Very irregular sleep schedule: okay in an otherwise healthy/happy life?
November 20, 2007 5:06 AM   Subscribe

Very irregular sleep schedule: okay in an otherwise healthy/happy life?

I'm lucky to be doing all my work on my own schedule, but this means I often end up with a very irregular sleep schedule (since the only things I do in person are evenings or overnights with friends/partners or concerts & events, all of which are planned for ahead of time).

Globally I probably average 7 to 8 hours of sleep for every 24 hours of life, but it's often, for example, in six blocks (averaging 8 to 9 hrs each) over seven days. I naturally sleep in blocks of 7 to 10 hours. But those blocks might be, say, noon to evening or dawn to midday or midnight to morning all in the same week.

Otherwise I try to be really aware of health (very good diet, usually good exercise, good outlook and low stress -- often periods of heavy work for deadlines, but low emotional stress). I'm young & female with no health issues. I rarely feel tired or wiped out, and when I wake up I'm myself pretty much immediately without stimulants (I've never been into caffeine).

But when I read general health advice, regular sleep schedule and sleeping in the dark come up all the time. I'm willing to make sacrifices for health, so with this question I'm trying to find out HOW important it is physiologically to sleep on a regular schedule and/or at night, so I can decide whether it's worth it to force myself into a regular sleep schedule.
posted by allterrainbrain to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Good, solid, sleep is one of, if not the most important regulating cycles for us human beings. Do what you can to get back on the most natural cycle you can afford.
posted by Benzle at 5:23 AM on November 20, 2007

Polyphasic sleep involves sleeping little and often. As long as you're getting enough sleep, as in not too much or not enough, you should be fine.

My own ideal cycle involves going to bed at 4AM and getting up mid-to-late afternoon. I cope way better on that than I do getting to bed at 11PM and getting up at 9AM. Everyone's sleep pattern is different.
posted by Solomon at 5:36 AM on November 20, 2007

If you feel good, with no caffeine, you're fine.
posted by notsnot at 5:57 AM on November 20, 2007

What notsnot said. The answers you get will mostly rely on folk psychology, largely because scientists don't understand sleep very well. Given their general ignorance on this issue, you might as well listen to your own body.

For what it's worth, these days, because of my work schedule, I usually sleep in two blocks of 3-5 hours each. I probably average 7 hours a day. I feel fine.
posted by smorange at 6:10 AM on November 20, 2007

depends how long you've been keeping this schedule up. if it's been for more than a few months and you're okay, i wouldn't worry too much.
posted by tastycracker at 6:12 AM on November 20, 2007

Interesting article in the NYT magazine about sleep and the sleep "industry." I had an "oh, of course!" moment reading it when the author discusses just how "unnatural" our Western ideal of "must sleep a solid 8 hours every night" is. Many cultures don't hold to this, and even in the developed world, it's a relatively new way of thinking and acting.
posted by rtha at 6:15 AM on November 20, 2007

Somewhat related article of interest in last week's NY Times mag.

The regular sleep schedule and sleeping in the dark recommendations are "sleep hygiene" to help poor sleepers get rest. If it doesn't jibe with your natural schedule, don't sweat it, I say.
posted by desuetude at 6:16 AM on November 20, 2007

Response by poster: This is definitely my natural pattern -- I've only slept regular hours when I was forced to by jobs, and I was unhappy & unfocused then (although certainly the jobs were the reason more than the sleep schedule).

Does anybody have any opinion on the health importance of sleeping in the dark? I hear that specific advice repeated a lot too, although as smorange points out, it might get repeated just because it gets repeated.
posted by allterrainbrain at 6:26 AM on November 20, 2007

When I was younger, I could get away with having an irregular sleep pattern, but there has been a pretty direct correlation between getting older and needing very regular sleep. Recent studies show that regular sleep and enough sleep affect health in a lot of ways. Pay attention to it; if you find that your general health is not great, try getting regular sleep for a week; your body will let you know.
posted by theora55 at 6:56 AM on November 20, 2007

I have the oddest sleep habits of anyone I know. Based on my productivity and creativity, odd sleep habits seem to be useful.

What works for you reflects your personal chemistry. Best to heed your body's input before some arbitrary rule. You'll know when you need to sleep in and when a nap is in order.

Lots of highly accomplished people did not track an 8-hour sleep pattern.
posted by FauxScot at 6:57 AM on November 20, 2007

Eve VanCauter says the same 9 hours every night or you screw up your body.

She does amazing research at the University of Chicago.

Also: How you feel is not an indicator of how rested you are. Do grasp this.
posted by ewkpates at 7:28 AM on November 20, 2007

Irregular sleep schedules can affect you badly if you're susceptible to, or suffering from, depression.
posted by wackybrit at 7:34 AM on November 20, 2007

The debatable evidence that irregular sleep patterns are unhealthy aside, I have personally found that regular sleep can be more efficient. Sticking to a very strict sleep schedule (I'm usually up before my 5:30 alarm) has reduced my average night's sleep from 8.5 hours to 7. The extra 10 hours awake per week make up for the minor annoyance of going to bed earlier than desired on occasion.
posted by backupjesus at 7:49 AM on November 20, 2007

Eve VanCauter says the same 9 hours every night or you screw up your body.

I couldn't find this.
posted by desuetude at 10:15 AM on November 20, 2007

I have a similar sleep pattern when I'm not forced to work. The thing about sleeping in the dark is that doing it in the light can fuck with your melatonin production, and lack of sunlight can cause depression.

I notice the latter thing affecting me increasingly as I age, but when I was in my early 20s I could go weeks without seeing the sun and not notice the difference. If you can choose to tend toward a "normal" pattern, it's a good investment to make, in case the same happens to you.
posted by bonaldi at 10:18 AM on November 20, 2007

Seconding (er, thirding notsnot). I have recently cut soda from my diet and greatly reduced caffeine (and other stimulants). In the past two months I have noticed that I function well and feel very good on far less and more irregular sleep than I was getting for the previous two or three years. I had a history of irregular sleep patterns previous to taking up with soda and copious amounts of other ceaffeinated beverages. Other than many allergies and a lack of regular strenuous exercise my doctors see me as very healthy. I pay close attention to the cues that my body gives me and I am doing all the better for that.
posted by horseblind at 1:00 PM on November 20, 2007

Here is a RadioLab podcast on sleep.

In case you do not know about RadioLab, it is an awesome hour-long show in which the hosts take on a complex topic each week and tackle it by talking to various expert scientists/professors who present different perspectives. I am sure it will have some relevance to your question.
posted by eebs at 1:34 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just as a data point, my body is more comfortable with a 30 hour day. I automatically drift to it if I have a few days to myself. So I'm not really an insomniac, I'm just forced into being one by the rest of the world.

Sleep when you feel tired. Learn to avoid alarm clocks as much as possible.
posted by bh at 4:01 PM on November 20, 2007

Sleep researchers tend not to agree on how much sleep you need and when you should take it (the BBC's Case Notes has an interesting discussion from a few years back). They do agree that having a regular pattern/hours/etc. can help if you are having trouble sleeping at all, which does not sound like the case here.

If you feel fine, keep it up. Everyone is different. As long as you see the sun every so often - keep up with your vitamin D!
posted by danteGideon at 5:28 AM on November 21, 2007

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