- Sleeping less than six hours a night can create chronic sleep debt and affect your emotional balance.
- A regular sleep schedule can help your mood. To stick to the new routine, choose your best bedtime and try relaxation exercises.
- The longer you stick to a sleep routine, the easier it gets. Improvement can be seen even after a few weeks.
The consistency of your sleep routine has a great deal to do with keeping circadian rhythms running in sync. When we sleep and wake at the same times, day after day, we send powerful signals to our brain’s circadian clock and circuitry that keep our biological clock running “on time,” according to our individual biological timing. Sleeping and waking irregularly from day to day throws circadian rhythms off their natural timing, and increases our vulnerability to emotional stress, emotional reactivity, and mood disorders.
Inconsistent sleep schedules lead to sleep debt
A lack of sleep is a major driver of mood problems, emotional reactivity, and mood disorders. Going without sufficient sleep raises risks for depression, increases stress (and decreases our capacity to manage stress effectively), and elevates risks for anxiety disorders. There’s also evidence that gender may play a role in the impact short sleep has on mood, with women and girls more vulnerable to the negative mood effects of going without sufficient rest.
Sleep is a fundamental and critical time for the body to regulate mood; when we don’t get enough of it, it’s harder for our bodies to properly manage stress, and for us to maintain emotional balance.
One of the functions of sleep—particularly REM sleep—is to process emotional experiences, so that difficult emotional experiences feel less raw, intense, and emotionally charged. Scientific research has found that sleep “soothes” the brain of stress, lowering our emotional reactivity and increasing our capacity to think rationally and calmly about difficult experiences.
Sleeping on a routine schedule of regular bedtimes and wake times is one of the most effective ways to ensure you get sufficient sleep to meet your individual needs. We don’t all need eight hours of sleep every night—but most adults need at least seven, and many need more than that. Sleeping less than six hours a night, for most people, is likely to lead to a chronic sleep debt, and greater volatility and difficulty with daily mood, stress management, and emotional balance.
Sleeping irregularly also hinders sleep quality
When it comes to protecting emotional health and balance, sleep quality matters too. Research shows strong links between poor sleep quality, higher stress, and mood problems. And while we know that the relationship between sleep and mood is a two-way street, this recent research found that the next-day effects of poor sleep quality on mood were far greater than the effects of a day’s mood on the next night of sleep. Making sure your sleep is high quality and restful is as important as getting enough rest, to protect your emotional health.
Irregular sleep routines get in the way of achieving the high-quality sleep you need to feel rested, refreshed, and emotionally centered. Waking often during the night keeps you in lighter stages of sleep and diminishes your time in the deep and REM stages of sleep that provide the most significant restoration of your brain’s emotional circuitry, relax and refresh your central nervous system and its complex interplay with your immune system, and allow your hormones and neurochemicals to function on their optimal daily rhythms.
How to stick to a regular sleep schedule
Determine your optimal bedtime. For most of us, bedtime is the place where we have more flexibility, and that makes it the place to start in setting up a routine that you can maintain consistently. Our wake times are usually socially determined, by commitments to work, school, kids’ morning routines, even getting the dog outside for her morning walk. You can use my bedtime calculator to figure out your optimal bedtime. And this calculator helps you measure sleep quality in addition to sleep quantity, so you can be sure you’re getting the restful sleep you need in the right amount for your individual sleep needs.
Create a Power Down Hour™for your pre-bedtime routine. Consistency in sleep gets a whole lot easier when you create relaxing rituals that come before bedtime. On the flip side, if your pre-bed routines are all over the map, you’ll have a much harder time making it to bed on time every night. This time should be spent relaxing, full of self-care, free of electronics and digital devices, and geared toward preparing you for a sound night of rest. That can mean different things for different people, and I encourage you to experiment with what the most restful rituals are for you. Here is a template to start building a simple, easy-to-stick to, sleep-promoting nightly routine:
Use 20 minutes for hygiene and grooming and taking any medications that you are supposed to take at bedtime.
Also use 10 minutes each for:
- Soothing your mind. Meditation is a great idea, but so is listening to some soothing music, a funny or inspiring podcast, or reading a book—with blue-light-blocking glasses if you’re using an e-reader.
- Relaxing your body. A light yoga practice, tai chi, light stretching, a walk around the block with the dog before lights out are all great ways to release physical tension and relax your mind before sleep. Also, if you’re like me and you enjoy a shower or bath before bed, schedule your soak for 90 minutes before lights out in order to maximize its sleep-inducing benefits.
- Satiating your stomach. My rules for a pre-bed snack are to keep it at about 250 calories, a balance of protein and complex carbohydrates, and to steer clear of the sugar-loaded snacks so many of us crave at night.
- Engaging your senses. Creating a restful sleep environment is essential to making a bedroom inviting and sleep-promoting. Go beyond the basics of quiet, dark, cool, and clean to engage your senses more fully in the transition to sleep. Essential oils can be potent sleep promoters by relaxing both body and mind. And you can use the power of touch to relax, de-stress, and elevate your mood before bed. Partners can take turns giving each other simple massages. You can also use self-massage practices, or the touch therapy practice of reflexology, which reduces brain wave activity and increases sleepiness.
Protect yourself against nighttime light. If you’re using devices at night—let’s face it, most of us do–use blue-light-blocking glasses in the evening to protect against exposure to bright, stimulating, blue-rich light. That way you can have your nightly Netflix or your social media scroll time and allow your body to make its natural progression toward sleep, on a consistent schedule that aligns with your individual circadian rhythms.
Commit. The longer you stick to a sleep routine, the easier it gets. Your body and mind will be primed to sleep and wake at the same time every day, supported by the pre-sleep routine you put in place. If it feels like work at first, dig in and stick with it! You’ll be amazed at how much more natural it feels after even a few weeks. And you’ll feel a real difference in your sleep and your emotional health.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™