Early to bed…

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I believe that sleep is a much under-rated past-time. Two years ago, I wrote a blog post which punted getting more sleep as a worthwhile New Year resolution. And my recent post of 10 potential New Year resolutions also included one on getting adequate sleep. So, I was interested to see a recent study getting some attention which found that, in adolescents, setting of bedtimes by parents of midnight or later was associated with an increased risk of depression and ‘suicidal ideation’ compared to bedtimes of 10.00 pm or earlier [1]. Such ‘epidemiological’ studies cannot be used to conclude that going to bed late causes low mood and suicidal tendencies. However, it is certainly one line of evidence which suggests that getting an early night might have benefits for us.

One reason for this is that individuals going to bed earlier might simply be more likely to get adequate amounts of sleep. For most of us, especially during the working/school week, the start time for the day is relatively fixed. It’s fixed by things like getting to school, ferrying the kids to school, getting to meetings, missing the rush hour traffic etc. Because of this, most of us do not have many options to extend sleep by staying in bed. If we want to get more (and perhaps adequate levels of) sleep, going to bed earlier is the only sensible tactic for the majority of us, the majority of the time.

Some people have theorised that going to bed earlier also reaps dividends in that ‘an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after’. Part of the reason this might be is relates to the fact that, for a given amount of sleep, going to bed earlier can mean longer spent in deeper, more restorative (non-REM) sleep. I can’t find any definitive work on this, but what I do know from my experience in practice is that individuals who shift their sleep forward a bit (so that even if they are not sleeping longer, they are sleeping earlier) almost always feel better in time for doing this. Higher levels of energy in the morning, and right throughout the day, is not an uncommon finding.

There is, in my view, another reason for going to bed earlier ” it means that we find it easier (perhaps even easy) to get up earlier too. And the benefit here? Well, individuals who get up early tend to find something useful to do with the time they have created, such as taking exercise, having or at least preparing (to eat later) breakfast, or clearing emails and other distractions to enable the day to be started with a ‘clean slate’.

Compare these useful activities with, perhaps, the activity time you may have ‘stolen’ from the late evening the day before. Because, to be frank, for many of us this will be taken up watching or drifting in and out of consciousness in front of rubbish TV, doing some mindless internet surfing or engaging in some other not very enriching activity.

If you would like to shift your sleep cycle to an earlier time, then one big tip I have for you is to start by getting up earlier than you ordinarily do now. So, if you get up at 7.30, start getting up at, say, 6.00. In a day or two you’ll likely push yourself into such extreme sleep deprivation that you’ll be forced to go to bed earlier than usual. Often, within a week or two, individuals will find themselves settling into this earlier routine and reaping the dividends that usually come with it.

In the long term, the odd late night will not hurt. However, to avoid slipping back into old habits it’s important to be quite disciplined regarding your earlier bed time. Here are a few habits that can help:

1. Set a time when you’re going to commit to turn off the TV by (e.g.
10.00 pm)

2. If that’s too draconian for your partner and/or family, set a time by which you remove yourself from any room in which the TV is on

3. Perhaps better still, don’t turn on the TV in the first place

4. Set a time by which you will close down your computer, or at the very least cease on-line activity

5. Set a time by which you will stop any checking of email on a smartphone or similar device

6. Spend a few minutes planning the next day, in terms of the most important things you want to get done, and how and when you’re going to do them so that you are more likely to ‘rest in peace’.

Another habit worth getting into is to be quite disciplined in work and social situations. I was reminded of the importance of this recently during a conversation with a friend and colleague. He is an ‘early to bed’ type, who was telling me that he has quite specific strategies for dealing with evening events that are usually work-related. For example, if it’s a dinner, he sets an early start time. No ‘let’s meet at 7.30 for 8.00’ for this man. Meet times will typically be 6.30 pm. He will eat, discuss what needs to be discussed, and then has the conviction at a relatively early hour (e.g. 8.30 or 9.00 pm) to say, in effect: Thanks very much, that’s been a very useful/enjoyable/enlightening evening ” I’m going now. I know he’s true to his word on this, because I’ve witnessed him doing it several times in real life.

The result of this is that my friend rarely gets into bed later than he really wants too. But as he pointed out to me also recently, it can mean that maybe other people don’t stay up later than they want to either. Because, it’s not uncommonly the case that the reason events go on late into the evening is because no-one wants to be the first person to leave. My friend doesn’t have any inhibition about this, and because of this can ‘liberate’ his friends and colleagues earlier than they otherwise would be.

So, when in such situations yourself, you might like to do yourself (and your friends and colleagues) a big favour by meeting early, and leaving at a sociable hour too.


1. Gangwisch JE, et al. Parental bedtimes and adolescent depression. Sleep 2009;33(01):97-106

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