When is the best time to sleep? It’s drilled into our grey matter from an early age: going to bed early is unequivocally beneficial and late nights are to be avoided at all costs, but is this the truth?
Is the important factor about bedtime really just how early it is, or is there a specific golden hour when we should hit the hay?
Is there, in fact, a best time to sleep? Let’s find out.
When you sleep matters…
There are thousands of resources that state the optimum amount of sleep for a functioning adult is around the eight hour mark, but yet if we head to bed at 3 am on a Friday night, have a long lie in on the Saturday and wake up at 11 am, we’ll rarely feel refreshed, energetic and ready for what that day has in store for us. If anything, it prompts an even longer lie in, and a sluggish day.
So are the studies wrong?
Not necessarily – eight hours is the best balance, but it all depends on when you get those eight hours.
Dr. Matt Walker, head of the Sleep and Neuroimaging arm of the University of California, goes some way to clearing this up for us: ‘The time of night when you sleep makes a significant difference in terms of the structure and quality of your sleep’.
Dr Walker tells us of REM and non-REM sleep cycles. REM (Rapid eye movement) sleep is generally seen as lighter sleep, where your brain is most active and responding to its own dreams and thoughts – this is seen by the flitting of your eyes, and some restless behavior. Whereas non-REM sleep generally describes deeper, more restful sleep – this is the time of night where muscles are repaired and internal hormone levels are regulated.
This is all fairly factual information – but what we make of it is where the experts’ opinions differ.
Trick your internal clock to match your ideal sleep time
An obvious solution to the issue of when we should get to bed would be if we could predict the time when we’ll be most tired. Dr. Rafael Pelayo, a professor at Stanford School of Medicine has some interesting evolutionary theories about sleep, which might help to solve this issue.
Dr. Pelayo states that the human body has an ‘internal clock’ (a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus), which gives the body a fairly regular idea of the time, and forces it to begin to get drowsy come night time. He also states that we get inexplicably tired at different points during the day due to our long redundant survival instincts.
For example, most of us get drowsy in the afternoon, post lunch, which he suggests was because this is when the days were ‘hottest and the lions were less likely to attack us’, back in our early time as a species.
This is all useful information for trying to pick the ideal time for sleep, but Dr. Pelayo has an interesting technique for ‘tricking’ the body into sleep – work out what time you want to be asleep by and then get into bed fifteen minutes prior. This will kick a biological instinct into action, which will instinctively start to help you drift off.
Basically, your body begins to realize you’re in bed, so it must be time to sleep.
Take advantage of the best hours to sleep
The average sleep cycle is 90 minutes long; this is from the point of falling asleep, working through REM (light) sleep, down into non-REM (deep) sleep and then back to the start to repeat it again.
Another leading figure, Michael Breus (an official sleep specialist and known author on the subject) suggests that the best way to work out the most efficient time for sleep is simply to work it around your lifestyle. For example, if you need to wake up at 7 am in order to get ready for work, then work from there – eight hours’ sleep (although Breus argues that we only need 7.5 hours) would then put the bedtime at 11 pm, the night before.
He states that as long as you follow this routine, consistently, you will find yourself having substantial, satisfying nightly sleep.
On the other side of the argument is our friend Dr Walker who has a slightly more rigorous approach.
Dr Walker says that the REM/non-REM cycles of sleep occur in accordance with the time of night, and not when you happen to decide to go to bed. He also believes that lighter sleep is more common towards the morning (maybe a natural way for our bodies to begin waking us up), and deeper sleep happens late at night.
So, by Dr Walker’s reasoning – if you have a late night, you may be drifting off to sleep in the already ‘light sleep’ section of the night, and therefore have missed the deep, healthy, healing sleep period of time, and you’ll wake up less than refreshed.
How to find the best time to sleep for you
But with all of these different perspectives on the same subject, how do we know when the best time to sleep actually is?
The answer might well be a combination of all three: aiming to head to bed before midnight where possible, so that we don’t lose out on any of the deep (non-REM) sleep, whilst also choosing a time that allows enough space for a good 7 to 8 hours before we need to be up for work – and then heading to bed fifteen minutes before that selected time, so we can begin the process of drifting off.
So the best time to sleep for you is calculated by finding the time you want to be awake by, figuring in the 7 to 8 hours of peaceful slumber you’ll need and then adjusting it to make sure it’s before midnight. Got your magic number? Great, get tucked in at least 15 minutes before that time. And there you go – now you know what time to go to bed 🙂