Kimber Rozier, CSCS
In one night, sleepers usually move through four stages with distinct patterns. The first three stages (1-3) are characterized by drifting into sleep, a decrease in body temperature, and neural activity such as sleep spindles and delta waves.
The final stage is the most commonly known - REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is when dreams happen and your body is motionless. At this stage, learning and memory have been shown to improve, but waking during REM sleep can make a nightmare out of your day.
Sleep is cyclical
You go in and out of REM and deep sleep (stage 3) throughout the night. Usually, modern sleepers get through around 3-5 cycles of 90 minutes each. If you do that math, however, that only reaches the recommended eight hours of sleep at the upper echelon. Which means for most of us, we’re being woken up during that REM stage and missing crucial opportunities for deep sleep.
REM sleep mimics wakefulness brain patterns. It’s almost as if the body is taking itself for a test drive, see if it’s had enough sleep yet. If it has, the idea is that you wake up on your own naturally. But if it hasn’t, you return back to sleep for another cycle. But what if your alarm goes off? Timing sleep properly can make a big difference in the rest and recovery you need.
Start Sleep at the Right Time
Calculate your target wake-up time, say, 7 am and work backward to your bedtime. Assuming it takes 15 minutes to fall asleep, and each cycle is approximately 90 minutes, and you need at least eight hours…
That comes to five or six sleep cycles throughout the night. So if you’re waking at 7 am and want six sleep cycles, get in bed at 9:45 pm. If you know you have trouble falling asleep, start winding down even earlier.
Use a Sleep Calculator to Find the Right Time
Fortunately, the internet has a solution for all of us who don’t like to break out the actual calculator.
All you have to do is input the time you want to wake up, and it’ll do the work for you. What’s even better about this website is that you can work backward. For example, maybe it’s the weekend, and you’re headed to bed with no early engagements in the morning. But you still want to make sure you don’t sleep through the entire day. Put your bedtime into the sleep calculator, and it’ll give you the time to set your alarm.
Prepare for Sleep Properly
Of course, there’s no use in going through all of that work if you’re going to spend hours in bed on your phone. Prepare for sleep properly by taking electronics out of the bedroom. Put your phone out of reach when you retire to sleep. Turn off the computer and TV, as those also emit blue light, which makes it difficult to fall asleep
Limit caffeine before bed as well, and that doesn’t mean just avoid a coffee nightcap. Studies have shown that ingesting caffeine up to 6 hours before bedtime can have negative effects on sleep quality. Caffeine can reduce slow-wave brain activity and total sleep time. So even if you’ve got the math right, drinking caffeine in the evening can negate the benefits.
Be Consistent with Sleep and Wake-up Times
Finally, try and stick to a regular sleep schedule. Changing sleeping and wake-up times can have dramatic effects on mood and fatigue - just ask shift workers. According to the Society of Occupational Medicine, Those whose work demands alternating hours, especially working through the night, reported: “difficulty getting to sleep, shortened sleep and somnolence during working hours that continues into successive days off”.
Circadian rhythms get set to facilitate sleep quality at the “right” time. Consistently changing when that time is and adding confusing signals hurts your sleep. Document and adjust your times as needed. If your life demands to change sleep hours, try and stick within a certain range, especially when not working. Take care to get more REM sleep at whatever hour you can, and you’re likely to feel refreshed and recuperated throughout the day.