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How to fix your sleep schedule after it's been thrown off

A consistent sleep cycle improves sleep quality.

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Maintaining a sleep schedule makes waking up easier.

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After a fun evening of binge-watching reruns of your favorite sitcom, you look at the clock to see if you can squeeze in another episode and -- oh, crap -- it's already three hours past your usual bedtime! 

You know it's going to hurt to wake up at 6 a.m. tomorrow, so you have to make a decision before hitting the hay: Will you push through and wake up at your usual time, or will you sleep in to "catch up" on missed sleep? 

The first option, though tough, is your best bet if you want to maintain a healthy sleep cycle that supports energy, productivity and good moods. If you do choose to sleep in, you risk pushing your bedtime back further and further until waking up at your usual time (such as for work) feels impossible and you spend the day fighting fatigue. If you find yourself in this situation, you can try to reset your sleep schedule with these tips from sleep experts.

Read more: Insomnia: What causes it and how many of us have it?

Why your sleep cycle is important

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Consistent sleep cycles are linked to healthier daytime choices.

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Having a consistent sleep schedule makes it easier to fall into restful sleep, Annie Miller, therapist at DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy tells CNET. 

"Our brains respond very well to routines," Miller says. "When we create healthy bedtime routines for ourselves, our sleep can greatly improve. And as your brain begins to associate bedtime with relaxation instead of stress, sleep will become easier."

When you fall asleep faster and spend less time tossing and turning in bed, your overall sleep duration and quality improve, leaving you more rested and energized for the next day. "Regular, consistent sleep is the first line of defense in combating anxious or depressive thoughts or lack of energy" during the day, Dr. Max Kerr, dental sleep expert at Sleep Better Austin, tells CNET. 

Plus, sleep stages are time-dependent, Dr. Kerr says, so inconsistent sleep schedules can "shortchange" your sleep stages and result in less time spent in the important REM and deep sleep stages.

How your sleep cycle gets thrown off

Miller says keeping your morning wake-up time the same every day -- no matter what time you go to sleep -- is the key to keeping your body in rhythm (although, ideally, you'd have the same bedtime and wake-up time each day). "Typically, varying your wake times is more detrimental to sleep than going to bed later. If you push your wake time by sleeping late, we create a jet lag type of response," Miller explains. "If you go to bed later and still get up at the same time, you will get less sleep, but it won't throw off your sleep cycle."

Dr. Kerr argues that pushing your bedtime back can throw off your sleep cycle. From a scientific standpoint, research suggests that if your bedtime varies by more than 30 minutes each night, it can lead to less healthy daytime behaviors such as lack of physical activity. Other research points to consistent wake-up times as a predictor of better sleep quality. It's best to try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day -- but only you can know if waking up at 6 a.m. is doable whether you went to sleep at 10 p.m. or 12 a.m.

Other things can throw off your sleep cycle, too. Doing shift work, drinking alcohol, sleeping with a disruptive bed partner (like kids, your spouse or pets), snoring or sleep apnea or temperature changes in your bedroom can all throw off your sleep cycle, Dr. Kerr says. 

How to reset your sleep cycle

Dr. Kerr offers these tips for resetting your sleep schedule: 

  • Get outside and get moving. "Fresh air and exercise can help calm and tire you out while vitamin D from the sunshine helps regulate circadian rhythms to keep your sleep consistent," Dr. Kerr says. 
  • Set up your bedroom for sleep. Keep temperatures cool, electronics to a minimum and bedding comfy yet simple. Check your pillows to make sure they're right for you -- pillows should comfortably support your head and neck. 
  • Nix daytime naps. "With extra time on your hands, or perhaps because of working from home, it may be easy and enticing to sneak in a daytime nap," Dr. Kerr says. "While the occasional nap can be a great reset for the rest of the day, it may rob you of the more important and restorative sleep that your body needs at night."  
  • Watch what you watch on TV. Listening to discouraging reports on the evening news before bed might keep your mind racing throughout the night, Dr. Kerr says. If you must watch TV before bed, opt for shows that are lighter and more entertaining -- and ideally stop watching all TV an hour before bed.
  • Take a melatonin supplement. If all else fails, you might need a dose of melatonin to push your body back into your preferred sleep cycle or if you're just having trouble falling asleep in general. Melatonin is a safe sleep supplement and shouldn't cause you to become dependent on it. Magnesium may also help.

How to keep your sleep schedule in check

Once you successfully reset your sleep cycle, the actual hard work begins: keeping your schedule in check. Miller offers these few tips for creating a bedtime routine

  • Create a "buffer zone" about an hour before bed. During that time, don't do work, watch the news or do anything that may create stress. The buffer zone is just for unwinding, Miller says. Stretch, listen to calm music, meditate, read a book, or talk to your spouse or roommate.
  • Wake up at the same time every day, no matter what time you go to sleep at night. "We often think we can 'catch up' on sleep over the weekend or if we have a bad night of sleep," Miller says, "but in fact, that can make sleeplessness worse by creating what's called social jetlag." It's important to keep your wake up time consistent and understand that you may be tired in the short term, but this will build up sleep drive and eventually allow you to fall asleep faster at night, Miller explains.
  • Only use your bed for sleep. "This is one many people have heard before, but it is really important," Miller emphasizes. "When you create a conditioned response that the bed is only used for sleep, it allows you to create an association between bed and sleep." This means no reading in bed, no watching TV in bed, no tossing and turning and no snoozing in the morning. 
  • Stop trying to sleep. This sounds counterintuitive, but "[w]hen we put too much effort into sleep, it backfires," Miller explains. "Spending time in bed trying to sleep can make insomnia worse." If you can't sleep, get up and out of bed and do something quiet until you feel really sleepy. Sleep should be effortless and we should minimize time spent trying to sleep, Miller says.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.