Sleep Matters, But Your Bedtime Probably Matters More


I was reminded recently (and for the 78th time) that getting to bed by 11 changes how I feel in the morning, regardless of how many hours of sleep I get. It’s been a bit of a challenge to get back on schedule after vacation, when bedtimes drifted into the 1 and 2am range, and sleep seemed to come at any time after a day of sun, sand, and surf topped with fresh fish, wine, and lounging around all evening. After a little less than 2 weeks of being in bed by 11, I finally feel human again. I’m guessing it’s because I’m back to getting the kind of stress repair that’s only available during sleep from 11pm-1am.

And, yes, you can do this, too. It’s not like I’ve been so good about it – ever. I just keep aiming at 11pm. Sometimes it’s been slightly after 11, sometimes it’s 10:30, but I suddenly find myself tired at 1o and waking naturally at 6 or 7, and feeling much less sluggish and surreal first thing, less fatigued during the day, and just in better mental shape in general. Though I am not likely to call myself a morning person in this life, I just know this is better for me.

As with other things that I could feel a lot better if I could stick to (like excercise, avoiding dairy, and hanging up my car keys in the same spot), it’s as though I periodically need to experience the misery of not doing them in order to remember and appreciate what I get out of putting myself to bed on time, feeding myself well, and taking a little time to be more organized.

So, I’m back on the wagon (it helps to live with a teacher who has to get up early). Being a bit of a night owl (my mother says it’s my 5pm birth time, but I think it’s just because I seem to resist structure at every opportunity), I have to use all the tricks I know to wind down at night, instead of getting revved up with ideas for work, watching Poirot on the BBC, or cleaning house. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far – note my newest discovery – apps to manage blue light emissions from my electronic devices:

  • Serious caffeine restriction – I really don’t feel deprived at all. If I really do feel the need, then I have some green tea in the morning.
  • No evening heavy exercise (heart rate above 120 after 4).
  • Avoiding evening sweets and snacks, and trying to eat lighter at dinner – this is the hardest one of all for me, but I keep working on it.
  • Downloading f.lux to my computer to automatically match the amount of blue light it emits with the amount in the daylight for that time of day. There’s also another program called Redshift that is more sophisticated and subtle, but I don’t quite know how to install it yet. I think this is really making a HUGE difference and I notice the shift in hue on my screen, but it doesn’t bother me at all. See my previous sleep post for explanation of the importance of this.
  • If I MUST indulge in caffeine, I take GABA with it to offset the effect (but I still only do caffeine earlier in the day, like, before noon, and that’s it, except for dark chocolate or the trace amounts in decaf green tea).
  • Avoiding bright lights in the evening – sometimes tough to do, and my S.O. doesn’t really want to do this, so I try to compromise. Still looking for a bathroom nightlight bright enough to floss with, but no blue in it.
  • Getting up when I wake – another toughie. I am rarely out of bed as soon as I wake at 7am (I have seldom been such a riser), but I try to make 9 the limit, to avoid screwing up the next night’s sleep, but still allow for extra repair after a tough day, or a heavy workout, or a lazy Sunday morning. I have noticed however, that I don’t usually feel more alert after snoozing or lingering.
  • No bedside electronics – I use my digital watch for an alarm. Bonus: no worries about power outages.
  • No B vitamins or unbalanced (ie without calcium) magnesium after 4pm – it just seems to rev me up.
  • Standard bedtime routine – still working on this. I was never good at it, but here it is right now: making a list for the next day to free up space in my head, flossing, turning down the bed, reading a little something soothing (right now its Chogyam Trungpa’s Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving Kindness). 

Do you have a hunch some of this might be what you need? So, maybe try it out for yourself for a week or two and have a listen. You might be surprised at what your body tells you. Share your findings below – I’d love to hear how it goes!

About Cynthia Clingan

Cynthia Clingan is a personal coach and licensed professional clinical counselor in Columbus, Ohio who teaches mindfulness meditation for beginners.
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