Campaign for better sleep week 2: Sleep consistency and building a routine

Love a lie in? This is not going to be good news

Last week I began my quest for better sleep with the aid of Fitbit, and the first target of my agenda was exorcising some of my major sleep demons: caffeine, alcohol and screen time.

They’re things that many of us are guilty of – social media in bed, one too many evening drinks – but when you start tracking your sleep, you really see how much these things are impeding a good night’s sleep. I’m pleased to say I’ve been sticking to my goals and the results are telling. It’s taking me less time to fall asleep, while my REM sleep is more often within the recommended amount.

Explained: How Fitbit's sleep tracking helps you get better rest

When I noticed how I was getting a low amount of REM on the nights I had drunk alcohol or was still a little high on caffeine, it got me thinking more about sleep stages generally. I went back to Conor Heneghan, Fitbit’s lead sleep scientist, to ask him about how sleep stages change through the night.

“Since the natural tendency of the body is to have deep sleep earlier in the night and REM sleep later, if you have a shortened sleep, on average the percentage of deep will be increased relative to REM,” he said. That explains why on nights it takes me longer to sleep, the amount of REM sleep I get is often less.

Campaign for better sleep week 2: Sleep consistency and building a routine

More interesting, as Conor explained, is that age doesn’t really affect REM. “Alcohol tends to reduce the percentage of time in deep and REM sleep,” Conor added. “Changes in REM duration can be affected by certain drugs and mental conditions.”

REM can also be affected by mental states. “People with depression are likely to have a higher percentage of REM sleep than average.”

Maintaining a consistent bedtime routine is another way to improve sleep hygiene and ensuring you're getting the right amount of shut-eye. Now, I’ll be honest, I like a lie in on the weekend, so imagine my shock when I was told that a consistent sleep pattern also means getting up at the same time each day – even weekends. This wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.

Keeping it consistent

While eight hours is often cited as the optimum amount of sleep, there’s a lot of disagreement on what is “too little” or “too much” sleep. This also varies by age. Generally, anything less than seven hours is considered too little.

As for what is “too much”, there’s less convincing evidence to support that sleeping too much itself causes problems. However, it is often a symptom of other underlying issues, which is why it has been linked to heart disease and other conditions.

What is widely proven is that maintaining a consistent sleep time is essential sleep hygiene. Our body clock is a pretty amazing bit of technology, and retaining a routine will make it easier to fall asleep each night – and wake up feeling refreshed each morning. Maintaining a consistent night’s sleep ensures both ends of the sleep cycle are being serviced: deep sleep tends to occur during the first third of sleep, while REM is mostly contained to the final third of the night.

Campaign for better sleep week 2: Sleep consistency and building a routine

But here's the interesting part: the move from non-REM to REM happens regardless of whether you’re asleep or not, which is why, on nights that I go to sleep in the early hours of the morning, I get more REM sleep and miss out on the deep sleep that tends to come earlier in the night – which is why my brain will feel murky in the morning.

So this means a lot of self-discipline. Just one more episode of Mad Men? Nope. Time for bed, pal.

A quick glance in the Fitbit app shows me that my bedtime in the past has been pretty inconsistent. As I always wake at the same time on week days, it’s keeping to a consistent bedtime that’s my big weakness. The other challenge is not completely throwing this pattern out of whack on weekends.

Fitbit’s new Sleep Score feature, currently in beta, shows you how your sleep depth and duration stack up against one another, while also scoring you on your Restorative sleep, which looks at whether you were disturbed by any breathing difficulties. My Restorative sleep is pretty consistent – averaging around 88 of a possible 100 – but my sleep duration has been pretty inconsistent in the past, and it’s clearly (and understandably) having an effect on my overall sleep score.

Last week I said I’d started using the Fitbit bedtime reminder to stop myself looking at a screen too close to sleep. As it turns out, this has also proven to be a good way to stick to a set bedtime. Since then, and with a goal of keeping a consistent bedtime in mind, I’ve created a relaxing bedtime routine.

Campaign for better sleep week 2: Sleep consistency and building a routine

When I see the reminder at 10:30pm, I know I should be in my wind-down phase. There are several components to this routine. First of all, I make sure I’m not looking at any screens. I make myself a cup of caffeine-free tea, and I read a bit of my book. No emails. No scrolling through Twitter on my phone. I just sit in bed, read, and at 11pm the lights are out.

As I expected, sticking to this on weekends is proving to be one of the hardest parts of all this, but it’s important to stick to it. What I have started noticing, however, is that a more rigid routine is helping me wake at my normal time on weekends anyway.

What I didn’t initially expect was that a consistent routine would actually improve my sleep stages, specifically my REM sleep. This is because, as previously explained, the ratio of REM to non-REM sleep changes through the night. Maintaining a consistent bedtime routine helps keep these bookends in place. Just take a look:

Campaign for better sleep week 2: Sleep consistency and building a routine

That's a healthy night of sleep, and I'm pleased to say that since getting into a more consistent routine, more of my nights are looking like this. Keeping to a consistent routine is improving my likelihood of moving through the sleep stages as I ought to, particularly making sure I’m maximising the time to get deep and REM sleep.

With that all in mind, I’ll be sticking to my new routine, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this all improves how I feel each day – and how well I sleep each night.


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