How regular is your sleep? Do you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, or is your sleep frequency irregular? Most of us don’t realize that having a regular sleep frequency (regular sleep patterns) matters a great deal to our overall mental and physical health.
Researchers are beginning to study this important part of sleep and have determined that a regular sleep frequency, particularly when matched with the earth’s pattern of daylight and nighttime, strongly influences everything from our mental health to the risk of dying from multiple causes at an early age.
Let’s take a look at why regular sleep frequency matters in your health and how you can improve it.
The Basics of Sleep Frequency
Sleep frequency involves both the duration of sleep and how often you get it. Most people sleep at night and stay awake all day; however, people who do shift work at hospitals, factories, and elsewhere have different schedules.
A few have rotating shifts, meaning that they do some daytime and some night-time work shifts. While individual sleep needs vary, every adult needs at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, according to experts in sleep medicine.
Not only does the amount of sleep you get matter in your overall health, but the frequency and regularity of sleep also count. You can’t get little sleep during the week and then “catch” up on the weekends.
Humans (and all animals) have adapted their own internal biological clocks to the circadian rhythms of our spinning planet.
The light exposure and everyday environmental signals (called zeitgebers) help us maintain a 24-hour circadian rhythm for sleep and wakefulness. In total darkness, however, the body clock drifts about half an hour per day away from this 24-hour pattern.
Your circadian rhythm determines your regular sleep cycle and patterns, appetite, and metabolism. If you try to interfere with it by staying up late or shortening your regular sleep hours in inconsistent ways, you risk health complications you may not know are linked to this irregularity in your sleep frequency.
Why Sleep Frequency Matters
If you have a regular sleep pattern, you fall asleep and wake up at the same time, regardless of your external schedule. You also choose to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
If your sleep pattern is irregular, you may pull all-nighters some of the time, go to bed late on the weekends, sleep in on the weekends, or try to “catch up” on sleep much of the time.
You don’t necessarily get the recommended number of hours of sleep and accumulate a sleep debt over days, months, or years. Researchers have looked at the risks of not getting enough regular sleep and the benefits of maintaining a consistent sleep pattern. The risks of irregular sleep are many:
They note that when you frequently change your sleep timing and your exposure to light and darkness, you can enter a state of long-term jet lag and sleep deprivation.
Regular sleep avoids these complications and prolongs health and longevity. Mental health, in particular, is enhanced by regular sleep.
The long-term benefits of sleeping with a regular sleep frequency include reduced mortality from all causes. This means that regular sleepers tend to live longer and healthier lives.
Maintaining a regular sleep frequency also allows you to better match your biological clock with the earth’s circadian rhythm.
Not only do you get quality sleep when this balance is achieved, but you also have improved metabolism and mood, leading to enhanced long-term health outcomes.
The Mind-Body Connection
Regular sleep frequency with few variations in your sleep experience has clear implications for your mental health. Regular sleep encourages better decision-making, improved attention, and enhanced creativity.
When regular sleep is lacking, you could face mood disturbance, difficulty coping, behavioral concerns, and problem-solving difficulties.
The outcomes of chronic difficulty with sleep frequency regulation can be serious. Risk-taking behavior is increased, and you risk both depression and suicidal ideation.
Such difficulties can happen at any age; when children and teens are affected, the consequences can be life-long, particularly when attention and school success are impaired.
A group of studies looked at individuals who were depressed and compared their sleep history to those who weren’t. Each article showed that poor sleep regulation was an independent risk factor for depression.
Another group of studies looked at all mental health disturbances in children. They determined that poor sleep regularity can lead to poor concentration and attention as well as reduced coping in kids, leading to a higher chance of having anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
Practical Steps to Improve Sleep Frequency
How can you improve the regularity of your sleep frequency so you can benefit from the advantages of more restful sleep? Here are some tips:
Ensure that you eat well and choose regular eating times. This will also help you set the kinds of routines you need to sleep well. Exercise regularly, but avoid heavy exercise too close to bedtime. Instead, do yoga, meditation, or tai chi before you sleep to help relax your nervous system.
Experts say that part of sleeping with more regularity is understanding your own innate sleep type, called your “chronotype.” Your chronotype indicates whether you are naturally a morning person or a night owl.
Dr. Ana Krieger, the director of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center’s Center for Sleep Medicine, says that our sleep preference – our “sleep rhythm” – is like a pacemaker that is genetically determined. She also says that knowing your chronotype can improve sleep.
If you are a morning person, for example, you tend to get up early regardless of when you went to bed. If you have too many late nights from partying with friends, for example, you could fall behind because you’re unable to sleep in. When you avoid these late nights, you get enough sleep to avoid accruing a sleep debt.
Night owls might benefit from a job that doesn’t require early morning starting times because getting up early is not part of their sleep chronotype. Waking up too early in the morning can lead to chronic sleep loss because you’re unable to go to bed early enough to get the sleep you need.
Creating Your Sleep Routine
Follow these steps to ensure the regularity of your sleep routine:
If you want to see the positive effects of your choice to have better sleep regularity, purchase a sleep-tracking device like a smartwatch or ring. Most watches from Apple, Garmin, and Fitbit track your sleep. The Oura ring also tracks sleep and other measures of your health.
Addressing Common Challenges
Most people have some obstacles to face when trying to regulate their sleep frequency. Most obstacles happen when your existing lifestyle is inconsistent with your chronotype.
If you are a student with early classes and are a night owl, for example, you may need to gradually fall asleep earlier than you are used to. In the future, try to take fewer early classes.
Your environment can also be an obstacle to having sleep regularity. If your friends or spouse have the opposite chronotype as you, you may face situations when their lifestyle and yours intersect in ways that reduce sleep regularity.
In these cases, you may decide to interact with these individuals during times when all of you are awake and not interfering with each other’s sleep/wake cycles.
Getting regular sleep at the same time each day can help your short- and long-term physical and mental health. Heart disease, depression, cognitive difficulties, obesity, and diabetes are linked to sleep irregularities in adults. Children also have problems with their physical and mental health when they fail to sleep regularly.
Regular sleep is so essential to your health and longevity that it’s a good idea to prioritize this part of your life. It starts with knowing your chronotype and honoring this trait as you work on optimal nutrition, exercise, and sleep hygiene.
Try to take measurable and actionable steps to enhance your sleep regularity. Once you prioritize sleep and achieve a regular sleep frequency, you’re likely to notice an immediate improvement in many aspects of your physical and mental health. You will also help to ensure that your health moving forward will also be optimized.