Travel, shift work, or even a few nights up worrying can upset your sleep. They can throw off your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that controls when you sleep and wake.
You don't have to take sleep problems lying down. Try these 10 tips to get your sleep cycle back in sync.
1. Use Bright Light in the Morning
Your body's clock is "set" by cues like light, darkness, and when you eat or exercise. Light is the strongest of these cues. It tells your brain whether it's night or day, and that tells you when to sleep.
When you wake up, turn on bright lights and throw open the curtains to bring in daylight.
2. Dim the Lights in the Evening
Too much light at night pushes your sleep time later. To cut down on light at night:
- Keep lights low near the end of the day. Turn off bright overhead lights.
- Ban laptops, tablets, cell phones, and TVs from your bedroom -- and don't use them in the hour or so before sleep. "Our eyes are most sensitive to the bluish light that electronic screens emit," says Yo-El Ju, MD, of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo.
- If you're on the overnight shift, wear sunglasses from the time you leave work until you get home.
3. Time Your Meals
When you eat may affect your internal clock, according to Harvard researchers who tested that on animals. They suggest that shifting meal times may help people handle changes in time zones or work schedules.
Say you are traveling from the U.S. to Japan -- an 11-hour time difference. If you fast for 16 hours, about the length of the flight, and then eat as soon as you arrive, it could ease jet lag.
At home, keep a regular routine for meals and exercise. That helps steady your internal clock and your sleep.
Go to bed and get up at about the same time, too, even on weekends.
4. Limit Your Time in Bed
If you lie awake when you're in bed, temporarily restricting your sleep may give you better, deeper sleep.
First, log the hours you sleep each night for a week or two. Average them out. Let's say that you sleep about 4 hours a night. If you need to get up at 6 a.m., start going to bed at 2 a.m.
Don't nap during the day. "You want to build up your sleep drive," Ju says. Once you're sleeping solidly the whole 4 hours you're in bed, gradually move your bedtime 15 minutes earlier until you're back on track. Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep a night.
5. Limit Caffeine
You may be tempted to use caffeine to get over the afternoon hump. Don't. Instead, avoid caffeine after lunch. It can affect your sleep that night.
6. Adapt for Travel
You can take the edge off jet lag, especially when traveling east, by shifting your sleep before you leave.
- If you're flying east to a time zone where it's 3 hours later -- say from California to New York -- go to bed and get up an hour earlier for 3 days before you leave. By the third day, you should be on the time zone you're heading to.
- If you're going west, go to bed and get up an hour later.
If you don't adapt ahead of time, do it as soon as you get there. "Stay up until it's your regular bedtime in your new time zone," says Michael Decker, PhD, D.ABSM, of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. A brisk walk in the sunlight may also help.
7. Split Up Sleep
This can help if you work a night or rotating shift and have trouble sleeping 8 hours straight. Snooze for 4 hours when you get home and 4 hours again before work.
8. Ask Your Doctor About Melatonin
This hormone, which your brain makes at night, seems to help bring on sleep. A 3- or 5-milligram melatonin supplement may help, but be careful.
"More is not necessarily better," says Phil Gehrman, PhD, CBSM, of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "It can stay in your brain too long and cancel out any benefits you might get."
Get your doctor's advice on a dose and the best time to take it.
9. Go Low-Tech
High-tech devices that monitor your sleep cycle promise better sleep -- like wrist or head bands that monitor your sleep cycle to find the best moment to wake you. But you might not need a fancy device.
"The best things are probably the really low-tech things, like plain sleep masks and earplugs," Ju says.
Blackout shades, a soft fan to drown out noise, and unplugging the telephone are other low-tech options.
10. Get Help
If you try all these tips and still have sleep problems, talk to your doctor. "Therapy to teach you better sleep habits and medication can help retrain your brain to fall asleep and stay asleep," Decker says.