My sleep cycle is out of whack, can anyone help me get it back?
November 30, 2012 6:44 AM   Subscribe

YANMD, but I'm always on the wrong sleep schedule. Can you help me finally get some sleep?

Background information: 21, male, college student living in dorm/residence. Thankfully, I'm living alone in my room, so no loud noises - but I'm still having issues.

It always seems like my body is on the wrong sleep schedule. Since I have to get to class at 9 AM, and it's a long walk, this is a big problem.

What happens the night before:

11:30 PM - Decide to call it a night and go to bed.
12-1 AM - Wide awake despite my best attempt at "sleep hygiene." I walk around my room, try to write a to-do list, take out the trash, etc.
1-2 AM - Tossing and turning.
2 AM - Frustratedly get up again, walk around.
Sometime after 2 - finally fall asleep.

8:10 AM - This is the time I set my alarm to. But when it wakes me, I can't move. I find it hard even to reach the snooze button!
8:20 AM - I have another alarm set to this time.
8:25 AM - Can finally get out of bed, though feel tired and "hung over".

~ 6-7 PM and 8-9 PM - Feel like I'm going to fall asleep (because of the sleep issue the night before), even though I have obligations.
10:30 PM - Now, when I'm actually trying to wind down, I feel a "second wind".

It's a vicious cycle until the weekend!

A few important notes:
- I have struggled with anxiety/mild PTSD in the past, but not so much anymore. I don't feel anxious/worried when I'm trying to get to sleep - just wide awake.
- I'm not interested in polyphasic sleep - I've taken enough psychology and biology classes to know that this isn't a great idea (look up slow-wave sleep and memory).
- Once I get to sleep, I don't actually feel like I'm sleeping that badly.
- Last time I had bloodwork done, cholesterol, triglyceride, and TSH (thyroid) levels were of concern.

To sum it up, it feels like I'm in the wrong time zone (even though I haven't been in another time zone in almost a year), and this is a problem! What can I do?
posted by Seeking Direction to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Delayed sleep phase syndrome. Has been described as feeling like jet lag all the time. Luckily you are still young and most people's phase advances some as they get older, so this might fix itself in the future.

In the meantime, light therapy, or arrange your life so you don't have to get up at 8.
posted by nat at 6:52 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try taking melatonin an hour or so before you want to go to bed. I recommend the liquid kind because you can titrate the dose to your needs - most people don't need the 3 to 5 mg found in melatonin tablets. Often, as little as 0.5 or 1 mg will suffice. I use Sundown Naturals cherry flavor liquid.

Do you have any sleep breathing symptoms? Do you snore or stop breathing in your sleep? Do your bed partners complain of your noisy and/or restless sleeping, or elbow and kick you a lot to get you to stop disturbing them? Do you wake up with a dry mouth? Do you have to get up to pee in the night more than once, despite restricting liquids before bed? Be sure to eliminate sleep apnea as a cause for your disturbed sleep - and no, it's not only a condition of fat middle-aged men.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:02 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my experience, the key to recalibrating your sleep cycle is having a consistent time to wake up in the morning. You may need to ask someone else's help to make sure you get up and don't go back to sleep or take naps. But once that's no longer variable (for some time), you're likely to consciously and somatically (if that's the right word) adjust to it.
posted by kimota at 7:09 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sleep is actually made up of various stages, and it's easier to wake up during some of them than others. The "can't move" and "hung over" feeling sounds like you may be waking up in the middle of a REM stage, when your muscles are literally paralyzed.

If you have a smartphone, maybe try one of the various apps that uses the phone's accelerometer to track your sleep patterns and tries to wakes you up during a light sleep stage. (You stick it under the fitted sheet at the top corner of the bed so it can feel your movements.) I use this one on the iPhone. It does a pretty good job of waking me up (within a designated 30-minute window) at a time when I feel less groggy. This may not help you fall asleep better at night, but it could at least help you feel a little bit better in the morning.
posted by Nothlit at 7:12 AM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a life long insomniac and night owl. If the melatonin doesn't work, you may want to try tryptophan. I take 500mg before I "should" go to bed, and I generally wake up about 10 to 15 minutes before my alarm goes off. If I take more than one capsule I'm incredibly groggy and sleep more. It's also curbed my night time trips to the bathroom.
posted by loriginedumonde at 7:42 AM on November 30, 2012

nat may well be onto something with delayed sleep phase syndrome, and perhaps you should see a doctor about it, especially if you are finding it to be a major problem in your life. I'm in my mid-30s and still trying to work my life around it, so I can attest that its effects don't disappear that quickly. On the other hand, if you can schedule classes (for now) and later find pretty laid-back work environments, you may find, as I have, that it's not something to worry about too much.
posted by barnacles at 7:43 AM on November 30, 2012

Not a doctor, but long time crappy sleep sufferer.

The only thing that has been able to change me from a never sleeper night owl can't get up in the morning oh my god I am so tired kind of person, to a productive normal hours kind of person is this:

Always go to bed at the same time, and always wake up at the same time.
Yes, this includes weekends.

Every day of life I go to bed at 10pm. Sometimes it is 9:30, sometimes it is 10:30, but 10 is about average. And every morning I get up ar 6:30. Again, sometimes a little earlier or later, but 6:30 is what time I wake up, even on weekends. I now fall asleep MUCH more quickly, my sleep is MUCH more restful, and waking up frankly isn't that bad. It will take a little bit of time to get your body reset to that schedule, but once you do it should be smooth sailing.

if this doesn't work, talk to a doctor.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:58 AM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Interesting suggestions. But why would sleep apnea prevent me from falling asleep?

If I actually sleep 8-9 hours, I feel fine. The issue is that I can't fall asleep when I need to, but I very rarely wake up in the middle of the night.
posted by Seeking Direction at 8:21 AM on November 30, 2012

Also, if the "evening tiredness" lasts until, let's say, 9 PM, should I attempt to get to bed then? Will that prevent/reduce the "second wind" effect?
posted by Seeking Direction at 8:25 AM on November 30, 2012


I was a horrible sleeper from my mid teens right through college... sometimes it would be literally days before I fell asleep. I started taking melatonin after college and it made a hige difference. Took it regularly for a few years and now I hardly need it, perhaps once every few months, or when I am on the road.

Didn't work every time, but a significant number of times.
Gives you pretty intense dreams
I seem to alternate between waking up sharp and waking up groggy when taking it, but never super tired.
posted by edgeways at 8:26 AM on November 30, 2012

I have this problem too, and what fixes it is always going to bed at the same time, and always getting up at the same time. If I go to bed at midnight and get up at 8 every morning without fail, then I'm great. But if I'm like, "It's the weekend, I can stay up 'til 3," then I sleep until 10 and am fucked for weeks.

What helps me get back on track is really hard exercise. I go for a run or to my really intense Zumba class in the evening, take a shower, have dinner, relax with a book, and go to bed. I actually am in the middle of one of those cycles right now, and I feel like a zombie and am kicking myself. Currently I'm writing my thesis and I haven't had time to exercise. Don't be like me.
posted by woodvine at 8:33 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I would start going to bed when you get tired at night, as long as it's at a reasonable hour (9-10 pm). If you push through that tiredness your body will think it's time to stay up.
posted by chaiminda at 8:35 AM on November 30, 2012

Way back when I read a book called Wide Awake at 3 AM, which addressed sleep disorders & bad sleep schedules & such. It's apparently out of print, but maybe you can find it in a library. Also, I've no idea how truly science-based it was, or whether later research has contradicted some of the ideas in the book.

In any case, disclaimers aside, one of the methods that supposedly worked to get people's sleep schedules re-calibrated was to actually keep moving forward around the clock (staying up later & later, getting up later & later), until they'd landed on the "right" bedtime. Something about how we generally find it easier to stay up later, rather than go to bed earlier. Then once you've landed on your "proper" times, you'll have an easier time maintaining that schedule.

I only really bring this up because I'd bet you probably have some kind of winter break coming up soon, so as long as you have cooperative parents/roommates/whoever you're staying with over the break, you could actually give this a try.

Also, total anecdata, but one of my good friends who had thyroid problems had all sorts of sleep issues, so maybe get that looked into by a doctor.

Also, if the "evening tiredness" lasts until, let's say, 9 PM, should I attempt to get to bed then?

Worth a shot, sure.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:17 AM on November 30, 2012

I've also had a touch of PTSD in the past, and the following things have worked well for me:

* Strict sleep hygiene, regardless of weekends. I'm up at 6 on Saturdays. It's quiet!
* A regular exercise routine properly timed to allow me to fall asleep. For me, this is morning or directly after work. Too late and I'm wired.
* Magnesium supplements, or paying attention to the amount of magnesium in my diet. Cut my "falling asleep" time from an hour down to 10 minutes.
posted by House of Leaves of Grass at 12:16 PM on November 30, 2012

Hi, I have DSPS too and I'm gonna say basically what I said last time I posted in a thread about sleep disorders, because this jumped out at me:

11:30 PM - Decide to call it a night and go to bed.

OK, start here. When you decide to call it a night, is that the moment you close your laptop, shut off your tv, or whatever? Try engineering yourself a longer, slower evening wind-down routine. What I do is turn off all screens and overhead lights at 9pm, and from then till actual bedtime, stop doing exciting things and relax: read (not something riveting), knit, drink a beer (hops are sedative, so if you like hoppy beers this could help in a pinch), take a hot shower. If I really need to rest my eyeballs or un-tense my muscles I'll shower by candlelight. You could meditate. The idea is to get yourself relaxed and tired enough so the 10:30 second wind doesn't happen and instead you're on your way to, say, an 11pm bedtime.
posted by clavicle at 2:07 PM on November 30, 2012

I've had also had very similar problems with insomnia. I'm very mindful of my sleep habits as it makes a HUGE difference to my day to day well being. Some of the things that helped.

- No electronics the hour before bedtime. This is tough, but it makes a big difference. Having bright lights shining in your eyes (e.g. computer screens) interferes with your brain's ability to produce natural sleep chemicals (melatonin).
- Regular sleeping and waking time. I've also had success taking melatonin supplements to help me get into an initial rhythm. I'd personally feel uneasy taking it daily as it is not FDA approved, but it's been great to get my schedule sorted out when my circadian rhythms were wonky. I would take it for a day or two then would find myself getting drowsy around the same time. You need to plan on 8-9 hours of sleep if you take it. I.e. If you're tossing and turning at 2am don't pop a melatonin unless you want to wake up in a really weird lucid dream or do something confusing to your brain.
- Get outdoors during the day. If you can get some sunlight early in the morning, this is especially helpful.

I also found for me personally one of the reasons I pushed back bedtime is that I had trouble being entirely alone with my thoughts and would sometimes feel sad and lonely at night. Mindfulness meditation helped me just be able to sit with myself, including my unease, and it made it easier just to lie under the covers without ruminating on things.

Good luck! :-)
posted by mermily at 5:52 PM on November 30, 2012

If you are tired at nine that might be your sleep gate, which if you miss it you wind up awake for a long time. So try going to bed earlier if you are tired.

If you are not tired earlier (except feeling kludgey from sleep deprivation), then yeah you might have a delayed sleep phase. One really effective way to control this is with a very strict sleep schedule (as described above) and 30 minutes of bright light every morning (the light here is the one that has been used in most research of DSPS and SAD -- you might also be interested in the book "Chronotherapy" which is for sale at that site).

Good luck!
posted by feets at 11:15 PM on November 30, 2012

In addition to the tips above -- particularly "no electronics starting an hour before bed", and "melatonin an hour before bed" (really, half a dose is the most you'll need,) you might also try the "isolation chamber" approach: NO sound, NO light. Install blackout curtains (I have this kind), and remove / cover any source of light in your room - clock faces, power strip lights, laptop charger LEDs, etc. Get it as close to complete blackness as you can. And then put in earplugs even though you don't have a noise problem, so the only sound you're hearing as you lay there is your own breathing. I've found that removing all light & sound stimuli from the bedroom gives my stay-awake-brain nothing to latch on to, so it gives up most of the time and lets me sleep.
posted by D.Billy at 5:53 AM on December 1, 2012

Caffeine any time after about 10am (yes really) interrupts my sleep. It doesn't necessarily stop me from falling asleep if it's taken in the morning but it does mask my tired feelings, so I'm all 'wow wide awake let's do stuff!' until I relax, and then I'm suddenly dead tired. Sometimes I then get awake again later. If I don't have any caffeine and no dark chocolate in the evening then I'm much more in tune with when my body is telling me to sleep. And consistent bed and waking times help me immensely, even when that means getting up at 7-8am at the weekends.
posted by kadia_a at 6:08 AM on December 1, 2012

If you do have a delayed phase (try taking this morningness-eveningness questionnaire to get an idea if that might be the case), then taking a normal dose of melatonin an hour before bed might not be the best thing for you. Try "microdoses" (.1 to .2 mg) a few hours before you want to be sleeping. The explanation why.

Also: I just wanted to give a more direct link to the Chronotherapy book. The one author, Dr. Michael Terman who works at Columbia, is one of very few scientists working today to clinically treat sleep/circadian problems, so if you want to understand what's going on with you I think he might be a good resource.
posted by feets at 10:53 AM on December 1, 2012

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