When you think of self-care and healthy habits, you’re likely to point to eating well, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. Unfortunately, for many people, snoozing is often the first one to go when life gets busy and stress starts to pile up. You've probably heard that you need seven or more hours of sleep a night to feel your best, but what's the best time to go to sleep...and does it really matter?
It's normal to fret over the details over sleep because getting it right is so important for all kinds of reasons. Obviously, it’s certainly not safe to drive when you are not alert. But you may also notice a dip in your focus and productivity when you’re super exhausted. Over time, chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to a host of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, pain, mental health conditions, hormonal abnormalities, and decreased immunity, according to the Sleep Foundation.
Here, a sleep expert breaks down why it’s important to have a consistent and healthy sleep routine and what you need to know to get quality shut-eye night after night.
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How many hours of sleep do you *really* need?
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night. “A range of seven to eight hours of sleep at night is usually enough for most adults to feel alert and well-rested during the day,” says Mehwish Sajid, MD, a sleep medicine fellow at the University of Michigan Health Sleep Disorders Center.
The total number of sleep hours a person requires varies from individual to individual, she says. For example, if you’re a parent, you’re likely well aware that children and infants require much more sleep. The CDC has a handy table where you can check how much sleep people in different age groups need.
Even if you find that you function just fine on slightly less than the recommended range, you should still aim to hit that number when you can, and if you find that you could use an extra hour or even a nap, by all means, do that.
If you are waking up feeling tired or unrefreshed after your typical full night of sleep though, Dr. Sajid recommends talking to your health care provider to make sure nothing else is going on.
So, what is the ideal time to go to bed?
A recent study out of the U.K. suggested that the best time to go to sleep is 10 p.m., but that's not really a hard-and-fast rule. “The best time to go to sleep for the night is when you feel sleepy,” notes Dr. Sajid. “At times, people can make the mistake of getting into bed before they are tired, and then run into the issue of lying in bed awake hoping to fall asleep."
However, if you have to be up really early, it would benefit you to make it part of your routine to get to bed early enough to get that recommended seven hours of sleep most nights. If you find that it’s a struggle, Dr. Sajid recommends minimizing exposure to light (especially from hand-held electronics, such as your smartphone) one to two hours before bed, and don’t even think about bringing it with you to scroll after you lie down.
Do you need to sleep at the same time every night?
You should make whatever bedtime works for you a habit, Dr. Sajid says. “Sleeping at the same time every night allows you to keep a consistent circadian rhythm, which is your body’s natural sleep-and-wake clock,” she explains. “Your circadian rhythm controls your drive to sleep and influences alertness during the day.”
This is also important because veering from a normal schedule can make it even harder to nod off at night, which you’ve likely noticed when you stayed up late during the weekend.
“This pattern of sleeping has been called ‘social jet lag,’ and can lead to sleep deprivation over time, which can negatively affect your performance during the day, lead to changes in mood, weight gain, and even higher blood pressure and blood sugar,” says Dr. Sajid. Tempting as it may be to push your bedtime back because you don't have to get up the next day, aim to maintain the same sleep schedule you have during the week.
What can you do to get a good night’s sleep?
If you’ve struggled with falling and staying asleep, rest assured: There’s hope. The following tips can help you improve sleep hygiene and doze off quickly, per Dr. Sajid:
- Read a book before getting into bed.
- Avoid looking at back-lit screens or watching TV within 30 minutes of bedtime.
- Don't eat a large meal right before bed. If you feel hungry, have a light snack, but limit your fluid intake close to bedtime so you won't wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
- Make sure your sleep environment is cool and dark.
- Try not to take late afternoon naps.
- Limit caffeine in the afternoon (including coffee, sodas, energy drinks, and chocolate).
- Refrain from using nicotine or drinking alcohol within four to six hours before bed, as they can lead to difficulty falling asleep or frequent awakenings during the night.
- Hit the gym way before bedtime.
If you cannot fall asleep within 20 minutes of getting into bed, Dr. Sajid says you should hop out and do a non-stimulating activity such as yoga, meditation, or listening to music, in dim light. If all else fails and you’re still struggling, talk to your doctor.
“They can suggest other methods to help determine if a sleep disorder may also be preventing you from getting a good night’s rest,” Dr. Sajid says.
The bottom line: It's more important to go to bed when you can actually fall asleep and try to stick to a regular schedule rather than nailing the perfect bedtime.
Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Runner's World, she has contributed health, fitness and wellness content to Women's Health, SELF, Prevention, Healthline, and the Houston Chronicle, among other publications. She is also an 11-time marathoner, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and an avid traveler.