Why consistency is the key to healthy, happy sleep

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We all feel better after a really good night’s sleep, but in the modern world this can feel elusive. One of the secrets is to ensure your sleep is as consistent as possible – and understanding your circadian rhythm can help.

Getting a good night’s sleep is incredibly important for our health and wellbeing. However, our busy, hectic lives can make it difficult to switch off at night. The worries, stresses and anxieties of everyday life can keep us awake at night, disrupting our sleeping patterns and leaving us feeling tired and run down in the morning.

For many, this is all part of modern life. Around 70% of US adults say they don’t get enough sleep at least one night a month. Almost 30% said they regularly had trouble getting enough sleep. It can be frustrating, leave us feeling run down and can also be bad for our health.

The answer, according to scientists, is to focus on consistent sleep. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day – even on weekends, improves your circadian rhythm and optimises the body’s repair process each night.

Understanding the circadian rhythm

The circadian rhythm is a natural cycle which governs how the body works during each day.

It includes different components, such as the cells in your body and hormones. Your cells respond to light and dark and your eyes respond to changes in the environment. When it’s dark, your eyes send signals to your cells telling them it’s time to get sleepy. When it’s light, they are triggered to be more active.

The same is true with hormones. During the day, your body will produce more cortisol which helps you to be more active and alert. At night, it will produce melatonin which signals it’s time to go to sleep.

Your body temperature will also rise during the day and drop at night, while your metabolism functions at different rates during the day.

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All this serves to govern the fluctuation of your circadian rhythm and when it is best for you to sleep and wake. This cycle varies throughout your life. For example, in young children and infants, the body naturally becomes more tired earlier at night around eight or nine. Teenagers, meanwhile, may not get tired until much later at night and wake later in the morning. This might explain why it can feel so difficult to get a teenager out of bed.

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Siesta

During our adult years, our cycle stabilises a little more. We’re more likely to feel tired between the hours of two and four AM and one and two PM. This is why some people benefit from a power nap in the middle of the day.

As we age, we may see this change once again, with our bodies getting tired earlier in the evening and feeling raring to go early in the morning. There is nothing to worry about here – it’s all part of the natural aging process.

Attuning your rhythm

There are things you can do to adjust your circadian rhythm – namely going adopting regular sleeping patterns. Whenever you go to sleep – whether it’s at 10am to 6am or midnight to 8am – it’s important to do this regularly.

Your body will start to adjust its rhythm to suit this routine. You’ll start to see the right sort of hormones being produced at the right times. For example, excess cortisol at night can make it difficult to get to sleep and will interrupt your rhythm.

alarm clock

Other things, such as avoiding caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, a healthy diet and regular exercise, will also help to fine tune your rhythm. In general, all the things you know you should be doing for a healthy lifestyle will also help you have a better circadian rhythm.

The benefits of a circadian rhythm

Get this right and the benefits will show through in everything you do. You’ll feel brighter and more alert. You’ll find yourself feeling more relaxed and better able to manage the cares of the world. Internally, your body will be functioning better leading to a stronger immune system and an overall healthier body. Your body will wake up to the changes, knowing instinctively what time to sleep and what time to rise, and you be able to wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the day ahead.

There are many things which can make this difficult; after all, we’re conditioned to adopt a ‘sleep when we’re dead’ mentality – to be high achieving, always striving to do better and to burn the candle at both ends. However, this can lead to us being more tired and less productive.

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Accept that life will always find a way to intervene and that sometimes you’ll have no choice other than to shave hours off your sleeping pattern, because the good news is that one bad meal or one late night won’t do long term damage, as long as you get back into your routine early. Feel free to dance the night away, just not every night of the week – timing, after all, is everything.

Image credit: Andrea PiacquadioPexels, Hebi B. / Pixabay and Benjamin Voros / Unsplash
Eleanor Garth
Deputy Editor Now a science and medicine journalist, Eleanor worked as a consultant for university spin-out companies and provided research support at Imperial College London and various London hospitals in a former life.

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