It’s already April, but the spring time change and drastic weather shifts can throw off even the best of us. And if you’re a frequent jetsetter, adjusting to a new time zone can feel like a boxing match that goes the distance. If you’re already tracking your sleep with a Fitbit device, that’s a great start. To take it a step further, our bodies crave routine via circadian rhythms, and there are specific things you can do to help get your body and mind back on track. So we asked clinical psychologist and sleep researcher at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, Dr. Kelly Glazer Baron how to set things right.
- Start living on the new time zone as soon as you can — It’s the first thing you should do when adjusting to daylight savings time or a time change. The natural tendency is to sleep in and hit the snooze button as a result of the late sunrise in the morning. But that’s only going to keep your clock shifted forward making it more difficult to get to bed and wake up at your desired time.
- Ease the transition by a gradual adjustment — If you wake up 15 min earlier for 4 days, you give yourself an achievable shift each day. At the same time, make sure to adjust your bedtime as well so you don’t short change your sleep. Start getting to bed a little bit earlier each night until you’re back on track. But be careful with this one. The last thing you want to do is lie in bed tossing and turning because your body isn’t ready to fall asleep.
- Set a defined routine – Our bodies crave regularity and keeping our circadian clock dialed in is extremely important in upholding quality sleep. So start setting a routine. In addition to defining your wake-up and bed times, eat meals at the same time every day, dial in your exercise calendar, and start to manage your light exposure.
- Avoid over sleeping on the weekends — Nearly everyone catches up on their sleep on the weekends. However, if you have difficulty waking up in the mornings after a time change, you are working against your physiology. All week your body is adjusting to going to bed and waking up earlier. Then, when Saturday morning comes along, if you sleep in two or three hours later, you then need to re-adjust yourself for the work week. Make it easier on yourself during the week by waking up no later than one hour beyond your typical wake time.
- Get enough exercise – It’s common belief that exercise helps sleep. But new studies are showing that exercise may not have the immediate effect on sleep that we may have once thought. Instead, it can take months for a regular exercise routine to have a beneficial effect on stress levels and start encouraging long-term improved sleep. But in turn, sleep does have a more immediate impact on exercise that vice versa.
- Limit your alcohol intake – A drink or two may help you fall asleep, but moderate to heavy drinking can drastically inhibit a night’s sleep. Decades of research have shown that one or two drinks can increase slow-wave sleep while not affecting deeper REM sleep. But more alcohol can cut into the time spent in the REM stage. So that nightcap may be helpful in getting you to doze off, while a wild night of heavy drinking is likely to make you more restless.
- Adjust your lighting pattern – Believe it or not, light is one of the main factors that control our circadian clock. The pineal gland produces melatonin only in dim light, so it’s extremely important to start dimming your lights in the 2 hours before you want to go to sleep. Getting your bedroom as close to pitch black as possible during sleep is also helpful. And while you may think TV watching or using your laptop or iPad in bed calms you down, those of us that are extra sensitive to light may find it more difficult to fall asleep after a before-bed TV session. On the flip side, make sure to get plenty of sunlight during the day. Artificial light can disturb regular rhythms because you aren’t getting enough bright light.
- Consider a low dose of melatonin – Most over the counter melatonin doses are way too high (3-6 mg). Low-dose melatonin (1 or ½ of a mg) taken in the early evening has been shown to work much better for phase shifting. Definitely consult your family physician for recommendations.
- Stay positive – Like most things in life, having a low-stress positive outlook is the best thing you can do to buck the time change and achieve better, regular sleep. Have a rough night’s sleep? It happens to the best of us. So instead of getting down about it and doing the zombie-walk throughout the day, stay positive and relax! Your hit the hay much better the next night.