what you eat, can help you reset your sleep clock.
Harvard researchers found that, in animals, circadian rhythms shifted to match food availability. Researchers suggest that fasting for about 16 hours (for example during flight and until the next local meal time) could help reset sleep clocks for humans and reduce jetlag when traveling across time zones.
For non-jetlag sleep clock disturbances, you could try a 16-hour fast as well. Eat an early dinner (around say 4 p.m.), and then avoid food until breakfast time (8 a.m.) the following morning.
Once your sleep is back on track, stick to regular breakfast and dinner times to help support consistent circadian rhythms, with about 12 hours between breakfast and dinner. Eat dinner at least a few hours before bed, and a filling breakfast shortly after waking.
Some research also shows that saturated fats in meat and dairy may be bad to eat near bedtime, so sticking with leaner fare for dinner and eating heavier meals earlier in the day might be better.
3. Go Camping
Since natural light schedules help aid the body’s circadian rhythm, it makes sense that spending plenty of time outdoors could help restore natural cycles. For your next vacation, consider taking to the tents to reset your sleep clock.
Research published in the Current Biology journal put this hypothesis to the test, with eight participants spending one week camping without electrical lighting, smartphones or laptops.
They found this natural pattern helped synchronize biological clocks to solar time, with people sleeping earlier and waking earlier than in their normal routines. The biggest changes were seen in evening types, or “night owls.”
4. Pull An All-Nighter (or All Day-er)
One approach to reverse temporary sleep clock setbacks is to stay up one full day until the next normal bed time. This method is essentially planned sleep deprivation, so it is best done under doctor supervision.
There is not a lot of specific research on this method outside of anecdotal accounts for overcoming sleep clock problems, but it is a clinical part of chronotherapy and has been researched for depression treatment.
If you have been going to bed at 4 a.m. and waking at noon, you would wake at your normal time (perhaps on a Friday) then not sleep again until perhaps 10 p.m. the next day (Saturday). Light and mild activity could be helpful for staying awake.
Be aware that you should expect to be tired, and that you should never drive or perform any other dangerous tasks when sleep deprived.
5. Take Gradual Steps
For many people, slow and gradual changes are best when it comes to achieving long-term results. Small changes can also be easier on you physically and mentally, especially if you don’t have days to recover from sleep deficits.
Adjust your schedule by no more than 30 minutes per day, and remain at each phase until your body catches up to the changes. Once you are sleeping and waking at ideal times, don’t forget to maintain a consistent schedule every day of the week.
For example, if your sleep clock is running late by two hours, here’s a potential plan for getting back on track painlessly within one month. Each week, set your bedtime and wake time 15 minutes earlier on Sunday nights, then again on Wednesdays. After four weeks, you should be on back on track.
For large delays, it may actually be more helpful to push bedtimes forward by one to two hours until you reach a normal bedtime. If your sleep clock is delayed by several hours and gradual steps aren’t cutting it, a doctor or therapist may be able to plan a more regimented chronotherapy approach for your situation.
Practice Healthy Sleep
Don’t forget to follow essential sleep hygiene principles during, and after, your sleep clock reset.
- Stick with your plan.
- Go to bed early enough to ensure you’re getting the recommended hours of sleep (the CDC says adults need 7 to 9).
- Maintain a strict and consistent sleep schedule—go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day (even on weekends).
- Don’t take naps longer than 20-30 minutes.
- Limit caffeine after lunch.
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Avoid electronics, bright lights and stress in the hours before bed.
- Keep your bedroom quiet, dark and cool.
- Don’t stress about not sleeping—think in positive terms.
If improving sleep hygiene doesn’t help or your sleep schedule is impacting your daily life, you may also want to reach out to your doctor or sleep specialists. They would be able to help you set up a plan, suggest supplements, and diagnose any sleep disorders or underlying conditions to help you fix your sleep cycles.
Are You on the Right Mattress for Your Needs?
Everything we mentioned above assumes you aren’t sleeping on a bed that is so uncomfortable you spend all night tossing and turning.
It may surprise you to know we can actually pinpoint the best mattress for you based on your factors such as sleeping position, weight, body shape, and more.
For example, side sleepers tend to prefer softer mattresses. The plushness of a soft mattress helps alleviate common pressure points on their shoulders and hips.
Finding the right mattress for you will help you practice better sleep habits and, once your clock is reset, keep up a consistent sleep schedule.
Have you ever had to reset your sleep clock before? What tricks worked for you when trying to reset your sleep clock?
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.