If you’ve managed to throw your sleep patterns off and are wondering how you can reset your sleep cycle, the solution is actually more natural than you would think. Having your sleep cycle come unhinged is perfectly normal, and there are several times throughout our lives when we may need to get back on track or even change the track entirely. You may have already done so in the past without thinking about it. But there are also times when it does take a little bit of extra effort to ensure that you are still getting proper sleep.
Can’t think of when you would have had to hit the reset button or why anyone would need to in the first place? Let’s look at some times when you would have to start fresh.
- Changing Work Schedules – If you have a job where shift work on a rotating roster is your way of life, such as a doctor or long-distance truck driver, you are used to chasing the sun after work or being wide awake when the rest of us are fast asleep. If this job or shift changes, you’ll need to bring your circadian clock back to normal.
- Traveling or Moving – Changing time zones is one of the most common instances when your usual routine can be altered and forced to adjust to a new rising and setting of the sun. Even changing your time zone location by just a few hours can be enough for some people to feel the effects of jet-lag.
- Birth of a Child – Any new parents will be able to confirm that your new baby doesn’t live by the same circadian rules as adults. In the first weeks or even months, of welcoming your new bundle of joy, you won’t be able to maintain your sleeping patterns and will find that you are waking up throughout the night. This can lead to several nights without actually getting the recommended amount of sleep.
- Illness – Have you ever had the flu and felt as though you could sleep for days? Or maybe you have experienced the effects of food that didn’t quite sit well and has kept you awake all night? Different illnesses can contribute to an unusual sleep cycle, resulting in needing to readjust once you’re feeling well again.
- Stress – During times of high pressure, it can be difficult to allow our brains to rest. If you find that your troubles are keeping you up through the night, your body clock will undoubtedly feel the shift. Many people experience difficulty falling asleep when they’re stressed due to extra brain activity preventing rest.
- Lifestyle Habits – The occasional glass of wine or cup of coffee won’t be enough to throw your entire internal clock off. However, extended and excessive use of alcohol, drugs, or caffeine, especially just before bed, can lead to later sleep times and waking up frequently throughout the night. After a few nights of this, you may begin to feel as though your body isn’t quite keeping its normal rhythm.
Understanding Your Sleep Cycle
Our sleep-wake cycle is regulated by what is a called our circadian rhythm within our body. It is often referred to as a circadian clock because it works on a time frame of roughly 24 hours. This clock gets its cue from the sun, which then sends a signal to your hypothalamus, a region in your brain that releases melatonin – the hormone that makes you feel sleepy or restful. For the most part, on a day-to-day basis, you won’t need to do anything to keep this clock moving as it should.
Much like the rhythm of a song, your wakefulness will have highs and lows throughout the 24-hour span. On average, for adults, the lows are between 2 am and 4 am, when you’re asleep, as well as from about 1 pm to 3 pm, when you might feel like taking an afternoon nap. This could explain why many countries around the world pause their day in the early afternoon for a siesta (Spanish for short rest).
Despite being regulated by the hypothalamus and melatonin, each person is ultimately responsible for their own sleep-wake schedule based on personal choices and lifestyle. This is why it is possible to change or trick your body into accepting a new sleep pattern. For example, imagine someone visiting Finland, where it is only light for roughly six hours of the day in winter, who will have to adjust their light exposure to ensure that their circadian rhythm still maintains balance. It would be difficult, but without the presence of the sun, other strategies would have to take over.
How Many Hours of Sleep Should You Plan to Get?
When you are attempting to reset your sleep cycle, it is essential to be aware of how much sleep you actually need. It’s also important to note that how much sleep you can scrape by with and how much you need in order to function properly during the day are two different things. While you may feel like 5 or 6 hours of sleep will get you through the next day, a prolonged amount of time with too little sleep can lead to chronic sleep deprivation.
The average adult should aspire to get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. The number of hours can vary from person to person, and like with anything else, there are outliers to this recommendation.
If you have been consistently getting less than your body’s ideal amount of sleep, a reset is also an excellent time to start incorporating more hours into your sleep routine. To find out if you are getting enough sleep, try a sleep log for 1-2 weeks to help note how many hours you’re getting, how you feel when waking, and how you feel throughout the day. This journal can help determine if you should be getting more or less sleep each night.
Remember that sleep deprivation can lead to various health risks, such as heart disease or high blood pressure, and is also the cause of human mistakes, such as car or workplace accidents.
How Long Will it Take to Reset Your Sleep Cycle?
The amount of time it takes to adjust your sleep cycle completely is dependent on a few factors, such as:
- How Long it Has Been Off – Has it been just a few days thanks to binge-watching your favorite TV show over the weekend or has it been months on account of your current work schedule?
- How Often You Adjust – Do you frequently adapt to new time zones when you travel or is this a rare occurrence?
- What has Thrown You Off in The First Place – Has stress gotten you out of whack, or are you adjusting to a new baby in the family?
- What You’re Doing to Help Get Back on Track – Are you going cold turkey and making an abrupt change, or are you gradually allowing yourself to readjust with various strategies?
Every person is different and how you adjust to a new sleeping schedule will differ from others. Be aware that it could take anywhere from just a few days to possibly a few weeks. If you are still struggling to reset after about two months, it may be time to consult your doctor for additional help.
How to Reset Your Sleep Cycle:
1. Regulate Your Light Exposure
As mentioned above, sunlight plays a significant role in our sleep cycle. When you are trying to reset your sleep cycle, it’s best to start with your exposure to light.
When you wake up in the morning, the first thing you should do is open your curtains to let the sun into each room. If possible, try to complete any tasks or errands that require you to be outside. If the sun hasn’t quite come up, due to daylight saving or your location in the world, turn on as many lights inside your home that will send the signal to your mind that it is time to be awake.
Similarly, when getting ready to settle for the evening, close your curtains and turn off or dim as many lights as you can while you wind down and prepare for sleep.
Having an adequate amount of light exposure starting when you want to be awake will alert your brain of where in the cycle you should be.
To have greater control for the amount of light in the room, I highly recommend picking up a blackout curtain. Mine has been instrumental in adjusting and resetting my sleep schedule. I personally use a NICETOWN Bedroom Blackout Curtain (Link to the best price on Amazon) because it’s inexpensive, produced with the best material, and overall just works well at blocking out light.
2. Adjust Your Eating Schedule
Busy or unpredictable schedules can often lead to unpredictable eating times. In addition to your circadian rhythm, your body is made up of many other “clocks” including a food clock. Similar to your sleep clock, this clock also operates on a 24-hour period, and the two work closely together. If you have ever felt hunger pains in the morning, you’ll know that the two clocks are in sync.
If you’re trying to adjust to a new sleep schedule, you can try fasting for 12-16 hours. Refraining from eating will reset your food clock as well as your sleep clock. To do this, you should begin your fast 12-16 hours before you want to start waking up. When you end your fast, your blood sugar levels will rise, which will indicate to the rest of your body that a new day has begun and it is time for the wakeful period of the rhythm. For example, if you need to set your new schedule to start waking at 7 am, have your final meal between 3 pm to 7 pm and eat as soon as you wake up.
Once you have been able to switch your sleep-wake cycle successfully, it is ideal to continue to eat meals according to this cycle…this means no midnight snacks!
3. Take a Camping Vacation
Sounds a little strange at first, right? This one comes back to the effects of sunlight on our brain. By taking some time to be out in nature, you can give yourself the most natural way to bring your sleep cycle back to normal
Camping out in the elements will force you to adjust your daily schedule to the sun by waking you up as soon as it rises. You will also be changing your meal schedule to a reasonable time since you don’t want to be out grilling once the sun goes down and the pests come out! Being outdoors with the setting sun will help give you the feeling of tiredness after a long day of exposure.
Another idea of why this works is that it also eliminates several distractions that typically keep us awake when we should be going to bed, such as phones, TV, and the internet.
5. Adjust Your Sleep Routine Slowly/Gradually
You might be thinking that you need to figure out how to change your sleep/wake times as soon as possible; after all, we live in a time of instant gratification. However, for the most successful transition with the least amount of frustration, make sure to take your time with this process. Rather than an immediate change of 6 hours, try adjusting your sleep and wake times by 30 minutes to one hour each day.
If stress or illness have forced you to stray from your preferred sleep patterns slowly, come back to normal by slowly reintroducing your ideal time of sleeping and waking. Our bodies can tend to stick to old habits out of comfort, so avoid the shock and encourage a smooth, effortless change each day.
It’s important to remember that resetting your sleep cycle is different for everyone and can take some time. Try not to get too discouraged and be sure to follow the next step.
6. Be Consistent
Once you have determined that you want or need to reset your sleep cycle, the best thing you can do each day is stick to your plan. Keeping in mind that it can take a few weeks in some situations, building your new sleep habits will take commitment and perseverance.
Often, part of the reason why we’re thrown off in the first place is due to inconsistency. By going to bed at alternating times each night or allowing yourself to stay up more than a few nights in a row until 2 am, you may be further disrupting the natural function of your rhythm. Try not to fluctuate in the evening and avoid changing your wake time by more than an hour on your days off.
7. Adjust Early
To avoid the need to accept a new sleep pattern quickly, prepare for the change ahead of time. Being prepared can apply to journeys that cross time zones as well as times when you would need to get ready for a new job or going back to school. If you know that you will have a new schedule that requires you to sleep and wake at drastically different times from what you’re used to, giving yourself a head start will increase your success once the new schedule begins.
This can be done with your eating schedule as well. Try moving your eating times to 15 or 20 minutes earlier each day to encourage both clocks to start working on a different program.
8. Set Healthy Sleep Habits
If you are the type of person who takes each evening as it comes, it may be time to have a look at your sleep habits in general. Start with these practices in order to have a balanced evening:
- Have A Sleep Routine – You may not be able to do the same thing every single night, but there’s nothing wrong with having a little pre-bed routine. You can try things like reading a book, taking a bath, or preparing for your next day. Giving yourself a process before bed will help to signal that it’s time to sleep.
- Minimize Caffeine – This should go without saying, but be sure to avoid caffeine in the afternoon, and especially in the evening. Even if you are usually able to fall asleep after drinking a cup of coffee, the effects of caffeine disrupt the quality of sleep, and when you’re trying to reset, these effects can lead to waking up when you’re trying to adjust to your new sleep time.
- Set The Bedroom Mood – Be sure to avoid wakeful activities, such as exercising, in your room. Your bedroom shouldn’t be used as a multipurpose space, so as not to confuse your brain about what you’re in there to do! Take out the TV and keep it cool and dark, ensuring that your mind knows exactly what is supposed to happen once you lay down.
- Stay Relaxed – Make sure that all aspects of your routine will encourage your body toward that dip in rhythm. Relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation can also be incorporated to give you a sense of sleepiness.
9. Exercise in the Morning
Physical activities are always a good habit to have when you have problems sleeping. However, they should be avoided just before bed. Rather than saving your daily workout for after work, try hitting the gym when you wake up instead.
Physical activities have a two-for-one effect. They help to waken and revitalize you, but can also leave you feeling quite exhausted. It’s important to remember that the exhaustion is physical, not mental. If you’ve ever left the gym and felt like a whole new person, you’ll understand how the adrenaline can go straight to your brain and make you feel ready to tackle the next activity.
Another benefit to getting your exercise in early is that it helps get you out into the daylight, further signaling to your body that this is the awake part of your cycle.
10. Avoid Mentally Active Activities Before Bed
Similar to exercising before trying to fall asleep, you should avoid doing anything that wakes your brain up and promotes active thinking.
Watching the news, paying bills, or any activities that can send your brain wandering in endless directions will not help to bring on sleep because they do not have an end to the thought.
For example, watching something on TV that is intended to be jarring or thought-provoking will bring up other ideas that can be completely unrelated. A news report on a car accident may remind you that you need to get your brakes checked; your brakes will make you think of your auto body shop which is located next to the homewares supply store, which reminds you that you wanted to paint your kitchen and you also need to replace the light bulbs in the hallway…the thought trail can go on for hours, especially when your brain thinks it should be awake anyway.
When trying to switch over to a new time for sleep, make sure that the brain waves are slowed and relaxed.
11. Avoid Naps (If You Don’t Need One)
We mentioned before that there is a bit of a lull in your rhythm mid-way through the day, leading many people to take an afternoon sleep break. Napping is often not the best choice for people who struggle to sleep at night and is even worse if you’re trying to reset your sleep cycle.
Instead of taking a nap, try one of those stimulating activities, such as exercising. It may not feel quite as satisfying as the nap, but it’ll help convince your brain that it’s still time to be awake. It’ll also help check off something from your to-do list.
If you’ve landed in a new time zone in the morning and were unable to get your body used to the new time before your arrival, try to stick it out through the rest of the day and put off going to sleep as long as possible. It’ll be a head-first dive into your new sleep cycle, but it can help to minimize jet lag in the coming days.
12. Don’t Force It
If you’re like most of us, you know that trying to force your brain and body to sleep when they’re not ready to is a lost cause. When you are trying to reset your sleep cycle, be prepared for it to be even more difficult.
While it is vital to stay consistent, it won’t be successful if you’re struggling with frustration on top of your sleeplessness. If you have laid down and found that sleep is not coming, get up and do another part of your bedtime routine again. Spend 30 minutes reading a book or have a cup of caffeine-free tea and then try again.
When you’re trying to remain calm about falling asleep, it’s also best to avoid peeking at the clock every few minutes. When we are continually checking in to see what time it is, how long we’ve been laying in bed, or calculating how much sleep we’ll get from this moment, we’re adding stress to the situation and putting rest off even more. Try putting your phone across the room and ensure that none of your clocks light up or are easily read from the bed.
Frustration is another reason why you should start gradually, rather than creating an abrupt change. Trying to force yourself to fall asleep when you aren’t able to will add more stress to the situation and will end up taking more time to adjust.
12. Increase Your Melatonin
We have learned that melatonin is the hormone that our body releases to induce sleepiness. If you are battling to fall asleep at your new time or have sleep issues in general, adding more melatonin to your diet at night may help.
Melatonin can be increased naturally by purchasing it in pill, liquid, or gummy form over the counter at your local pharmacy. By adding this supplement when you are changing your sleep time by more than a few hours, you may be able to make the adjustment process more accessible, especially when you are laying in bed at an hour when you would usually be wide awake.
It’s important to note that melatonin is not a sleeping pill that will force you to fall asleep quickly and should not be used as a standalone solution without making other lifestyle adjustments as well. Just like the melatonin that is produced in your body, the hormone in supplement form will not make you immediately drop into a state of deep sleep, but instead helps to encourage your body to become naturally restful.
I personally use OLLY Restful Sleep Gummies (link to Amazon) as my go to sleep aid. It not only contains Melatonin, but L-theanine, Chamomile, and BlackBerry Zen. All of which has been proven to help with at least one aspect of getting to sleep, and staying there. I’ve been using them for over a year now, and I absolutely love how well it helps regulate my sleep schedule.
13. Don’t Live in the Past
Getting used to any new habit or way of life can be made more difficult if you always remember the way you used to do things. Rather than checking the clock or thinking about where in the rhythm you usually would be, forget the old sleeping pattern and focus solely on the new. For example, if you’re trying to adjust to a new time zone, avoid checking the time of your old time zone and commit to being on your current time.
The sooner you can convince your circadian clock that the current activities are on the correct time, the sooner you will be able to catch up, reset, and carry on with your new sleep cycle.