When you’ve pulled an all-nighter due to jet lag, anxiety, or one too many drinks, getting back on your sleep schedule can be a living nightmare. Sleeplessness compounds stress and anxiety, which can keep you tossing and turning until the birds start chirping. The good news is that returning to a normal sleep pattern isn’t as hard as it seems — as long as you know what to do.
Here’s how to fix your sleep schedule through daytime habits and routines that promote energized days and restful nights.
Why Your Sleep Schedule Matters
Maintaining good sleep hygiene is important for helping your body stay resilient against stress, anxiety, and other chronic diseases.
Poor Sleep Increases Cortisol and Stress
Cortisol is the body’s response to real or perceived stress. In addition to boosting heart rate and blood pressure, cortisol curbs essential functions like digestion while altering responses in the immune system and growth processes. It also plays a role in regulating fear, mood, and motivation.
Maintaining balanced cortisol levels is important for ensuring a healthy circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle.
“Driven by the pineal gland and so-called clock genes, cortisol production is at its peak in the early hours of the morning and then gradually declines over the course of the day,” says naturopath doctor Lise Alschuler. In other words, cortisol is a hormone that makes us feel sleepy at night and alert throughout the day.
Having an inconsistent sleeping schedule, or not getting enough sleep, can cause disruptions in your internal clock. If you’ve ever felt more anxious, stressed, and tired after a night of poor sleep, increased cortisol levels could be to blame.
The role of sleep in anxiety was demonstrated in a study that measured cortisol levels in healthy young men. While cortisol levels in the men remained steady after a night of restful sleep, they increased by 37% after a night of partial sleep deprivation and 45% after not sleeping at all.
This suggests that missing just a few hours of sleep can have a negative impact on the brain’s ability to manage stress, keeping you in an elevated danger response mode throughout the day and beyond.
The Role of Sleep in Chronic Illness and Obesity
Being chronically stressed due to sleep deprivation doesn’t just make us anxious — it also makes us sick. Numerous studies have demonstrated the link between sleep-related cortisol spikes and inflammation.
Experiencing persistent stress also decreases immunity against diseases and chronic health conditions. Many essential immune functions are expressed in response to the 24-hour circadian clock, so a dysregulated sleep cycle can cause disruptions to normal immunity.
“Elevations of evening cortisol levels in chronic sleep loss are likely to promote the development of insulin resistance, a risk factor for obesity and diabetes,” says an article co-authored by Eve Van Cauter, PhD.
Another study demonstrated the link between sleep deprivation, chronic weight gain, and obesity. Such research shows that short sleep leads to the activation of certain hormonal responses that stimulate appetite and caloric intake. Specifically, participants in this study were more likely to engage in late-night snacking, often reaching for high-carb snacks.
How to Fix Your Sleep Schedule
If you’re wondering how to fix your sleeping schedule, you need to take an honest look at the lifestyle practices and daily habits that may be hindering it. What you eat and drink, how much time you spend outside, and whether or not you exercise all play a role in understanding your sleep habits.
Caffeine and Alcohol
Many of us rely on a dose of morning joe to stay alert and productive throughout the day. Unfortunately, your coffee habit may be preventing you from filling up your proverbial cup with deep sleep.
While caffeine metabolizes in the body at different rates — age, weight, and overall sensitivity all play a role — it’s best not to exceed 2-3 8oz cups (200-300 mg), says internist Dr. John Johnson. While caffeine can help with staying alert, Johnson warns against using it to compensate for other sleep problems or sleep disorders.
Your whiskey nightcap might also keep you tossing and turning. Alcohol consumption has been shown to suppress melatonin production, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. It isn’t just one night of fun that can affect this cycle, either.
Other studies suggest that regular late-night drinking can impair a person’s responses to natural light cues (i.e. the sun rising), even on the days when no drinks were consumed, says study co-author Christina L. Ruby. This leads to disruptions in the circadian rhythm throughout the day, “making drinkers less active at times of the day when they should be active and more active when they should not be, such as late at night.”
While people often use alcohol to induce sleep, it may contribute to a continuous cycle of insomnia and fatigue.
Exercise and Daylight
Exercise is proven to help people fall into a high-quality sleep more quickly, according to Charlene Gamaldo, MD, at Johns Hopkins. This doesn’t mean that any kind of workout at any time will induce instant sleep, however.
While different people may prefer to workout at different times, it’s important to note that a late-night sweat sesh could be cutting into your shut eye. This is because exercise releases endorphins, which may keep some people alert and awake late into the night. Finishing a workout 1-2 hours before bedtime gives the brain time to wind down, Gamaldo adds. To be safe, exercise in the morning or afternoon. This allows your body plenty of time to regulate its temperature and get back to a normal state before sleep, says the National Sleep Foundation.
When it comes to inducing restful sleep, where you exercise is just as important as when you get moving. Exercising outdoors exposes you to natural light, which helps boost alertness and stimulate the body’s natural circadian rhythms (our bodies are designed to rise with the sun and fall asleep when it gets dark).
A Stress-Free, Productive Life
It’s clear that maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is vital for keeping our bodies healthy. But can it also keep us happy? According to research from The University of California, Berkeley, the answer is yes. This study found that sleep deprivation inhibits the brain’s ability to regulate negative emotions such as fear — which is elevated in people with anxiety.
“When we are well rested, regions that help us regulate emotions are the ones that help keep us less anxious and keep us calm, and those regions are very sensitive to sleep loss,” says Eti Ben-Simon, a postdoctoral fellow who worked on the study.
If decreased stress isn’t reason enough to change your sleep schedule, consider how much better at life being well-rested could make you.
“Morning people have been shown to be more proactive, which is linked to better job performance, career success, and higher wages, as well as more goal-oriented,” says Shanon Makekau, who directs the Kaiser Permanente Sleep Lab in Hawaii.
These people may be more connected to their internal biological clock, which helps them stay alert during the normal workday. In contrast, people who stay up later may not truly feel alert until lunchtime or later, narrowing their window of productivity.
Creating a Morning and Bedtime Routine
Creating a morning or evening ritual can help you sleep because it creates structure and predictability. Instead of worrying about when to go to bed or when to rise, choose sleep and wake times that you can meet at the same time every day, suggests neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis. “Focus on keeping a regular schedule — your body likes predictability,” she says.
Creating a sleep routine can ensure that you wind down and feel relaxed, making it easier to fall asleep by a certain time. You can also use the evening to reduce friction in the morning, suggests clinical psychologist Nick Wingall. Setting out your workout clothes and walking shoes by the door can make it easy to get up and go. Packing a lunch, picking out your workday outfit, and organizing your work bag are all examples of evening activities that can set you up for success the next day (without hitting snooze).
Setting Boundaries on Blue Light
Reading the latest thriller or scrolling through the news may be aspects of our evening routine. But when we take our smartphones into bed with us, we’re unknowingly inviting an enemy in with us: blue light.
Scientific findings suggest that our circadian rhythms are disrupted by unnatural exposure to bright lights. Specifically, being exposed to blue light in the evenings suppresses melatonin production — a hormone essential for inducing restful sleep.
As discussed earlier, being exposed to daylight is a primary driver of circadian rhythm regulation. Melatonin plays a role in this cycle because its release is triggered by darkness. Being exposed to light late in the evening can trick our brain into thinking it’s still daytime, making it harder for us to fall asleep and reducing our sleep quality.
“When it’s dark outside but light indoors, it confuses this physiological system and can push back the release of melatonin, making it harder to fall and stay asleep,” says Mariana Figueiro, PhD, who directs the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center.
She adds that brighter light, like the strong glow that emanates from a cell phone, has an even stronger ability to mimic natural light and suppress melatonin in the body.
Fortunately, setting boundaries on your devices can help you reduce exposure to blue light so that melatonin is effectively released. According to Harneet Walia, MD, it’s best to end screen time one hour before bedtime. Even putting your phone away 30 minutes before bed can induce better sleep, especially if you’re a chronic late-night scroller. Getting an old-fashioned alarm clock can also help you wake up without the distraction of your phone at night.
A Balanced Sleep Schedule Keeps Your Health in Check
Having an inconsistent sleep schedule can lead to chronic sleep deprivation, which is a leading cause of anxiety, weight gain, and illness. Exercising during the day, cutting down on caffeine, and setting boundaries with technology can help you create a healthier relationship with sleep. Changing your relationship with rest not only helps you sleep better — it helps you live better.