What Happens To Your Body When You Change Your Sleep Schedule?

There is a multitude of reasons why you may need to change your sleep schedule. These can range from starting a new job that requires an overnight shift, to becoming a new parent, to traveling across time zones, among others. When you need to significantly adjust your sleep schedule, is there a quick and easy way to make the shift?

There is a complicated chemical process behind the phenomenon of sleep that may not make this adjustment as quick and easy as you would like. According to the Sleep Foundation, your sleep schedule is part of your body's larger time system — also known as your circadian clock — that manages your body's circadian rhythm. Among regulating body functions, such as hunger and digestion, your circadian rhythm also manages your sleep and waking patterns through the regulation of hormones. When your eyes are exposed to light in the morning, the hormone cortisol will prompt wakefulness as you prepare to take on the day. As daylight fades, the hormone melatonin begins to kick in, signaling that it's time to reduce your energy and start winding down for the night.  

You should know that once you do achieve a healthy sleep schedule that aligns with your lifestyle, whatever that may be, it's important to stick to it. Otherwise, irregular sleep patterns could have an adverse impact on your health over time, including an increased risk of obesity, high blood pressure, and other potential medical issues (via the American Diabetes Association).

Safe methods for changing your sleep schedule

While adjusting to a new sleep schedule won't literally happen overnight, there are science-backed methods that can help you reach your goal in safe and practical ways.

First and foremost, be patient as you make adjustments to your bedtime schedule. "As a general rule, it's easier to push away sleep than to advance sleep," Dr. Rafael Pelayo, clinical professor at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and the Stanford University School of Medicine, told Everyday Health. Dr. Pelayo recommends making 15-minute adjustments each day toward your goal, rather than making a big leap by trying to adjust your sleep pattern by hours. He also stresses avoiding napping, as napping can disrupt your progress toward changing your bedtime. 

Dr. Pelayo advises exercising instead if you feel the urge to nap. Maintaining consistency is also key — when your alarm clock goes off, get up and don't hit that snooze button. "The clock in your head needs instructions," Pelayo explains. Other helpful tips include avoiding exposure to light and refraining from eating too close to bedtime. Also, make bedtime more inviting by adjusting your room's temperature and lighting.

Again, be patient, and expect the adjustment to take some time. "Don't get upset with yourself, because it just makes the problem worse," Pelayo says. "Know that sleep will always come eventually."