Some ‘internal clocks’ need more sleep. / Elena Elisseeva / Getty Images / Tetra Images
Our bodies are wired to seek out the right amount of sleep, and each person’s “internal clock” is unique, says Michael Terman, director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms in New York City and author of Chronotherapy.
“All of us have a neurological clock working in our brain that operates independent of what’s going on outdoors,” he explains. “It’s the rhythm at which your body naturally wakes and sleeps without any cues from the outside world, like light.” Most people, Terman says, have an internal clock that is slightly longer than 24 hours—left to their own devices, their days would last 24.5 hours, or even 25 hours. “After a while, losing one hour a day of sleep results in sleep debt,” he says.
What is your inner clock set to? “You can tell a lot just by observing your normal sleep tendencies,” he says. “If you frequently have difficulty falling asleep, then find yourself tired and not wanting to get up, you likely have a longer internal clock.”
These days, natural therapies for getting your sleep habits back on track are growing, including light therapy and melatonin supplements. “The first step if you are sleep-challenged is to keep your bedroom absolutely dark,” Terman says. “Even the smallest amount of light pollution is sending signals to your brain that shifts your internal clock.”
Melatonin, the body’s natural sleep chemical, also can help induce feelings of sleepiness if taken six hours before bedtime.
With the right intervention, Terman says, you could reprogram your sleep pattern in a matter of days. “Just because we live in a 24/7 society,” he points out, “doesn’t mean you have to be going 24/7.”