We all know the importance of sleep, but how much is enough and when should we hit the proverbial hay? If you’re a rule follower and you want to achieve the expert-recommended seven to nine hours for adults under 65, then you’ll want to reverse engineer your bedtime based on what time you need to wake up.
But most of us should aspire to go to sleep within two to three hours after sunset “as it aligns with our natural release of melatonin,” says Dr. Abhinav Singh, medical director, Indiana Sleep Center, expert at SleepFoundation.org, and co-author of Sleep to Heal: 7 Simple Steps to Better Sleep.
So if you’re in the United States, that would mean going to bed between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. in the spring and summer. It’s essential to go to sleep before midnight, adds Dr. Allison Brager, a neurobiologist with expertise in sleep and circadian rhythms, as this “optimizes time spent in restorative non-REM [rapid eye movement] sleep.”
Singh also recommends treating bedtime and wake times as a “joint rhythm,” being sure to take special care of the transitions from wake to sleep as well. To this, it’s recommended that you do the following:
- Keep a regular bedtime and wake time
- Get light exposure, ideally sunlight, during the morning
- Avoid large doses of caffeine throughout the day, but especially after 2 p.m.
- Avoid large meals, alcohol and exercise close to bedtime
- Avoid bright light exposure in the evening
“Quality sleep is the foundation on which optimal health is built. Even if nutrition and exercise are at their best, without proper sleep their benefits are greatly reduced,” says Singh. “Sleep is important for metabolic health, immune health, muscle repair, optimal brain function and mental health. Optimal sleep not only adds years to your life, but life to your years.”
But you shouldn’t shame yourself if you fall a bit outside the range, as the quality of your sleep is often more important than the quantity.
“A lot of the work I do is to reverse the shame and pressure around bedtimes and wake ups. A good night’s sleep is critical for a positive, productive day—so I understand why many of us are looking for the secrets to sleep,” says Nancy H. Rothstein of The Sleep Ambassador. “But hard and fast rules like the ‘5 a.m. Club’ or setting a mandatory eight hours can do more harm than good, making people feel as though they’re failing or falling behind.”
Instead, Rothstein suggests using a sleep-tracking device or app that monitors your body’s movement and heart rate to help determine your body’s natural bedtime and wake-up time. However, if you suspect that you may have a sleep disorder, you’ll want to consult with your doctor to get evaluated before taking medication.
“Consistency is key for both bedtime and wake time,” says Rothstein. “Our circadian rhythm, our body clock, functions best with consistency. In turn, we optimize our overall health and well-being.”