It’s no secret that sleep is the key to just about everything in life — from simply feeling rested during your day to helping with your physical health and mental wellness. Many of us know what it’s like to wake up feeling woefully unrested and wonder: am I going to bed at the right time? If I want to be really rested, is there a best hour for me to go to bed and wake up?
While there isn’t necessarily a single one-size-fits-all answer to these questions, we’re diving a little deeper into the world of sleep in search of solutions — and we’ve found that there are a few ways to find the best sleep times for you and your unique situation. To help, we turned to workspace wellness specialist and mental health advocate, Chivon John to better understand the timing and cycles of sleep — and for tips on how to find your best bedtime.
Related: More sleep could help support youth mental wellness: study.
What is the best time to sleep and wake up?
While, unfortunately, there are no set “best” or “worst” times, there are a few best practices we can follow to find — and maintain — your ideal sleep times.
Ideally, we want to go to bed early and wake up early to become rested for a productive day. With that being said, there are two important aspects to consider: the amount of sleep you get and the consistency in time.
Naturally, our biological tendencies cause our brains and bodies to slow down with the sunset and arise when the sun rises because humans have evolved over time to become more active during the daytime (due to high exposure to bright light).
As a result of this, while sleep and wake up schedules vary per individual, the hours roughly between midnight and 7 AM tend to be ideal resting periods.
You may also like: Our ancestors might hold the key to getting enough sleep.
However, life situations don’t always allow for us to sleep at those exact times, which is where the role of consistency comes in.“The most optimal time for sleep is one that you can be consistent with,” John tells us.
“Our sleep is influenced by many factors such as our age, lifestyle and health — so developing a cycle that can be consistent (going to bed and waking up at the same time every day) is more important to regulating our body functions vs. choosing a random time,” John adds.
Related: Sleep with even a little ambient light could harm your health: study.
Understanding the connection between circadian rhythms and sleep cycles
The circadian rhythm is the brain’s natural sleep-wake cycle, or our internal clock, which naturally adapts to the presence and absence of light that exists in all organisms — much like how flowers open and close with the sunlight every day.
“You can think of your circadian rhythm as your body’s internal clock, which helps control our sleep schedule and our level of alertness during the day,” John explains. “Our circadian rhythm can be influenced by the light we see in the morning that helps us wake up, and re-adjust when we sleep from things like a late night scrolling session on our devices.”
“It can also be impacted by changes in our sleep patterns such as travelling or working late hours. It plays a key role in our sleep cycle, because it sends signals to the brain to help keep us awake and active or produce melatonin to help us sleep,” John adds.
Irregular shifts, a night out or going to bed at different hours every night will throw off your circadian rhythm, resulting in daytime fatigue. This can limit the body’s systems from functioning optimally, causing a rise in sleep problems from individuals struggling to fall asleep or waking up frequently during the night.
Similarly, the sleep cycle is the body’s natural internal system in all humans, influenced by a combination of external conditions such as light, personal behaviours and lifestyle, as well as internal conditions such as brain-wave patterns and genetics.
Two major factors of a normal sleep cycle include rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) — the body rotates between a five-step cycle throughout the night.
See also: We’re using more and more melatonin for sleep — but is it safe?
How to find your ideal bedtime
Even if you understand sleep cycles, how can you know the best time for you to go to bed and wake up? According to John, the most effective strategy is ensuring that you find a sleep cycle that works for you. How to start? Try these two practices:
1. Recognize how you feel during the day: Feeling restless during the day? Find yourself yawning more frequently than normal? John suggests paying attention to when you feel drowsy during the day and when you are most alert. “Notice how you feel if you use things like caffeine to stay alert vs the times when you don’t. Tuning in can help you identify if you’re adequately meeting your sleep needs or if your body needs more rest,” John says.
2. Track your sleeping habits in a sleep journal: It can be hard to figure out how you feel after the fact, so grab a notebook and write down the good and the bad — from the nights you slept a lot, to those not so much. Doing so can help you identify ideal times that work for your body and schedule.
“You can use apps or a journal to record data such as the time you go to bed and wake up, the total number of hours slept, the quality of your sleep and how you feel during different times of the day,” John says. “Keeping a journal can help with becoming more aware of the factors that impact your sleep, whether you are getting enough sleep and the ideal number you need.”
Additionally, by finding when you have to be up each morning (on average) and counting backward by seven to nine hours, or the recommended time frame for your age group (more on this below), you can help reveal when you should go to bed. (a 6 AM. wakeup could mean an 11 PM bedtime, for example).
Related: Poor sleep linked to mental illness, large-scale study says.
Tips to creating and maintaining a healthy sleep cycle
Of course, it’s one thing to calculate your ideal bedtime — and it’s another to find a way to actually adhere to it. To help with this, John offers the following tips for making — and sticking to — a good sleep cycle.
1. Create a routine — even on weekends: John recommends creating a consistent routine when it comes to sleep. “Try to wake up at the same time every day, including weekends to keep yourself on a sleep schedule,” she says. “Your routine can focus on practices you do before you go to sleep, what you do during the day such as exercise and your non-negotiables to help the quality of your rest (such as lowering the temperature in your room). Having a consistent routine will eventually become triggers that let your body know when it’s time to rest,” John adds.
2. Ditch the technology and try unwinding sans screens: Scrolling through social media and TikTok before bed can disrupt your sleep, so make it a habit to put down your devices before bedtime. Limiting technology use before bedtime will have a greater influence on your sleep than you might even know. “Put your phones and screens away 30-60 minutes before you go to bed. Your body needs a moment to unwind, so try to avoid any stimulants that will keep your mind racing and awake,” John suggests.
3. Watch what (and when) you eat at night: That midnight snack might affect your sleep more than you think. “Finish your meal several hours before bedtime and avoid foods that you know upset your stomach,” John says. “Coffee and other caffeinated drinks may feel soothing, but it can make it harder to fall asleep when consumed at night.”
Related: Foods to eat (and avoid) to help you fall asleep faster.
Other strategies to maintain a healthy sleep cycle include stepping out and getting a minimum of 30 minutes of exposure to sunlight daily, experiencing darkness before and during sleep, setting alarms daily, limiting exercise to the morning or early afternoon, avoiding caffeine and alcohol three to six hours before bed and quitting smoking and vaping.
You may also like: Wellness educator Chivon John’s 5 tips for falling asleep in under an hour.
How much sleep do we really need?
A person’s age, schedule and sleep patterns and habits can also impact one’s ideal amount of sleep — and, subsequently, their ideal bedtime.
How can you know if you’re getting enough sleep and rest? According to healthline, short-term signs you’re not sleeping enough may include daytime tiredness, feeling unrefreshed, trouble staying alert, difficulty focusing, longer reaction times, negative mood and reduced performance. Long-term signs might include getting sick more often, high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the recommended amount of sleep for adults is at least seven hours per night. This number, however, isn’t fixed and varies as we age. Teenagers, for example, need more like 8-10 hours of sleep per night to feel rested.
Sleep is important in all aspects of our life, from the way we work, to the way our body functions — understanding this (and figuring out the best sleep times for you) just might be the first step to living a restful, sleep-forward life.