08/27/2012 08:25 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

How to Recover From the Summer Sleep Schedule

Flickr: Juliancolton2

Summer marks a time of relaxation and taking a break from the usual routine. Although your work schedule may not change much, the absence of school may bring dramatic changes in traffic congestion, and the long bright days invite evening picnics and activities. Even if you don't have children, the end of the summer often means an end of vacations and a time to get back to business.

After spending two to three months staying up later, it can be a difficult task to move your bedtime forward. This process is called phase advancement. Jet lag after traveling west to east is an example of a circadian rhythm phase shift that requires you to move your sleep time forward.

Many times you can readjust to an earlier bedtime schedule by waking with an alarm at the earlier time, even though you may not have fallen asleep as early as you would have liked. After a night or two, your body is exhausted and you fall asleep earlier, and your problem is solved.

Suppose after several days you're still having trouble settling down to sleep at the earlier time and you're dragging yourself slowly throughout the day. Here are a couple of suggestions to advance your sleep clock.

Dim the Lights

Your body clock or circadian rhythm is sensitive to light. When it is dark, your body secretes the hormone melatonin, which prompts your body to fall asleep. Studies have shown that bright light in the evenings suppresses melatonin secretion. This means that if your home is as bright as the Las Vegas strip at 7 p.m., you may have trouble falling asleep. Try dimming the lights in your home in the evening to a candlelight brightness equivalency. Yes, this is low lighting. But this achieves the objective of sending the signal to your brain that your activity level is slowing down.

In addition to the room lighting adjustments, minimize your use of electronics that emit bright light. This should be done about an hour before bedtime. Before the invention of tablets, we watched televisions that generated moderate brightness and that were stationed across a room several feet from your eyes. Now we read from devices that emit fairly bright light from a much closer distance.

If you must read from your device, try using blue light blocking glasses while in front of your computer or tablet. Blue light is light that mimics the wavelength of sunlight. Sunlight has a powerful affect on shutting down melatonin secretion.

Melatonin Supplementation

Although melatonin is a natural hormone secreted in the brain, it is also synthesized as a sleep aid supplement. The tricky thing about melatonin is knowing how to take it properly. Scientific studies suggest that low dose consumption of between 0.3 mg -1 mg is most effective. However, there are many formulations that come in the form of 3 mg tablets.

There are some who take melatonin at bedtime and it helps them fall asleep. In theory, though, melatonin does not initiate sleep immediately. In the body, melatonin levels increase about two hours before sleep. Therefore, melatonin supplementation can be useful in helping one fall asleep earlier. Research studies from Northwestern University Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology suggest people wanting to move their sleep forward take melatonin 4-5 hours before their desired bedtime.

So if you have been going to bed all summer at midnight and now need to go to bed at 10:30 p.m. to get your eight hours of sleep, take 0.5 - 1 mg of melatonin at 6:30 p.m. Keep in mind it may take a few nights before you realize the benefit. Of course, if you have medical problems consult your physician before taking melatonin, and parents wanting to help their children fall asleep should consult their child's pediatrician before administering melatonin.

Light Exposure

Lastly, my favorite fallback when it comes to adjusting to a sleep schedule involves the use of the light box. Bright light such as sunlight shuts off melatonin production. Early morning sunlight can reset your body clock to start at an earlier time. If you have spent the summer waking at 7 a.m. and now need to be standing at attention at 6 a.m., try 15 to 30 minutes of bright light exposure first thing in the morning as you get ready for work. This early light exposure can serve to shift your body clock forward such that you wake naturally at your earlier time and feel more alert earlier in the mornings.

For more by Tracey Marks, M.D., click here.

For more on sleep, click here.