Research suggests that going to bed just half an hour earlier each night can have a big impact on fatigue, but is 30 minutes really enough to make a difference?
I’ve always been a night owl. I’m most productive after 11pm, fuelled by “I must get this done right now” energy. Call it chronotype or stubbornness, the upshot is I’m always exhausted when my alarm goes off the next day.
So, when I read that around 30 minutes’ extra sleep each night could reduce fatigue and daytime sleepiness, my interest was piqued. Despite more recent research suggesting 10pm as the optimum bedtime for health, there’s no way that I could hope to be done with the day that early. A more realistic goal, however, is trying to be in bed half an hour earlier than normal.
The benefits of going to bed 30 minutes earlier
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It’s easy to think that in order to gain significantly from an earlier bedtime, you need to have an ‘early’ night. But despite trying to drag myself away from Grey’s Anatomy by 10pm, getting an early night is virtually impossible… unless I’m feeling ill.
But the good news is that experts tend to believe small tweaks in sleep patterns are enough to make a big difference and that, on the whole, getting slightly more sleep is better than struggling to implement big changes.
“If you go to bed half an hour earlier, there is the obvious benefit of feeling less tired, but it is so much more than that,” advises certified health coach and CBT practitioner Michelle Flynn. “You’ll improve your physical and mental health – from feeling less stressed to being more tolerant and looking brighter externally to feeling better internally. Sleep is our life support system, so every function of our body is improved by getting more of it.”
Is an extra 30 minutes sleep enough to make a difference?
“This does depend on what time you go to bed normally and how much sleep you are currently getting but, generally speaking, the answer is ‘yes’,” says Flynn.
“The majority of people in the UK do not get the recommended seven-to-nine hours of sleep, so an extra 30 minutes can be the difference between waking up energised versus struggling to get out of bed in the morning.”
Honestly, it’s difficult to say whether the earlier bedtime helped to improve my energy levels. With three children, a dog, work and various other commitments, I confess that I still spent most of the experiment feeling pretty shattered.
Energy levels can get worse
Falling asleep earlier didn’t mean I got much extra sleep, once I factored in waking up with the kids throughout the night, or the dog needing a wee at 3am. What was going on?
“Ironically, going to bed 30 mins earlier might make the problem worse,” explains sleep expert Heather Darwall-Smith. “While you may get more sleep, if the quality isn’t great, you will likely still experience daytime fatigue. It’s essential to focus on both the quantity and quality of sleep, as just spending more time in bed does not guarantee you will sleep well.”
The impact of sleep debt
Apart from a morning surge of energy, I was still in a pretty much constant state of tiredness, even after two weeks of more time in bed. And apparently, this could be down to my hefty sleep debt. Years of going to bed too late combined with over a decade of broken sleep (thanks, kids) and a period of awful pandemic-induced insomnia means that I’m always running on empty.
The reality is that it takes longer than two weeks to address this, especially if, like me, your sleep hygiene has been non-existent. “Chronic sleep debt can be hard to recover from which is why it is so important that we make sleep a priority,” urges Flynn.
“It takes time to pay off the deficit; some people may feel an instant impact but for others it may take a month or two to feel the difference. This can depend on how long they have had less sleep for.”
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“It’s important to note that it may take some time and experimentation to find the sleep strategies that work best for you,” agrees Darwall-Smith. “Keep track of your sleep patterns and habits, and make adjustments as needed, until you find a balance that works for you.”
A consistent sleep schedule is vital
While I’d love to be able to tell you that just going to bed half an hour earlier will magically solve your sleep problems, the experiment proved it’s not that simple. But that’s not to say I haven’t gained from the experience. I’ve learnt a number of important lessons – most crucially that I need a better sleep routine, with no excuses. Goodbye, weekend lie-ins.
“It’s vital to set a consistent sleep schedule and stick to it, even on weekends,” advises Darwall-Smith. “Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day can help regulate your body’s internal clock and improve your sleep quality.”
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What impact does sleeping earlier have on energy and focus?
Feeling tired earlier
Interestingly, around a week into the experiment, I naturally started feeling tired earlier in the evenings. Rather than falling asleep on the sofa and waking up with a start, I was drowsy at a more ‘normal’ bedtime – and was surprised to find how early it was when I checked the time.
Feeling more alert
I also noticed how much quicker I felt alert and awake upon waking. Whereas I’d usually still be yawning and rubbing my eyes mid-morning, desperate for some extra shuteye, during the experiment, I found that after 10 minutes or so after waking I felt pretty good. And that’s a big win for me.
Still tired? It might be worth seeking expert help
“Understanding why we are tired is like being a detective as so many different things can impact our energy levels,” explains Flynn. “Lack of good quality sleep is the obvious one, but if you are getting the quantity, quality, regularity and consistency of sleep you need and you’re still exhausted, it’s worth taking a more holistic approach and looking at other lifestyle factors that could be impacting your energy levels.
“A stressful job, a demanding family life, poor diet, lack of exercise and even not drinking enough water can all impact fatigue.”
Darwall-Smith agrees. “If you are experiencing daytime fatigue despite getting enough sleep, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional to rule out any underlying medical conditions,” she advises. “A sleep specialist can also help you evaluate your sleep habits and identify any potential sleep disorders contributing to your fatigue.”
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For me, going to bed half an hour earlier – while a good starting point – simply isn’t going to cut it. The experts agree that I need to prioritise my sleep hygiene. But it’s not all bad news, says Flynn.
“Life is about balance, and our sleep routine is something we should consider throughout the day, not simply at bedtime,” she says. “Stopping caffeine at lunchtime, not eating too late into the evening and getting off screens nice and early will all benefit the quality of sleep we get. You don’t necessarily need to go to bed even earlier as, if you take these steps, the sleep you are getting will be more restorative.”
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