It’s not just for kids. Having a regular bedtime may have numerous health benefits for adults as well.
There’s no shortage of research touting the importance of getting enough sleep.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests adults need at least seven hours of sleep a night. Consistently failing to meet that goal can result in an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and memory loss.
According to the National Institutes of Health, poor sleep can also increase the risk of slowed reaction times, irritability, anxiety, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Despite these consequences, the CDC reports that 1 in 3 American adults struggle to get the sleep they need — which might make the latest news in sleep research all the more concerning.
Many people know about the importance of maintaining consistent bedtimes for children. Kids who have optimal bedtime routines have been found to perform better in tests of executive function, working memory, inhibition, attention, and cognitive flexibility. They also score higher in school readiness and have better dental health.
But it turns out it’s not just children who benefit from going to sleep at roughly the same time every night.
New research published in the journal Scientific Reports points to adults not only needing to get enough sleep every night, but also needing to maintain consistent sleep routines.
Study participants wore devices meant to track sleep schedules down to the minute so researchers could evaluate the impact of sleep regularity, duration, and preferred sleep timing. What they found was an association between sleep irregularity and chronic health problems.
Lead study author Jessica Lunsford-Avery, PhD, assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, told Healthline that the study actually looked beyond bedtimes to examine the regularity of an individual’s sleep-wake patterns on a minute-to-minute basis over the 24-hour day.
“The more irregular these sleep patterns, the higher the risk for obesity, hypertension, and elevated blood sugar, and the higher the projected risk of developing heart disease over the next decade,” she said.
On the flip side, she explained, “This suggests that keeping bed and wake times as consistent as possible may have benefits for health.”
Healthline reached out to Michael Twery, PhD, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, for his insight into this latest body of research.
He wants to advise readers not to become too overwhelmed by these results — or the results of any other sleep study.
“We know that not getting enough sleep results in the chemistry of our body, the biology of our body, failing to work the way it’s supposed [to work]. It might be akin to the timing of a gasoline engine. If the timing of the engine, the movement of the parts, is off a little bit, the engine can still run. It just won’t run efficiently,” he explained.
As far as he’s concerned, getting enough sleep is as important to our overall health as getting enough air, proper nutrition, or exercise.
Still, he fears those sitting at home reading about this research may get the impression they need to achieve perfection in their sleep patterns in order to avoid negative results. And for many, that perfection can seem so far out of reach that they don’t even bother trying at all.
That would be a mistake.
“What we’re talking about are regularly chronic exposures to sleep deprivation, not staying up and celebrating one night,” Twery said.
He advises people to look at these results as guidelines, not rules that can’t ever be bent.
“We have this fragile problem with health education messaging. It’s not about depriving yourself of everything joyful in life. That’s not the issue. The issue is that if we’re regularly working against how our biology is organized, our bodies will find it hard to function,” he said.
What it comes down to is your average. Do you usually get enough sleep and manage to go to bed around the same time every night with only a few rare exceptions? Or is it pretty standard for you to have a different sleep pattern night to night?
If you fall into the former category, you’re probably doing all right. But if it’s the latter, you might want to rethink your lax attitude toward sleep.
Miranda Willetts, a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with clients through her private practice, told Healthline that a person’s sleep-wake cycle (deep sleep and REM sleep) is dictated by their circadian rhythm. This is an internal biological clock that regulates various body processes over a 24-hour period.
“Light, time, and melatonin are the main factors that impact the circadian rhythm. Therefore, inconsistent bedtimes may disrupt one’s circadian rhythm, which may lead to weight gain and metabolic disturbances,” she explained.
She says she talks about the importance of sleep with every one of her clients. “I begin by assessing sleep hygiene during the initial consultation to determine which sleep habits need attention and, from there, we develop actionable steps for the client to take.”
Even when she has a client who presents initially with good bedtime practices, she makes a point of checking in every month to verify that they’re remaining consistent with those practices.
That’s how important she views the sleep piece of the puzzle to overall health.
Lunsford-Avery feels the same way, but she recognizes the barriers that can sometimes get in the way of optimal sleep patterns.
“For many reasons (work demands, family obligations, social opportunities), it can be difficult for us to prioritize sleep,” she explained. “However, sleeping at regular times — in addition to getting enough sleep — is likely to have a large impact on overall health, as well as a person’s mood, stress, and energy levels, and ability to function well during the day.”
Lunsford-Avery does have advice for those who find maintaining consistent sleep patterns difficult.
While she does acknowledge the standard tips of eating better, sleeping longer, and exercising more (and pointing out that even though these tips are key to health, they can be difficult for some to implement), she says her main recommendation is comparatively simple.
“Set your alarm clock to rise at the same time each day, even on weekends. Set a regular bedtime and stick to it as best you can,” she said.
That’s it. Don’t sleep in on weekends, and try to go to bed at the same time every night.
If that seems difficult, Lunsford-Avery suggests tracking your sleep and wake times in order to increase awareness of your sleep patterns.
She also advises people to avoid naps, as they can interfere with regular sleep-wake patterns by making you less sleepy at bedtime.
Willetts has some advice as well. She tells clients struggling with maintaining consistent sleep patterns to create and use a sleep ritual.
“By this I mean scheduling a consistent bed-wake time and developing a bedtime routine that you can execute nightly. From there, it’s a matter of practicing the routine, identifying what works and doesn’t work, and adjusting until you fall into a consistent routine,” she said.
She also stands by Lunsford-Avery’s advice to wake up at the same time every morning.
For those who have tried all the tips and tricks but are still having trouble getting enough sleep and feeling rested, Twery has some advice.
“There’s all these things we can do ourselves, but I think the bottom line message is that anyone who is still struggling with excessive daytime sleepiness should please consider discussing those symptoms with their physician. It could be a sleep disorder, or it could be something else,” he said.