What Is The Best Time To Sleep?
Sometimes, I am asked by customers at the showroom what is the best time to sleep and wake up. They like to know if there is really a ‘best or right time’ to sleep. These are some of the questions customers would ask that are not related to mattresses or bedding system.
 
The correct amount of sleep taken at the right time can make an enormous improvement to our well-being.  So what is the best time to sleep?  In truth, there is no one single time that works for everyone. But each person does have a time that is best for them specifically.
 
Circadian rhythm
 
Find out your body's natural circadian rhythms
The timing of the functioning of our bodies is different from one person to another. So the key here is to find out your own sleep and wake cycles. Surprisingly, this is harder than it sounds, because all too often external requirements such as work or social events will interfere with determining your own circadian rhythms. 
 
Rest assured there are several ways you can find out what your natural circadian rhythm is. The first of these is a simple online questionnaire from the BBC which will produce a custom-tailored, highly accurate graph of your ideal sleep and wake times (see reference 1). The graph also indicates times at which you are most, and least, productive during the daytime.
 
Another option is a simple weekend experiment you can try for yourself at home (see reference 2). The advantage of this is that it is a practical, hands-on test of your sleep times in real life. This is a wonderfully accurate test.
 
Yet another option is to keep a sleep diary (see reference 3). This has the advantage of discovering not only the good sleep times, but also the bad sleep times for you, through trial and error. Although thorough, it requires a lot of care and reading to interpret the results (e.g. were you tired because you went to sleep at the wrong time? Or was it because you had an exceptionally stressful day?)  But be warned that if you keep the same invariant sleep-wake routine every day, a sleep diary will not be helpful in informing you about your natural biological rhythms. 
 
Morning vs Night People
Morning people and night people are different
After you find out your natural circadian rhythms using the methods described above, you will find you fall into one of two overall groups: morning people or night people. These are also known as 'larks' or 'owls', respectively. A morning person or lark, as the name indicates, will be alert and function most highly during the morning or early afternoon. They tend to go to bed relatively early at night and do not find it overly difficult to wake up in the morning. 
 
In contrast, a night person or owl will have trouble waking up and tend to be groggy and sleepy in the morning. However, they are alert and highly functional in the late afternoon and evening. An owl will not do themselves any favours by going to bed early, since evening is when they are most alert and productive. 
 
These differences are thought to reflect differences in how the brain is wired: in other words, these are intrinsic differences specific to each person (see reference 4).
 
Everyone needs sufficient sleep
The key to remember is that everyone needs sufficient sleep, regardless of whether you are a lark or an owl. This can be tricky. For example, in an ideal world a night person would simply go to bed later and wake later than a morning person. The night person would start work later, and finish later, than a morning person. In practice though, most work schedules simply do not accommodate this sort of thing. Our job starts at a specific time in the morning and finishes at a specific time in the evening, and we don't really have a choice about that.
 
But the good news is that there is still much that you can do to give yourself the best sleep times within the constraints of compulsory obligations such as a job. Firstly, in order to give yourself the best possible chance for sufficient sleep, you should also look at how much sleep you need. Although 8 hours of sleep a night is widely touted as ideal, this too will vary from one person to another. The sleep tests in references 1 and 2 can help you determine how much sleep you need each night
 
When you have determined how much sleep you need, simply count those hours backward from the time you have to be awake in the morning due to compulsory obligations. The answer will give you the last possible time you have to go to bed: something which a night owl should try to adhere to, hard as it may be. (Larks have an easier time with this.)  For example, if you need to be awake by 6:30 am because of work and you have found out you need eight and a half hours of sleep, then you need to go to bed by 10:00 pm at the latest. 
 
Of course, there is no problem with going to bed earlier than absolutely you have to, and waking up correspondingly earlier. If this is a better fit for your personality (and this is often the case with morning people) then by all means go to bed early: at the optimal time for you based on what you learned from the tests in references 1 and 2. If as a result you have extra leisure time in the early morning, enjoy it - relax, read, or exercise.
 
What happens if my ideal sleep schedule clashes with other obligations?
If your obligations clash with your sleep schedule, then you need to take a look at your lifestyle in general and consider whether these obligations are true obligations. For example, a job starting at a specific time will indeed require you to wake up well before then. But if that's a problem for you, consider shortening your get-up time so you can wake up later. Selecting your work outfit the night before, showering the night before and not using any electronic devices (including TV) in the morning before you leave for work, can save you valuable time in the mornings and let you sleep in that little bit longer. If you're an owl, then this small amount of extra sleep may result in a surprisingly large improvement in your daily life. 
 
Remember that some age groups will require more sleep than other age groups; in particular the elderly and the very young sections of the population. For example, if you are a senior adult, expect that you will need more sleep per night than you did when you were 20 years old. 
 
Naps are another option for helping catch up on sleep. Again, due to work obligations, this may not be an option for most of us. However, if it is possible, a short nap may be very beneficial in helping gain sufficient sleep. In fact, it has been suggested that a solid 8-hour block of sleep is a rather artificial concept, and that a brief nap during the day and a mid-length sleep at night may be a better situation (see reference 5). Indeed, in some cultures such as in Spain, a siesta is built into the work culture. Jobs there finish at a later hour in the day, but it is compensated for by the nap built into the early afternoon.
 
Conclusion
The aim here is to find out what you need for optimal sleep. This varies from one person to another. However, as we learned here, it is possible for you to find out how much sleep you need and when you need to go to sleep. 
 
If your particular ideal sleep times clash with the demands of true obligations such as work, then go with the closest possible sleep time that still allows you to fulfil these obligations. 
 
Enjoy being yourself - including your circadian rhythms - and it will make for a happier you. Don't try to force yourself into being something you are not. Stick as closely as possible to the sleep hours that are specific for you, and people around you will notice your upbeat mood. They'll probably want to know what your secret is! (And hey - it's one you can happily share!)
 
 
References
1. "Daily Rhythm Test" BBC Science, April 14 2014
http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/crt/
 
2. "Are You Waking up Tired? Try This Experiment to Sleep Better!" European Bedding
http://www.europeanbedding.sg/are-you-waking-up-tired-try-this-experiment-to-sleep-better-a-54.html
 
3. Dr. Christopher Landrigan "Assess Your Sleep Needs" GetSleep, December 15 2008
http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/what-can-you-do/assess-needs
 
4. Linda Geddes "First Physical Evidence of Why You're an Owl or a Lark" New Scientist, 30 September 2013  
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24292-first-physical-evidence-of-why-youre-an-owl-or-a-lark.html#.U0n1NfldXww
 
5. Belle Beth Cooper "Why Most Olympic Records are Broken in the Afternoon: Your Best Time for Everything" Buffer, July 18 2013
http://blog.bufferapp.com/your-bodys-best-time-for-everything-how-to-eat-sleep-and-work-more-efficiently
 

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