How to (Actually) Fix Your Sleep Schedule

What’s college with a bed time?

Think about it. Pulling all-nighters for class. Driving home from — we won’t ask — at dawn. Staring at your clock passing 1 a.m., 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. while your headphones blare ‘Best of ’90s/’00s Pop.”

But when endless nights turn into days and you still haven’t slept it might leave you wondering how to fix your sleep schedule. It made me question myself when I realized I graduate at the end of the semester and still can’t wake up before 9 a.m. (at the earliest).

My saving grace was melatonin. That little hormone pill knocked me out within an hour. To force myself to wake up I would book work out classes early in the morning. A new schedule worked for a while, but there were still some nights I couldn’t fall asleep.

Google was no help. The search engine let me know that I needed to stop eating 15 to 90 minutes before bed, I should be exercising during the day and I couldn’t nap as much.

Excess information bombarded my brain as I tried to make a new list and schedule to fix my sleep cycle. At the end of the day, I was too stressed to sleep. So I reached out to Dr. Scott Ryals, a University of Florida Health board-certified sleep medicine physician, for an easy way to help fix my sleep schedule — and yours, too.

1. Set a routine

“Starting a bed time routine about 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime can be helpful to ‘wind down’ in the evening, and get ready for bed,” Dr. Ryals said. “If your sleep schedule is much different than your ideal schedule…slowly shifting your bedtime towards the goal time by 15 to 30 minutes can help gradually adopt a new schedule.” 

Consistency is key when it comes to getting your schedule back on track. Try not to skip or lag on any days. Having a set routine also allows you some wind down time, which helps you destress and get sleepier.

2. Cut the caffeine

“(Caffeine) also contributes to fragmented or interrupted sleep by causing spontaneous arousals where our brain wakes up spontaneously without us remembering,” Ryals said.

Caffeine in any form, like coffee, tea, energy drinks/shots, etc., is meant to keep you awake. So, it naturally makes sense why it off-puts your sleep schedule. But, it can make you more prone to waking up even after falling asleep. Restlessness and rolling around will definitely ensue. Try to stop drinking caffeine four to six hours before you want to go to sleep. Drinking water and eating can help cut the effects of caffeine, too.  

3. Turn off the screens

Screens can take the form of TVs, computers and most often, cell phones. It’s also the hardest thing to cut back on for college students because we’re lowkey always on our phones. But the blue light suppresses melatonin production. “The blue light from these devices has a strong alerting effect on our circadian rhythm and pushes our bedtime later,” Ryals said.

A recent study showed that adults using blue light screens between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. reported a lack of sleep, melatonin and sleep quality. So, it’s best to put your phone down or in do not disturb/airplane mode an hour before bed.

4. Avoid alcohol before bed

“Although alcohol has some sedating effects, it suppresses REM sleep and fragments sleep as well,” Ryals said. “Once the alcohol is metabolized by the middle of the night there can be "REM-rebound" in the latter half and for some people this results in nightmares.”

Not only does alcohol cause disturbances in sleep and trigger nightmares, but it also is known to contribute to insomnia and snoring. You might feel sleepy when drinking or drunk because alcohol enhances a chemical in your brain known as adenosine, which triggers sleepiness. If the adenosine doesn’t make you pass out you’re often left wide awake. No longer are nightcaps the move.

5. Getting more sleep will help you hit the books

“Years later (after college) when I was studying for my Internal Medicine boards I noticed the most retention of information and highest performance on practice exams when I was consistently getting 8 hours of sleep at night,” Dr. Ryal said.

Procrastinating until the last minute can cause a rush of adrenaline or anxiety, which both delay sleep. You’ll have better results if you study and work ahead of a deadline. Not sleeping because you’re cramming also contributes to memory loss. So, overall you’ll have better results and performance if you get more sleep by studying ahead.

Dr. Ryals said he recalled that during his college days, he had to wake around 7 a.m. every morning — even if he had been studying the previous night until midnight or later. Looking back on his college experience with the knowledge he has now, the doctor said he would’ve prioritized sleep much more. In accordance with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, he recommended college students sleep a healthy seven to nine hours every night. A goal of eight hours was his personal recommendation in order to avoid health issues he cited including depression, diabetes, weight gain, and hypertension.

Even if you know how to fix your sleep schedule, which hopefully you do now, it’s not immediate. Don’t make these changes drastically and expect rapid results. I’m just making these changes with the hope that I’ll be prepared for real life by the end of the semester. I can attest that the no alcohol, caffeine or screens works. So, while you might be tired now, and will probably get more tired later, your bed will be there — and the sleep will soon be there, too.