Are early nights all they’re cracked up to be?

Getting enough sleep plays a pivotal role in good health, but does that mean going to bed early is always a good idea? The answer isn’t clear cut – here’s why.

Committing to an early bedtime seems like a better routine – after all, sleep is healthy, so the earlier you go to bed the better, right? Not so fast.

“As a society, we tend to view going to bed early and getting up early as virtuous and good,” sleep specialist Dr David Cunnington says.

“But some people are late-night types, so they’re inclined to go to bed later and get up later and they’re actually healthier if they can go with that.”

Are you a morning lark or a night owl?

Whether you prefer to sleep and rise early or late comes down to your sleep chronotype.

“But regardless of whether you prefer to go to bed early or late, what’s more important is how much sleep you’re getting,” Dr Cunnington says.

While some research suggests certain sleep-wake timings may be healthier than others, Dr Melissa Ree from the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Sleep Science says restorative sleep can occur any time.

“It doesn’t matter whether you fall asleep at 9pm or 1am, deep sleep will happen either way in the first half of the sleep period,” Dr Ree says.

“So while getting an early night might be useful for people who regularly urge themselves to stay up late – which means there’s not enough time left to get sufficient sleep before the alarm goes off – people who go to bed late and have a schedule that allows them to sleep until they’re rested, may not benefit from going to bed earlier.”

Dr Ree says it might even be harmful.

“If we go to bed too early, before we’re really ready for sleep, we tend to lie there awake, tossing and turning, possibly ruminating and then inadvertently becoming more awake.

How much sleep do you need?

Sleep for Health managing director Dr Carmel Harrington says we need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night.

“There are people who are healthy on five or six hours of sleep a night, but it’s only 10 or 20 per cent of the population,” Dr Cunnington says.

“Generally speaking, the health risks associated with a lack of sleep start to increase below seven hours of sleep a night and really kick in when people sleep for less than five hours.”

How to get more sleep if you need it

What happens if you don’t have the luxury of sleeping late every morning?

Getting to bed early-ish is a good idea, says Dr Ree.

“If you’re someone who needs seven hours of sleep per night and you need to be up at 6am, then going to bed at 10 or 11pm would be about right to provide yourself with the right amount of sleep opportunity.”

What happens if your sleep chronotype means you’re not sleepy at that time of night?

Dr Harrington says you can work on that, and it starts with sticking to a 6am wake-up time.

“Our biological clock means we’re ready to go back to sleep about 16 hours after we wake up, so over time, even night owls can feel sleepier earlier by waking up earlier.”

Just avoid undoing your hard work by sleeping in on the weekend.

“You might feel great when you wake up at 10am on a Sunday morning,” Dr Harrington says. “But all it does is delay your body clock so that when you jump into bed at 10pm that night, you’ll find it really difficult to fall asleep.”

Written by Karen Fittall.