Science-backed reasons why you don’t have to feel guilty each time you’re unable to sleep on time at night.
“You’re up early,” my mother remarked as she walked into me rummaging through the contents of the refrigerator for something to eat. It was 5 in the morning. I hadn’t woken up early. I hadn’t yet retired for the night.
This happened in May 2020 — right in the middle of the pandemic-induced lockdown in India. Because I had no obligation to wake up early, I found I just couldn’t go to sleep on time. Even before the work-from-home phase started, I had trouble going to bed early, but because my classes started at 9 AM, I had to sleep by 1. Now though, things were different.
After the lockdown ended, I’ve still been working from home. For almost eight months, I tried my best to maintain a “healthy” sleep cycle. But each time, some crazy idea struck me at midnight, and I couldn’t go to sleep until I’d seen it to completion.
I even tried extreme measures like staying up all night so I’d be tired and sleep by 8 or 9 PM the next day. Even then, though I did manage to fall asleep by 9 PM, as soon as my sleep debt was complete, I was back to my habit of sleeping by 5 AM.
In a conversation with my mentor a few weeks ago, he asked me what’s the one problem in my life I’d give anything to fix. Without hesitation, I told him I’d like to sleep early. Then, he asked me what was I losing out on by sleeping late. This made me think. Try as I might, aside from a few snide remarks from family members, there wasn’t any way this was affecting me.
“As long as you manage to get 8 hours of sleep and don’t hamper your other projects,” my mentor told me, “there’s no harm in sleeping late.”
Now, I’ve shifted my time of going to bed to 2 AM, but I’ve given up trying to sleep “early”.
After continued self-experimentation and a thorough study of works by several sleep scientists, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is indeed possible to convert your inability to sleep on time into a superpower. This article discusses exactly that.
Maintain the Consistency
A 2010 study from the University of Illinois found that students who wake up late got worse grades in their first year of college compared to early sleepers. However, a 2017 study by the Harvard Medical School found that the association between later wake times and low grades may be reversed by sleep regularity. The researchers established that irrespective of the time of going to bed, students who went to sleep and woke up about the same time every day did better in school than those who slept irregular hours.
In essence, the quality and consistency of your sleep patterns matter more than when you’re waking up. Sure, a lot of content on social media might portray the idea that waking up at 5 AM is the only way to be productive, but research says otherwise. As Dr. Charles Czeisler, Director of Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine told CNN, “If you go to bed at 2 and get up at 9, that’s fine. You just have to consistently do the same thing.”
No wonder I never felt low on energy or motivation even when I went to bed at 5 AM and woke up at 1 PM. These days, I’ve managed to sleep at 2 AM and wake up by 10 AM — but the level of energy is the same. I find the hours after midnight are the most productive as I can focus on my work without getting distracted by calls or messages. That’s also the only time in the day I can truly be by myself — something I cherish more than I can put into words.
But what about the so-called health effects of sleeping late on the body?
The Trick Is in the Motion
According to a study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, people who sleep late spend more time sitting than early risers. The researchers observed a group of 123 healthy adults and found that the late-sleepers have more difficulty maintaining a regular exercise schedule or even finding time to exercise.
This wasn’t an issue for me because as soon as I woke up, I walked to my terrace and spent about half an hour stretching and doing a small workout. Aside from that, I made sure to clock at least 8000 steps each day. I also placed a large cardboard box on my existing desk and converted it into a standing desk. That way, even when I was working all night, I could alternate between sitting and standing.
If you have trouble going to bed early, make sure you incorporate enough movement into your day and spend at least 10–15 minutes stretching and working out.
Less Can Be Enough
According to a Northwestern Medicine study, people who sleep late consume 248 more calories a day. This comes from twice as much fast food and half as many fruits and vegetables as those with earlier sleep times. In addition, a study by the Oregon Health & Science University reports that the body’s internal clock prompts us to reach for sweet, starchy, and salty foods at around 8:00 PM or later. Evolutionarily speaking, this might have been a survival tactic as it helped our ancestors to store fat when food might be scarce the next day. But in today’s times, this can only lead to unhealthy eating habits and weight gain.
Not eating extra food at night was easy for me because irrespective of my messed-up sleep cycle, I followed the 16/8 intermittent fasting religiously. Since September 2020, I’ve incorporated this into my life and now, it has become second nature to not crave for anything extra after dinner.
So, unless you want to force yourself to fast, how else do you fight the late-night cravings? According to Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, here are five tips to prevent going overboard at night:
- Start thinking about food as fuel for activity, rather than mindlessly eating because you’re “bored”.
- If you struggle with post-midnight binge-eating, consciously change your habits to make sure food has no place in your routine after dinner.
- Plan your meals in advance so you don’t end up ordering too much food in takeaways and overeating.
- Keep a food journal and track your calorie intakes.
- Believe you can. Take a deep breath, visualize a night of not munching on food, and hold yourself accountable to your promise.
Getting Back to Real Life
But is sleeping super late into the night good for you? After all, it can put you at odds with the timeline of the rest of the people around you, and might even lead to daytime sleepiness and poor mental well-being.
Personally, I felt like I was missing out on most of what was going on with the world — especially when the lockdown ended and the world started slowly pulling back to its original ways. I decided to wake up sooner and go to bed a bit earlier by adopting a set of micro-habits that helped. I now wake up by 10 AM, which somehow feels even better and a perfect balance of the two: I get enough “me-time” post-midnight and I also manage to wake up at an hour that’s largely considered “normal”.
In a 2019 study published in Sleep Medicine, the researchers worked with 22 participants over 3 weeks and tried to incorporate “simple, practical non-pharmacological interventions” to shift their body clock towards a pattern more aligned to societal demands. These changes include:
- Waking up 2–3 hours earlier than the usual time and getting as much sunlight as possible.
- Going to bed 2–3 hours earlier than their usual time and minimizing exposure to artificial light sources before bed.
- Sticking to the same times to wake-up and go to bed every day.
- Maintaining a balanced food cycle, which includes a light breakfast first thing in the morning, lunch at a consistent time each day, and dinner before 7 PM.
The modified sleep cycle resulted in a lot of benefits for the participants, including better strength and physical shape and a decrease in the feelings of depression and stress.
I used to feel guilty about having a messed up sleep cycle, but now, I’ve made peace with the fact that it will never align with the rest of the world’s — at least not now when things have settled into a nice rhythm. Instead of whining, I’ve turned this “indiscipline” into a superpower by shifting my work hours to after midnight. It helps that I get ideas around that time, so I can concentrate on my writing too.
If you’re someone who can’t help but go to bed late at night, here are some steps you can take to make sure you don’t lose out on anything:
- Sleep for a fixed duration each day and maintain consistent sleep and wake-up times.
- Don’t sit through each hour you stay awake post-dinner. Get a standing desk to work on and make sure you include exercise and enough walking into your daily routine.
- Don’t eat anything after dinner — especially not junk food.
- If you’re feeling left out and disconnected from the rest of the world because of your unique sleeping habits, adopt some micro-habits to fall back into a more “normal” sleep cycle.
At the end of the day, if you’re not feeling stressed, lethargic, drowsy, or in general missing out on anything important to you because of your sleep cycle, there’s absolutely no need to change it. As my doctor friend says, “Your body knows better than any doctor.”
Indeed it does. Learn to listen to the signs it gives and stop chasing unrealistic goals because a bunch of articles on the internet told you so.
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