In today's culture of around-the-clock connectivity, more and more people are struggling to sleep soundly. We're simply not getting enough rest each night, and what sleep we are getting isn't high-quality. As for consistency, that's the stuff of dreams. But an inconsistent sleep schedule can wreak havoc on your health, body, and overall well-being, and getting plenty of restful shut-eye regularly is a must. If you're currently struggling to fall and stay asleep at night, this often feels impossible. To help you make it a reality, we tapped two experts to help you get back on track.
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Identify why you're struggling.
There's no one-size-fits-all answer as to why so many people struggle with inconsistent sleep—but today's environment is full of distractions that could be disrupting your own. 'The most common contributors to an inconsistent sleep schedule are work, house responsibilities, smart devices, and computer or electronic use," says Alcibiades Rodriguez, MD, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center and Sleep Center at NYU Langone Health. An upsetting email from your boss, a pile of dishes in the sink, or late-night Instagram scrolling can all factor into your struggle to rest well. Certain habits can also contribute to sleep issues, especially as you get closer to bedtime. "Many times, food habits, [like] eating desserts and snacks in the evening, [and] exercising late at night—forcing yourself to get a workout in—can lead to an inconsistent sleep schedule," explains Dr. Abhinav Singh, Facility Director of the Indiana Sleep Center in Greenwood, Indiana.
Understand the negative effects.
"The most common negative effects of inconsistent sleep schedules are sleepiness the next day, being unable to sleep when needed, decreased attention, and decreased concentration," says Rodriguez. "All these symptoms are essentially the same as sleep deprivation." Inconsistent sleep can also wreak havoc on your weight. "The stress hormone, cortisol, is higher when you lose sleep," says Singh. "Cortisol makes you eat more—so you gain weight."
And while you might have been able to pull an all-nighter without these consequences back in your college days, bouncing back a night of poor sleep—especially a string of nights—gets harder as you age. And once you lose sleep, you can't get it back, notes Singh: "The issue is sleep lost is equal to sleep lost. The damage is done."
Do everything you can to maintain good sleep habits.
This starts with making sleep a priority. Like with anything else, getting your sleep routine back on track takes work—and if you want to be successful, you need to practice. "I think people need to realize that sleep is very important, and that they need to give some effort," says Rodriguez. That effort starts long before you close your eyes. Before hitting the sheets, watch what you eat (and drink). "Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and heavy meals," says Singh. Just as important? Setting limits on your screen time. Electronic devices emit blue light, which suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep. If you want to get better and more consistent shut-eye, keep your eyes away from screens for at least an hour before you want to go to sleep. "Avoid screens; put 'do not disturb' mode on your phone," says Singh. "Nobody should be able to reach you after a certain hour, except for emergencies."
Finally, do your best to establish a routine. "Sleep hygiene and bedtime routines are very important," says Rodriguez. "[Just like] having a routine and schedule at your work helps you to complete tasks and be successful, take the same care with your sleep schedule." Establish a relaxing pre-bedtime routine (like showering, reading, or meditating) and practice it every night. Eventually, your brain and body will come to associate those behaviors with bedtime—and it will be easier to drift off to sleep.