How to Sleep Better When the Nights Are Longer

Do you know what's scarier than spooky season? Not getting enough sleep. By now, you've probably heard that you need somewhere between seven to nine hours of total sleep time, but unsurprisingly, we live in a society that doesn't prioritize sleep health. In fact, the simple transition between daylight saving time and standard time is enough to completely throw off your sleep schedule. Studies have shown that it poses public health and safety risks because daylight saving time is less aligned with our circadian biology — basically, the natural internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle.

For that reason, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine's official position on seasonal time changes is that it should be abolished in favor of a fixed, national, year-round standard time. According to Reuters, the US Senate is on board to put an end to the biannual time change, having passed legislation in March that makes daylight saving time permanent starting in 2023. But this November, we'll turn the clocks once more and we'll have to deal with the wonky sleep changes that come along with that.

Roughly 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems, according to the CDC. "The number of people that can survive on six hours of sleep or less without showing any impairment in their brain or their body rounded to a whole number and expressed as a percent of the population is . . . zero," says Matt Walker, PhD, sleep neuroscientist and founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. "We see such strong relationships between short sleep and your risk of basically every major disease that is killing those in the developed world."

Good sleep is imperative for longevity and well-being no matter the time of year. And while our biological clock doesn't exactly align with the changing of our clocks, it is possible to make minor habit changes to lessen the impact.

Should You Change the Time You Wake Up or Go to Bed Depending On the Time of Year?

The answer is complicated. "If you're constantly going to bed and waking up at different times, then the hormones regulating your sleep and awake pattern (your circadian rhythm) are going to be constantly fluctuating, and that's going to impact your quality and quantity of sleep," Kelly Murray, certified adult sleep coach, functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner, and award-winning pediatric sleep consultant, says. In an ideal world, you wouldn't have to make such a major shift to your sleep schedule and could wake with the sun, but most people's schedule won't allow for it. So while, yes, you should change the time you wake up and go to sleep, try incrementally changing when you wake up by 15 minutes over a couple days. That way, instead of dramatically changing it by an hour on the day daylight savings ends, your body can more easily adjust to your new normal.

Does Napping Help as You Transition to Shorter Daylight?

While you may be tempted to take an afternoon nap as it gets darker earlier in the day, Dr. Walker says naps can be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, they help rebalance your moods and lower your blood pressure; on the other, napping late in the afternoon can make it harder to fall sleep at night, he says. Why? A chemical called adenosine is responsible. It starts to build up in the brain from the moment you wake up, explains Dr. Walker. "And, the longer that you are awake, the more of it that builds up and the sleepier you'll feel." But if you are struggling with sleep at night, and then you nap in the afternoon, it's almost like opening a pressure valve on a steam cooker: "You release some of that healthy sleepiness that you're building up, and when it comes time for you to get into bed, you're not going to be as sleepy," he says.

How Do You Stay as Close to a Natural Circadian Rhythm as Possible?

It all comes back to the sun. "Ideally, we should all wake up with the sunrise, so that our eyes obtain a dose of morning sunlight to kick-start the release of cortisol (the alert hormone) and our daytime circadian rhythm," Murray says. "That said, ideally, to be aligned with the solar clock, you should wake up an hour or two later in October compared to the summer," since the sun rises that much later. Of course, not everyone can afford to sleep in for another hour or two. If that's the case, it could be worth investing in a light therapy lamp or sunrise-mimicking alarm clock to mimic the same effect as the sun.

The impact of the delayed natural light/dark cycle could result in circadian misalignment — essentially your natural sense of wake/sleep cycle is thrown off — which has been associated in some studies with increased cardiovascular disease risk, metabolic syndrome, and other health risks. "The best way to stay naturally aligned is to get as much light exposure as possible in the morning and to avoid light exposure in the evening," says Murray. "I tell my clients to aim for 2 to 10 minutes of sunlight within 30 minutes of waking each day and to avoid bright lights, especially screens, for one to two hours before bed. That way, your body gets the environmental signals needed for a healthy circadian rhythm."

Unfortunately, prioritizing health and wellness is a privilege not everyone can access. Jobs that have shifted schedules versus 9-to-5 work days are going to impact someone's ability to get good sleep, for example. At the end of the day, "the four ingredients of good sleep are quantity, quality, timing, and regularity," Dr. Walker emphasizes. And it's great to get in as many of those ingredients as you can. But don't stay up late stressing about the perfect way to sleep. There are many factors that influence the quality of your sleep. So, yes, take care of your health by embracing these core pillars, but also Dr. Walker acknowledges — life happens.