Sleep Syncing: What It Is and How To Do It

Aligning your sleep with your body’s natural rhythm can help maximize your energy and health.

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If you’re having trouble sleeping despite practicing good sleep hygiene, and you’ve eliminated other potential sleep concerns, the answer could be that you’re trying to sleep at a time that doesn’t line up with your internal body clock. The fix: sleep syncing. Sleep syncing is when you sync up with your body’s natural windows of wakefulness and drowsiness. Once you know the times your body naturally feels sleepy and then alert the next morning, you can build your sleep schedule to optimize sleep quality. Here’s everything you need to know about sleep syncing.

Everybody is different

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one in three adults aren’t getting enough sleep every day. In addition, about 40% of adults admit to falling asleep during the day without meaning to at least once per month. Part of the blame for this sleep deprivation falls on bad habits like “doomscrolling” late into the evening, falling asleep with the TV on, and eating within three hours of bedtime. But another possible explanation is being out of step with your body’s natural circadian rhythm (your personal pattern of sleepiness and wakefulness).

Most of us have a genetic tendency toward either being an early bird or a night owl. These predispositions — or chronotypes — can vary during life phases, such as new parenthood or when doing shift work, but our bodies generally have their own idea of when they want to wake up and wind down. In fact, one study showed that over seven years, chronotypes stayed relatively stable. Genuine “early risers” usually wake up before 7 a.m., are most productive before noon, lose steam over the course of the day, and become naturally sleepy between 9 and 11 p.m. In contrast, “night owls” wake up late and pick up speed as the day goes on. They often hit their peak period of productivity late in the day and can keep trucking well into the night.

These cycles of sleep and wakefulness are governed primarily by the pineal gland, which is in the center of the brain and produces melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep). Sunlight suppresses pineal gland activity, thereby inhibiting the production of melatonin. Meanwhile, darkness helps increase production, which results in drowsiness. Your cycle is also affected by exposure to sunlight (or the blue light from devices), caffeine, physical activity, medications, and alcohol consumption. Some are factors you can control, and others you can’t.

How does sleep syncing work?

It’s actually pretty simple. When you sleep sync, you align your sleep with your natural circadian rhythm so that your body rests when you’re drowsy and is active when your energy is at its peak. It’s a great way to improve your focus and energy while training your brain to recognize when your body knows that it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake up.

What happens when you sleep sync (and when you don’t)

For Philadelphia-based personal trainer Debby Gammons Brown, 52, sleep syncing means living life between 4:00 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Although Gammons Brown has always been a natural early riser, she forced herself to sleep in during childhood summer vacations and college. “I would wake up early but waste time in bed because I wanted to be cool and sleep in until noon like everyone else,” says Gammons Brown. Once she decided to stop wasting time, she rose at 5 or 6 a.m. to run, then attended all her classes in addition to training with the cross-country team most afternoons.

These days, she gets out of bed between 3:30 and 4 a.m. to organize her day and exercise. After that, she trains clients individually or in boot camp classes on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. When her energy flags around 3 p.m., she enjoys some downtime. Dinner is at 4:30 or 5 p.m.; then she hits the sheets by 7 or 7:30 p.m. “It works for me,” Gammons Brown says. “When I used to live according to different hours, I felt like I was on somebody else’s schedule and wasn’t nearly as productive.”

Gammons Brown has an especially early natural schedule, but even those whose natural sleep cycle hews to more conventional timing ignore their body’s signals about sleep. Part of it is cultural. After all, pulling an all-nighter is almost always portrayed as cool and committed, whereas needing to take a nap usually comes off as weak. Other factors that prevent us from identifying and heeding our body’s prompts about sleep are school and work schedules, plus caring for family.

The result? “We're programmed to override our sleep signals,” says Dr. Audrey Wells, a Minnesota-based specialist in sleep medicine and the founder of Super Sleep MD, an online platform for education, support, and group coaching experiences for people struggling with obstructive sleep apnea. And that’s highly problematic, given how essential sleep is. “The body might be able to go several weeks without food and three days without water. But one night without sleep, you’re wrecked,” says Wells.

“Fighting your natural sleep tendencies can lead to a number of negative consequences, including sleep deprivation, increased risk of chronic diseases, impaired cognitive function, and safety risks,” says Dr. Shelby Harris, a licensed clinical psychologist certified in behavioral sleep medicine based in New York. That’s because being out of alignment with our biological clocks disrupts the release of hormones and protein production, which affects the brain’s communication with the endocrine system. “And that’s how you accumulate risk for disease,” says Wells, which includes cardiovascular ailments, diabetes, and stroke in addition to diminished cognitive performance.

Getting in sync

So, how can you sync your sleep to your body’s natural rhythm to reap the benefits? Start with these simple steps:

Figure out your chronotype

Track when you wake up naturally without an alarm and when you get drowsy for several weeks. Once you’re awake, make sure to expose yourself to daylight, which naturally cues your system to reduce melatonin production. Over the course of the day, note when your energy starts to flag and pay close attention to when you’re ready for bed.

Establish a bedtime routine

Once you’ve got an idea of your ideal bedtime, implement a healthy pre-bedtime routine 30 to 60 minutes in advance of turning in, which includes logging off from electronics and dimming your bedroom lights. Other relaxing sleep-routine activities can include taking a warm shower, reading, practicing yoga nidra, meditating, or listening to ASMR videos.

Lights out at the same time every night

You choose exactly when, but consistency is key because it helps reinforce the pattern of sleep and wakefulness that you’re creating.

Keep in mind, however, that while sleep syncing is pretty simple, it might not be for everyone. For instance, if you work overnight shifts or are an on-call physician, you likely have to prioritize your work hours over your natural rhythms. The same goes for frequent travelers dealing with jet lag, which requires flexibility and planning to overcome. If you have a condition such as Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS), which causes the body to resist feeling sleepy until well past the recommended ideal sleep time of 10:00 p.m., it might be trickier to get your natural circadian rhythm aligned with your schedule.

The takeaway

Sleep syncing can lead to better quality sleep, which improves your brain function, regulates your metabolism, and reduces mental fatigue. Good sleep also reduces your risk of diabetes and heart disease and boosts the immune system — so yeah, you definitely want as much of it as you can get.

And while you might have to commit to studying your own habits and tendencies to piece together the information they’re trying to give you, “once you optimize your sleep for yourself, you're set for life,” says Wells.