Life can always be counted on to throw a monkey wrench into your sleep. From doing shift work to traveling across time zones, numerous variables can throw off your internal body clock, which then impacts your sleep. As a result, you may have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or both.
Fortunately, you don’t have to suffer forever, but getting your sleep schedule back on track will take some work. Here’s how to do it.
How your internal sleep clock works
Your body doesn’t do anything accidentally. Everything is on a schedule, something you can thank your circadian rhythm for.
“It functions like a time-keeping device that allows your brain to schedule activities,” says W. Christopher Winter, MD, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution.
Part of that includes your sleep clock, which operates on a roughly 24-hour rhythm, and it’s impacted by so-called time clues called zeitgebers.
“They make sure the clock adjusts each day to the light-dark cycle so you’ll be awake when it’s light and asleep when it’s dark,” says Roy Raymann, PhD, chief scientific officer at SleepScore Labs. The main zeitgeber is light, but others include temperature, social interaction, meal intake, exercise, medication, and atmospheric condition.
One job of the sleep clock is to release the hormone melatonin during the evening. “Melatonin starts a cascade of bodily events that prepares you for sleep,” Raymann says.
Although the exact timing is different for everybody—morning people will generally have an earlier release while night owls will have a later release—your body releases it at about the same time every night.
Then when your body’s exposed to bright light the next day, the release of melatonin stops. The light acts as a zeitgeber, signaling to the clock that it’s daytime and thus, interrupting the process of preparing for sleep.
That’s why when you interrupt that clock, your sleep gets messed up. With travel and shift work, sleep is impacted mainly because of the mismatch in light output, Raymann says. In other words, the clock expects you to sleep when it’s dark.
Meanwhile, insomnia or several nights of bad sleep affects your slumber in another way.
“By not reducing sleep pressure (a process that makes your brain feel sleepy and more pressured to want sleep the more you’re awake) sufficiently overnight, you might feel the need to catch up with sleep during the day, which then might affect sleep at night,” says Raymann.
Reset your sleep schedule
Resetting your sleep schedule after you’ve been traveling, working the night shift, or sleeping poorly is possible, but it will take time. How much time will depend on how far off your schedule you’ve gotten, Raymann says.
Start with travel. “As a general rule, allow your body day to adjust for each time zone you travel,” Winter says. The more time zones you’ve crossed, the harder and longer it will take your body to adjust.
That’s not the same with shift work, as there are many variables that play into this, which could make your recovery longer. And recovering from several nights of bad sleep may happen once you take a nap or sleep in over the weekend, Winter says.
To help your body adjust, put those zeitgebers to work.
Adjust the lights in your home
Start by dimming the lights in your house at night, even replacing lightbulbs in the rooms you frequent with ones that don’t have blue or green lights, Winter says. (Learn more about the effects of blue light on sleep.)
Cool down the temperature before bed
To regulate that temperature, which naturally dips at night and rises in the morning, take a hot bath before bed (you’ll then cool off when drying off) and consider buying a pad for your bed that will cool you at night and warm you in the morning. You can even program your thermostat to continue dropping a few degrees every few hours after dinner. (Discover what revenge bedtime procrastination is and how to stop it.)
Exercise for better sleep
Also, get into the habit of exercising, opting for an activity that warms you up. If possible, plan that exercise session for the morning, especially if you can get outside, which will wake up your body, Winter says. (Follow this early morning workout routine for better sleep.)
Even if you’re not exercising, get outside to see the light, which will cue your body to stop melatonin production, Winter says. Sit on your porch to eat breakfast, sip your morning coffee outside, or take your dog for a walk in the morning. Artificial light therapy can be effective too.
Still having trouble sleeping? Try these nighttime activities to help you relax.