Simple solutions for delayed sleep phase syndrome

Q:  After doing much research, it seems I have “Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder”.   I’m an otherwise healthy male in my mid 20s, and in graduate school.  Problem is I’m not performing well academically because I feel tired and sleepy during class.  Normally I go to bed around 2 or 3 a.m., and wake up around 11 a.m.  With my classes I now have to get up at 6 a.m.  When I wake up that early, I feel tired for the rest of the day unless I take a nap.  I typically nap between 3 to 5  p.m. and sleep 1 to 2 hours.  After a nap I feel better, but then can’t fall asleep until 2 or 3 a.m.  I’ve read about light therapy and melatonin supplements, do you think this will help me?

A:  What you are describing is actually common among adolescents and young adults, who often have a biological clock that runs a bit slow for a few years.  Light therapy and melatonin may help, but in your case we suggest you start with something more conservative and simple, because that’s all you may need.

First, your sleep schedule could probably be improved.  The key to help strengthen your internal sleep system is to have a consistent wake-up time.

That means the getting up at same time every day, consistently as much as possible, including weekends.  Use an alarm clock, and try to get out of bed at the same time every morning.  Let yourself sleep in one day, and you pay the price the next night.

Upon arising, immediately expose yourself to bright light.  Indirect sunlight, because of its full natural spectrum, is usually best. This helps re-set your biological clock for a new day, and resynchronizes it to your natural circadian rhythm, which largely controls sleep.

If you can’t get indirect sunlight for any reason, don’t worry about it.  Just go for whatever bright light is available.  Most people are fine with regular indoor lighting.  You may not need to go to the expense of buying specialized full spectrum lighting.  Try the simpler options first.

Napping is somewhat controversial among sleep experts. Some say it’s OK, others say no, it decreases your prior wakefulness and homeostatic sleep drive, therefore making it more difficult to fall asleep later.  That seems to be what you’re experiencing.

Sleep drive is a second major component, in addition to circadian rhythm, that largely controls sleep.

We suggest napping is OK, but less is better.  Limiting yourself to a maximum of 30 minutes and at least 6 or 7 hours before your normal bedtime should have a minimal effect on your sleep drive.  You may find that just 10 or 15 minutes of resting, if not sleep, leaves you feeling noticeably refreshed for the rest of the day.

Also try to have a consistent bed time. This should be determined by how much time you are allowing for sleep.  If for instance you normally schedule 8 hours and you are not sleeping well, try reducing to 7.5 hours for a couple of weeks and see what happens.  Make any scheduling adjustments to your bed time, and keep your wake-up time consistent.

Reducing the time allotted for sleep has the effect of increasing your sleep drive.  As your sleep starts to improve, you may be able to add time back in. But do this in small increments over a period of a couple weeks at a time.   Your sleep system thrives on this sort of regularity.

You also may be helped by scheduling a relaxing cool down routine before bed.  This can be getting your clothes ready for morning, making a to-do list, reading, taking a relaxing bath, and so forth.  This helps prepare your mind and body for the transition from wakefulness to sleep.

We also suggest avoiding or at least limiting any caffeine after about mid-day, in either drinks or food (there are many foods with caffeine, including chocolate).

All of these ideas and more are from CBT-based adult sleep training methods.  CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, is a simple and common sense solution for better sleep that works for most people.  The methods are completely drug-free, natural, and for many a permanent solution.

In your case, hopefully these simple suggestions may be all that you need to start sleeping better.

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One Comment on “Simple solutions for delayed sleep phase syndrome”

  1. […] insomniacs are not aware of the two most important mind-body systems that control sleep:  circadian rhythm and homeostatic sleep drive.  These two physiologic processes work in tandem.  When synchronized […]

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