Sleep Schedules: Circadian Rhythm, Routines, and Alternative Schedules

By Ashley Little

While most people follow a similar sleep schedule—sleeping at night, being awake during the day—that’s not the case for everyone. 

In some particular cases, people have no choice. Shift workers, frequent travelers, and those with certain conditions can maintain irregular sleep schedules. But is that safe? 

We’ll go over the basics of sleep schedules, why most humans follow the same patterns, alternative sleep schedules, and the potential risks of altering the natural sleep cycle. 


The Circadian Rhythm

Our sleep schedules are controlled by our body’s natural internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is regulated by exposure to light, which is why humans naturally wake up when the sun rises and fall asleep after the sun sets. 

Connecting with the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) a pair of cell clusters located in the hypothalamus region of the brain, light exposure triggers a restriction of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. At night time, when the sun sets, the body begins releasing melatonin again. 

Related: Sleep wake homeostasis

Because it is controlled by light exposure, the circadian rhythm can easily be disrupted. Factors such as televisions and phone screens emitting blue light at night can confuse our circadian rhythm and delay the production of melatonin. When we travel to new time zones, that also causes a disruption. 

Learn more about the circadian rhythm in our resources below. 


Routines

Good sleep is all about keeping up a consistent routine. Our bodies operate on a consistent sleep schedule naturally, so it’s best if you can keep up with a routine. 

Implementing a bedtime wind-down routine can help signal to your body that you’re heading to bed and help keep your circadian rhythm regulated. The best bedtime routines include avoiding technology and picking relaxing activities that calm the mind and body. 

Morning routines can also help make waking up easier. Instead of struggling to get out of bed in the mornings, you can look forward to waking up and train your body to make getting out of bed a simple task. 


Alternative Sleep Schedules

Everyone doesn’t follow the same sleep schedule. Those who regularly travel, work the night shift, or are adjusting to a new schedule face challenges keeping up with the regular sleep schedule of sleeping eight sold hours at night and staying awake during the day. 

Some people choose to follow alternative sleep schedules such as polyphasic sleep. Most people are monophasic sleepers, sleeping for one chunk of time at night. Polyphasic sleepers get their sleep in multiple phases throughout the day. There are also other sleep schedules known as biphasic sleep, Uberman sleep, Everyman sleep, triphasic sleep, and siesta sleep.

Learn more about managing alternative sleep schedules and the risks in our resources below. 


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