People with delayed sleep phase syndrome have trouble getting up in the morning and going to bed at the right time. The body’s internal clock can be reset, however, with the help of a few sleep strategies.
Who doesn’t know at least one night owl who stays up until 1 or 2 a.m. every night, only to struggle to get out of bed the next morning to make it to school or work on time? To those on the outside, these people may seem undisciplined or even lazy, but in reality they may simply be at the mercy of their genes.
Each of us has an individual sleep schedule kept on track by our circadian rhythms, which is biological activity regulated by body temperature, sleep cycle, hormone secretion, and external factors like light and darkness. Our internal clock is located in a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) of the hypothalamus.
“The ‘master’ circadian clock in the SCN receives light information from the retina in the eye, which sends the information to several parts of the brain, including the pineal gland, responsible for the release of melatonin,” says Rochelle Zozula, PhD, coordinator at Capital Health’s Center for Sleep Medicine in Hamilton, N.J. “Light will suppress the production of melatonin, which is directly involved in the process of sleep initiation.”
Sleep Schedule Variations
For some people, however, despite these physical and environmental cues, their internal clocks do not sync up with the world’s expectations. About 1 percent of adults have advanced sleep phase disorder — they go to bed early, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and wake up early, between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. While inconvenient, many can still function well within society.
Other people, however, are not so lucky. Estimates are that as many as 15 percent of teenagers and adults may experience the flip side of advanced sleep phase disorder — delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS).
“DSPS is a circadian rhythm disorder associated with an inability to fall asleep at the individual’s desired time [typically they fall asleep several hours later] and an inability to wake up at the desired time,” says Zozula. “Due to the individual’s daytime obligations, a person with DSPS may be forced to wake up earlier and go against their natural circadian tendency.” This can lead to chronic sleep deprivation, increased psychological stress (almost 50 percent of people with DSPS also experience depression), and even obesity. Not only that, sleep deprivation can cause daytime sleepiness, which increases the risk of motor vehicle and workplace accidents..
10 Tips for Resetting Your Internal Clock
Fortunately, there are some things people with delayed sleep phase syndrome can do to help reset their biological clocks:
- Schedule a doctor visit. See a doctor if your sleep schedule is interfering with job and other responsibilities.
- Adjust your bedtime. Try slowly scaling back your bedtime until you are at the desired hour (often you may need help from a physician with this).
- Do not nap. Even if you feel tired, napping can interfere with going to sleep at night.
- Do not sleep in. Getting up at the same time every day is important in maintaining a functioning sleep schedule.
- Be strict about your sleep schedule. Once you have reached a workable bedtime, don’t allow yourself to stray from it. Even one late night can ruin the progress you’ve made.
- Try light therapy. Consider “bright-light therapy,” a timed exposure to bright light in the morning. This should be done under a doctor’s care, as light intensity, timing, duration, and distance from the light source all need to be specific.
- Avoid night light. Avoid bright and outdoor light in the evening when possible.
- Try melatonin with monitoring by a health professional. This therapy might help, but there could be side effects in some people as well as contraindications with other medications, both prescribed and over-the-counter, so work with your doctor on this strategy.
- Avoid eating or exercising too close to bedtime. Also watch out for caffeine and nicotine, both of which are stimulants.
- Set the mood. Finally, create a relaxing bedtime routine with a warm bath and relaxing music, for instance. Make sure your bed is comfortable, the room is dark, and the temperature is not too warm.
Changing your sleep schedule is not easy when you have delayed sleep phase syndrome, but with the proper discipline it can be done.
By Kristen Stewart – Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH