If you didn’t have to worry about work, social commitments or kids, what would be your ideal time to go to sleep?
You probably know that sleep is important — you can tell that just by how crappy you feel when you don’t get enough of it.
But is there more to sleep than just how much you get? Is there a difference between getting the much-hyped eight hours between 11pm and 7am, and 9pm and 5am?
The short answer to the “is there an ideal time for going to sleep” is “at night-time”. But that’s too short for an article, and there is a little more to it than that, so we asked some sleep experts for a deeper answer.
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Your perfect bedtime is in your genes
Moira Junge is a health psychologist with the Sleep Health Foundation, an advocacy group that campaigns for all things relating to sleep, and she says the idea that there’s one true time to rule them all for going to sleep is a myth.
“It’s a vague science to prescribe a bedtime for people,” Dr Junge says.
“If you think about the eight hours, 10pm to 6am springs to mind, but that’s really just working in with conventional work hours.”
Dr Junge says we tend to adjust our natural preferences for when we go to bed around our commitments the next day and whether it’s “socially” acceptable to go to bed at that time.
Gorica Micic from the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health at Flinders University says if you take away all commitments and go to sleep when you’re naturally tired and ready, the timing will vary from person to person due to our inbuilt preferences.
“We have these general innate preferences to be either a morning type or evening type,” Dr Micic says.
“Most of us are sort of in between … we can generally fall asleep between 9pm and midnight and awake up between 6-7am, so the ideal time is different for everybody.”
Dr Micic and Dr Junge say you should go to sleep when you’re feeling tired, as trying to sleep before you feel sleepy tends to just lead to frustration.
And as all shift workers know, trying to sleep during the day can be really difficult, even when we’re truly tired and sleepy.
“All our internal rhythms are driven by the light/dark cycle,” says Professor Siobhan Banks from the Behaviour Brain/Body Research Centre.
“We’re so in tune with light, for example, that even a small sliver of light peeking through the curtains will be enough to be arousing.”
Can you ‘reset’ your body clock to become a morning person?
If you’re naturally more inclined to stay up late and get up late, it can be a real struggle trying to adapt to early morning starts for work or study.
You can’t change your genetics, but you can adjust your internal clock a little to make things a bit easier by using light at the right time.
“It’s very simple and very modifiable, but it has to be done with a bit of guidance,” Dr Junge says.
She says with guidance from an expert you can use bright light to adjust your natural wake/sleep cycle to be more in sync with what you need, but it’s hard to get it right without a professional to help you.
Dr Junge says you can ask your GP for help finding a sleep specialist doctor or sleep psychologist to get guidance on adjusting your sleep patterns.
Do we all need eight (solid) hours of time to go to sleep?
Just as there’s no one perfect time to go to sleep, there’s no one perfect length of sleep either.
Adults can feel rested and restored on anything from six to 10 hours sleep a night. And again, just as our preferences for being night owls or early birds is built into our genetics, so is how much sleep we need.
“You can still say that probably around about seven to eight [hours] is about right, but we put fairly big error bars around that as some people can manage on a lot less and some people need a lot more,” Professor Banks says.
How much you need does vary through your life as well. Younger adults under 25 tend to need more sleep, while people over 60 often report they sleep less than they used to, though Professor Banks says it’s contentious whether that means we need less as we age or just can’t sleep as well.
It’s also perfectly normal to wake up multiple times throughout the night, says Dr Junge.
“We wake all the time. We wake probably a couple of times every hour in terms of a sleep cycles,” she says.
Dr Junge says many us don’t even realise we have these awake moments through the night, but if you do notice you should try not to stress about it.
“Sleep is really important … but it’s also really important that people don’t get too anxious about their sleep, because once they’re anxious about it, it’ll be worse,” Dr Junge says.
Dr Micic says having a few bad nights’ sleep will make you feel crappy, but it’s nothing to fret about in the long term as generally a few nights bad sleep is followed by a good sleep.
“We all experience short-term sleep loss and it’s generally nothing to worry about too much,” she says.
She says if you don’t have a sleep disorder and have just had rough week, sleeping in on a weekend can help you get back to a rested feeling and on the right track again.
But if you regularly have problems getting to sleep or staying asleep, try to keep a regular bedtime throughout the week.
And if sleep problems are affecting your life, you should talk to a GP or sleep psychologist to help you find a solution.