Discussions about the science of sleep (no, not the Gondry film) and how it benefits human health tend to focus on two particular areas: quality and quantity. How much sleep you get, and how deep it is, are big factors in day-to-day functioning, and we've got a pretty detailed understanding of how sleep deprivation can interfere with memory, focusing ability and bodily coordination, among other things. But another area of healthy sleep, scientists often point out, is regularity. The "early to bed, early to rise" proverb may have got something right: going to bed at the same time every night has a lot of surprising benefits.
That's often not the way we view healthy sleeping patterns. People sleep in when they can, enjoy late nights on holidays and weekends (and weekdays, if they can), and often emphasize amount of sleep over a regular schedule. This emphasis, however, might actually be taking its toll: getting to bed at the same time every night if possible might not seem like the act of a young hip go-getter, but it's been found by studies in several areas to have some real benefits, from better sleep to higher cognitive performance. Here are just a few benefits of going to bed at the same time every night.
It Can Help You Go To Sleep Faster
Scientists who work in sleep health have a term for the period of time it takes you to get to sleep: it's called your sleep latency. And it turns out that maintaining a regular sleep schedule, according to several small studies, may cut down on the amount of time you spend tossing and turning before drifting off.
A single-person study in 2005 found that shifting from irregular to regular sleep patterns cut down from an average of 45 minutes of sleep latency to around nine. It's been proven in further studies, like an extensive set of data collected from college students in Taiwan in 2009 and published in BMC Public Health, which found that not only was irregular sleep likely to leave students with less sleep hours overall, it also increased their sleep latency from an average of about 14 minutes up to 24.
It Boosts Your Academic Performance
If you're in education at any level, a regular bedtime appears to be a key part of your brain's proper circadian function, to the point that irregular sleeping habits have been identified as academically damaging. And that holds true from childhood onwards.
In 2010, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine studied around 8,000 4-year-old children around the United States, and found that when they had consistent bedtime rules, they scored better in language and literacy tests and math exams. While sleep needs themselves change as we age — according to the National Sleep Foundation, teens require nine to 10 hours of sleep a night for good neurological function, while young adults often only need seven to eight — the benefits of regularity, it appears, don't vary. A new study published in June looked at 61 undergraduates at Harvard and found conclusive data to link irregular sleep schedules of waking and sleeping to lower grade point averages, because those with irregular schedules had later circadian rhythms and were therefore less alert at key learning times in the day. Takeaway: college should not be a free-for-all.
It Makes You Happier
In young adults, we're increasingly discovering that regularity of schedule isn't just about improving brain function; it's also about better holistic feeling overall. Looking at the relationship between sleep and happiness isn't new, with everything from regular naps to high-quality restful sleep conclusively linked to better mood and positivity (which is unsurprising to basically every human alive). It turns out, though, that regularity of sleep schedules has a role to play in that happiness ratio, too.
This June, MIT scientists released a preview of data they'd gathered on 204 college students who'd worn sleep monitors and filled out diaries about mood and thoughts over a month-long period. They found something pretty straightforward: the more irregularly they slept, the less happy they were (at all times of day, not just in the morning), felt more unhealthy, and had lower calm levels. College students tend to be the focus of scientific studies of this kind because they're an easily accessible and usually healthy audience, so further work needs to be done to discover if this still holds when people are over 25, but it suggests that there's a good reason to set regular alarm, anyway.
It Protects You From Cardiovascular Disease
The most common way in which people throw their body clocks out of whack is due to the working week, and most people have likely experienced this: Monday to Friday, people have a relatively regular sleep schedule, but on the weekends, they stay up and sleep in later. The problem with this, scientists explain, is that it leads to a condition known as "social jet lag", a direct result of irregular sleeping that's linked to all kinds of problematic conditions.
A study in 2012 found that people with social jet lag, with circadian rhythms out of sync with their surroundings, were more likely to have high BMIs than those who didn't exhibit the same problem. And new science from the University of Arizona this June notes a link between socially jet-lagged patients and higher rates of cardiovascular disease. Irregularity in sleep patterns, it seems, places stress on the body in ways that influence, or possibly contribute directly to, poor health outcomes that seem completely unrelated. Your heart health isn't worth risking in comparison with staying at the bar till last call.
It's Better For Your Metabolism
We've known for quite a long time that the body's internal circadian clock — its rhythm of sleeping and waking, embodied within cells and complex endocrine signals — has a role in metabolism. "As evidenced by individuals working night or rotating shifts," scientists in 2013 wrote in Physiologic Reviews, "disruption of the circadian cycle is strongly associated with metabolic imbalance." In other words, people with disrupted circadian rhythms show exactly how important those rhythms are for the metabolism — and what goes wrong when one part of that relationship goes awry.
A 2016 study from the University of Pittsburgh found that women who had irregular sleep patterns, from delaying their bedtimes to shifting them around, showed higher rates of metabolic problems than women who didn't. Specifically, they showed higher levels of insulin resistance, where the body stops responding properly to insulin, which can lead to diabetes. Insulin resistance itself is related to the metabolism of glucose, an aspect of human health that scientists have known for a while is influenced by circadian rhythms. Many things, it seems, come back to our internal clocks and how we treat them. So keep that in mind next time you want to throw your schedule to the wind and watch Netflix till 3 A.M. — you could be unwittingly impacting your health, happiness, and so much else.