A person’s circadian rhythm regulates when their body sleeps and wakes. Travel, shift work, and frequently staying up late can disrupt the circadian rhythm.
Disruption to the circadian rhythm may make it difficult to sleep and wake at appropriate times.
In this article, we look at ways a person can reset their circadian rhythm and shift their sleep schedule into a more usual pattern.
The sleep schedule refers to the times that people naturally awaken or fall asleep each day and night. Their circadian rhythm regulates this.
Circadian rhythms last approximately 24 hours. The 24-hr sleep-wake-cycle is one of the most obvious rhythms, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are several other circadian-guided functions in the body, including digestion, hormonal activity, and body temperature.
The hypothalamus in the brain contains the “master clock” that dictates the sleep-wake cycle.
The clock responds to external cues, such as light levels, to keep people synchronized to a 24-hr day. Humans are diurnal, which means they naturally sleep when it is dark and awaken when it is light.
A person’s sleep-wake cycle and how much sleep they need overall can change naturally as a person ages.
However, some aspects of modern life also influence a person’s sleep-wake patterns. This includes:
- work or school commitments
- travel and jet lag
- shift work
- certain medications
- artificial light
If a person continually ignores their body’s sleep signals, they might have difficulty returning to a regular sleep schedule.
The main symptom of a disrupted sleep-wake cycle is difficulty sleeping and waking at appropriate times. A person may experience insomnia at night or excessive sleepiness during the day.
Other symptoms may include:
- difficulty concentrating
- decreased alertness
- memory problems
- difficulty making decisions
People may also feel worried about their sleep schedule or experience stress due to the disruption it causes in their lives.
Lack of sleep also has a significant impact on mental health.
Learn why sleep is essential for health here.
Getting ready for school or work often means getting up early. After a break from work or school or a transition to a new schedule, people may struggle to adjust their circadian rhythm.
Here are some ways people can reset their sleep schedule.
Set a consistent routine
While a person adjusts to a new routine, they may feel tired and want to sleep longer on weekends or take naps in the daytime.
However, a 2019 study suggests that “recovery sleep” does not help with sleep deprivation and may make an irregular sleep cycle worse.
According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, most adults need 7–8 hours of sleep per night, while most teenagers need 8–10 hours.
Try to set a regular schedule, waking and sleeping at the same times every day.
If a person finds it difficult to achieve this, they can try gradually changing the times they go to sleep by 15–30 minutes until they reach their goal.
Use light and dark
Light levels have a significant impact on circadian rhythm. People often feel sleepy in low light or darkness and feel more awake when it is light.
A person can use this to their advantage by:
- getting exposure to natural daylight upon waking or using a light therapy device or daylight alarm clock to simulate it
- using brighter lights during the daytime and softer lighting in the evening
- making use of blue light filters on phones and other devices
- ensuring total darkness during sleep by using blackout curtains or blinds
Exercise in the daytime
Regular exercise is important for overall health, but a busy schedule may mean a person exercises in the evening. This can disrupt sleep because exercise wakes the body up.
If possible, try shifting exercise to another time of day, such as in the morning.
Eating large meals late at night can also make it difficult to get to sleep. Try eating evening meals several hours before bedtime.
Similarly, avoid caffeine and alcohol in the afternoon and evening as both reduce sleep quality.
Relax in the evening
Working into the evening or feeling stressed may make it more difficult to get to sleep at a suitable time. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend winding down by:
- spending 15 minutes completing any unfinished tasks to avoid dwelling on them at night
- making a to-do list for the following day
- practicing mindfulness, meditation, or journaling to slow down and calm the mind
- trying a relaxing activity, such as reading, before trying to sleep
- avoiding looking at screens at bedtime
Change the sleep environment
Temperature also has an impact on sleep. A room that is too hot can prevent sleep or lead to lower sleep quality. Try to set a thermostat or heating system so that the temperature becomes slightly cool before bedtime.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommend making the sleep environment quiet and calming. A person can try:
- putting homework or electronic devices away in the evening or keeping them out of the bedroom entirely
- using soft, comfortable bedding
- using carpets, rugs, or curtains to muffle sounds from outside or wearing earplugs
After a long journey, people can experience jet lag while they adjust to a new time zone.
Many strategies for adjusting to a new school or work schedule will also help people with jet lag, but the following tips may specifically help frequent travelers.
If possible, begin changing the sleep-wake cycle ahead of long journeys. A person can start sleeping or waking an hour earlier or later each night, depending on the time zone they are visiting.
Strategically drinking caffeinated drinks at certain times may also help with adjusting to a new time zone. It may help someone wake up earlier when in a timezone that is ahead of their own. However, continue to avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening so as not to disrupt sleep.
Using light devices
A light therapy device may also help people plan for a long journey. These devices simulate daylight, which can help people wake up earlier if it is dark.
Melatonin is a hormone the body secretes to induce sleepiness. Taking melatonin at the right time may help someone adjust to a new bedtime. A person should speak to their doctor if they are considering trying melatonin.
Learn more about melatonin for sleep here.
People who occasionally stay up all night can try the same strategies as those adjusting to a new schedule.
However, people who often stay up all night or work night shifts may experience more long-lasting disruption. A 2020 article suggests that people:
- stick to a consistent schedule when working a series of evening or night shifts
- wake up close to the start of a night shift and avoid going to sleep as soon as it ends
- split sleep, which involves sleeping some after getting home from work and then taking an extended nap before work
- use caffeine at the beginning of a shift, but avoid it 3–4 hours before it finishes
- try to make any new sleeping environment as comfortable as possible
- avoid using alcohol to fall asleep as this lowers sleep quality overall
A regular sleep schedule can make it easier to get enough good-quality sleep each night. A regular circadian rhythm can reduce the risk of:
- a weakened immune system
- problems with concentration or memory
- digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- low mood, anxiety, or depression
- fertility problems
- cardiovascular disease
Anyone who has trouble adjusting to a new sleep schedule or finds it difficult to get to sleep and wake up at appropriate times should talk to a doctor.
Sometimes, persistent insomnia or daytime fatigue is an indication of a sleep disorder or another underlying condition.
When a person experiences a disrupted sleep schedule, it can be hard to get back to normal. However, setting a consistent routine for exercise, eating, relaxation, and sleep can help establish a better sleep schedule.
People with jet lag or who regularly work at night may need additional support. If a person’s sleep is frequently irregular, they should discuss this with a doctor.