5 Ways to Reset Your Broken Internal Sleep Clock

Get your sleep clock back on track with these five strategies for resetting habits and schedules.

Each of us operates on a biological schedule that plays a big role in when we feel tired and when we feel awake. When our internal sleep clocks are functioning normally, they send our bodies signals to sleep in the evening and wake in the morning.

However, sometimes this sleep clock can fall out of sync, whether due to travel, work, stress, keeping odd hours, hormones or other factors.

This can make it difficult to fall asleep and wake up at the right times, leaving you sleep deprived or with “social jetlag” that can affect performance and moods.

If you find yourself with a broken sleep clock, there are a few strategies you can use to get back on track. Read on to learn about your sleep clock and how to reset it for better rest.

Understanding How Your Sleep Clock Works

Clock parts
Photo courtesy of Flickr, macabrephotographer

Before we get into fixing the problem, it can be helpful to know what your sleep clock is, what it does, and how it works so that these strategies make sense.

The term “sleep clock” refers to several biological mechanisms that control the cycle of wakefulness and tiredness, led by the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) in the hypothalamus.

This cycle is also known as the circadian rhythm. When functioning optimally, this rhythm means you will get sleepy in the evening around the same time, and wake in the morning at about the same time each day.

As far as timing goes, normal biological variation exists, with some people naturally predisposed to earlier sleep-wake times and others to later sleep-wake times. To an extent, genetics influence sleep habits but behaviors and the environment also play a role.

Science doesn’t understand everything yet, but essentially the body’s sleep clock function is influenced by a combination of external cues (like sunrise/sunset and temperature) as well as internal cues (like hormones, neurotransmitters, and genes) and behaviors (like delaying sleep or activity levels).

Resetting Your Sleep Clock and Improving Your Rest

Based on knowledge of the sleep clock and how the body’s rhythms work, there are a few ways to adjust sleep schedules and fix patterns.

1. Manipulate Lighting

Research suggests that manipulating light exposure may help reset the clock, particularly for disturbances caused by jet lag. Light remains a key focus of researchers, and is often a point of treatment for sleep phase disorders.

The daily cycles of lightness and darkness are a key “zeitgeber” or cue that acts on the mechanisms of your sleep clock and circadian rhythm. Retinal ganglion cells in your eyes detect light cycles and transmit information to your SCN.

Essentially, this means you should follow earth’s natural cues. Expose yourself to natural sunlight and bright light in the morning and throughout the day. Start dimming lights in the evening as the sun winds down, with your bedroom being virtually black and devoid of any screens or leds.

Liverpool John Moores University researchers suggest a more regimented approach when trying to reset the sleep clock after jet lag. They lay out a detailed plan based on time zone distance that describes when to expose yourself to light and when to avoid light the days after travel in order to help sync your brain to the new time zone.

Here’s an example for six-hour distances. To calculate other time zones, move the East schedule forward by one hour for each additional time zone east, and move the West schedule backwards one hour for each additional time zone west.

Travelling EastScheduleTravelling WestSchedule
+6 zonesGet light: 11am-5pm-6 zonesGet light: 3pm-9am
Avoid light: 3am-9amAvoid light: 11pm-5am

Or, if you aren’t into math, University of Michigan and Yale researchers developed a free app called Entrain that draws on a wealth of research to plan a light-dark schedule for you.

2. Fast, Then Normalize Meal Times

Digestion and metabolism also play a role in wakefulness and sleepiness. When you eat, and to some extent, what you eat, can help you reset your sleep clock.

Harvard researchers found that, in animals, circadian rhythms shifted to match food availability. Researchers suggest that fasting for about 16 hours (for example during flight and until the next local meal time) could help reset sleep clocks for humans and reduce jetlag when traveling.

For non-jetlag sleep clock disturbances, you could try a 16-hour fast as well. Eat an early dinner (around say 4 p.m.), and then avoid food until breakfast time (8 a.m.) the following morning.

Once your sleep is back on track, stick to regular breakfast and dinner times to help support consistent circadian rhythms, with about 12 hours between breakfast and dinner. Eat dinner at least a few hours before bed, and a filling breakfast shortly after waking.

Some research also shows that saturated fats in meat and dairy may be bad to eat near bedtime, so sticking with leaner fare for dinner and eating heavier meals earlier in the day might be better.

3. Go Camping

Red-orange tent
Photo courtesy of Flickr, wildxplorer

Since natural light schedules help aid the body’s circadian rhythm, it makes sense that spending plenty of time outdoors could help restore natural cycles. For your next vacation, consider taking to the tents to reset your sleep clock.

Research published in the Current Biology journal put this hypothesis to the test, with eight participants spending one week camping without electrical lighting, smartphones or laptops.

They found this natural pattern helped synchronize biological clocks to solar time, with people sleeping earlier and waking earlier than in their normal routines. The biggest changes were seen in evening types, or “night owls.”

4. Pull An All-Nighter (or All Day-er)

One approach to reverse temporary sleep clock setbacks is to stay up one full day until the next normal bed time. This method is essentially planned sleep deprivation, so it is best done under doctor supervision.

There is not a lot of specific research on this method outside of anecdotal accounts for overcoming sleep clock problems, but it is a clinical part of chronotherapy and has been researched for depression treatment.

If you have been going to bed at 4 a.m. and waking at noon, you would wake at your normal time (perhaps on a Friday) then not sleep again until perhaps 10 p.m. the next day (Saturday). Light and mild activity could be helpful for staying awake.

Be aware that you should expect to be tired, and that you should never drive or perform any other dangerous tasks when sleep deprived.

5. Take Gradual Steps

For many people, slow and gradual changes are best when it comes to achieving long-term results. Small changes can also be easier on you physically and mentally, especially if you don’t have days to recover from sleep deficits.

Adjust your schedule by no more than 30 minutes per day, and remain at each phase until your body catches up to the changes. Once you are sleeping and waking at ideal times, don’t forget to maintain a consistent schedule every day of the week.

For example, if your sleep clock is running late by two hours, here’s a potential plan for getting back on track painlessly within one month. Each week, set your bedtime and wake time 15 minutes earlier on Sunday nights, then again on Wednesdays. After four weeks, you should be on back on track.

For large delays, it may actually be more helpful to push bedtimes forward by one to two hours until you reach a normal bedtime. If your sleep clock is delayed by several hours and gradual steps aren’t cutting it, a doctor or therapist may be able to plan a more regimented chronotherapy approach for your situation.

Practice Healthy Sleep

Cat person sleeping
Photo courtesy of Flickr, B*2

Don’t forget to follow essential sleep hygiene principles during, and after, your sleep clock reset.

  • Stick with your plan.
  • Give yourself enough time for adequate sleep.
  • Maintain a strict and consistent sleep schedule.
  • Don’t vary by more than one hour on weekends.
  • Don’t take naps longer than 20-30 minutes.
  • Limit caffeine after lunch.
  • Create a relaxing night time routine.
  • Avoid electronics, bright lights and stress in the hours before bed.
  • Keep your bedroom quiet, dark and cool.
  • Don’t stress about not sleeping – think in positive terms.

If improving sleep hygiene doesn’t help or your sleep schedule is impacting your daily life, you may also want to reach out to your doctor or sleep specialists. They would be able to help you set up a plan, suggest supplements and diagnose any sleep disorders or underlying conditions to help you fix your sleep cycles.

Have you ever had to reset your sleep clock before? What tricks worked for you when trying to reset your sleep clock?

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