Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
How in Tune is Your Circadian Rhythm? It could be affecting you more then you know...

Written by Josh Stone with contributions from Kevin Morton, Spring 2010

Who's Affected? | Diagnosing | Treatment | Your Thoughts

It is a quiet Sunday night on Anyold University's campus, and Julian is just finishing up the last of his schoolwork for Monday. Knowing that he has a 9:00 am class the next day, he decides he is going to get in bed at 11:30.

However, although Julian crawls into bed right on schedule, he finds that he is still completely alert and awake, and lies in bed all the way until 3:00 am before he ever actually falls asleep. The next morning, Julian awakes to his alarm at 7:30 having gotten less then five hours of sleep the night before. He groggily drags himself out of bed, not feeling the least bit refreshed. Not a promising start to his school day.

Julian is stuck in the middle of a very common and often harmful pattern in his circadian rhythm, a pattern known in the sleep circle as Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS).

It's important to note before moving forward that this article and the anecdotes within are targeted towards delayed sleep phases in students and adolescents. Much of the information will also apply to cases during adulthood, but it will not always be as applicable to all chronic or severe cases of DSPS.

Delayed sleep phase syndrome Delayed sleep phase syndrome, common in many adolescents and college students, shifts the body clock so it is hard to fall asleep at night.

DSPS is a sleep disorder in which the cycle of sleep and wakefulness in a person's 24-hour day is significantly delayed. As a result, the clock-dependent alerting mechanism in our brains that releases the hormones that give us energy gets activated a lot later at night than we may like it to.

This then translates to a person having trouble falling asleep at a desired time, instead either up and awake for too long or laying in bed with a racing mind. You can essentially think of it as jet lag--the exact same mechanisms are in play--minus the actual airplane flight.

Sleeping in for the morning. The other side to DSPS is of course the morning, where it's all too often a difficult endeavor to wake up on time for work or school.

Naturally, being up very late can make it VERY difficult to wake up within the parameters of the person's daily schedule, i.e. a sufferer of delayed sleep phase syndrome who is unable to sleep before 2 to 4 am will subsequently have a real difficulty, or even complete inability, to wake up at a "normal" time the following day (or the necessary time for work or school).

Of course, this then turns into into lost sleep if the individual does have to wake up early in the morning, perpetuating a cycle that can have serious consequences for everything from mood to alertness to productivity.

Read more about the effects of sleep deprivation.

Who Does Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome Affect?

Although delayed sleep phase syndome can occur in just about anyone, it is extremely common among young adults and college students, largely due to the schedules they maintain. Yup, behavior as simple as having a frequent late-night schedule is enough to shift the circadian rhythm and bring on DSPS. Dr. D has more on this:

Dr. Dement

Dr. D's Sleep Book Says...

"In delayed sleep phase syndrome, there is a theoretical implication that the ability of the circadian system to phase advance may be sluggish or actually abnormal. In most cases, however, it is more likely that the delayed phase of the rhythm is also maintained by the behavior of the person, together with the tendency of the major clock-dependent period of alerting to occur late in the day rather than early."

Of course, this makes it rather easy for a college student to develop DSPS and somewhat difficult to get rid of. College students are often up until late hours of the night working on papers or studying for tests, and in such a schedule their body clocks adjust to this so they can be alert at these times.

What delayed sleep phase syndrome looks like in the day.
Effects of delayed sleep phase syndrome at night.
DSPS in young people can typically look something like the scenes above. Low clock-dependent alerting in the afternoon causes them to be tired during parts of the day, but when the alerting mechanism kicks in at night it makes them alert, wired, and ready to have fun at times when most people are asleep.

Staying awake until the early hours of the morning, of course leads to a higher tendency to sleep-in late. This can lead to two outcomes. Depending on his or her schedule the student will either sleep late every day, shifting his or her biological clock and circadian rhythm to this new pattern; or, say if the student has classes early in the mornings during the week and has to get up for them, he or she will begin accumulating large amounts of sleep debt.

This, combined with late night activities over the weekend leads to students sleeping well into the afternoons on Saturday and Sunday, but as a result, it then becomes very difficult to fall asleep at a "reasonable" time (when I say reasonable I simply mean at a time that allows the student to wake up fully rested on time for classes the next day) on Sunday. And so the process repeats.

Sound like you or someone you know? Tell us about it!

Officially Diagnosing Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

According to an article from the Archives of General Psychiatry, there are three main criteria for officially diagnosing DSPS:

  1. Patient has chronic difficulty falling asleep at desired time to meet their daily schedules - work, school, etc. Typically patient reports inability to sleep before 2 to 6 am.

  2. The patient reports having dealt with these symptoms for at least six months, mostly for multiple years.

  3. When not required to maintain their schedule--i.e. weekends, holidays, etc.--patient sleeps without difficulty, and will awaken spontaneously after a sleep period of normal length.

Although these are the criteria for officially diagnosing, obviously a delayed sleep phase can be present in individuals for a period less than 6 months and still have a profound effect. For that reason, take the above with a grain of salt, and if you think this is something that is affecting you, look at the treatment options below.

Treatment of Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

Some patients diagnosed with DSPS who are frustrated with the condition and want to wake up well rested at a reasonable time in the morning report having tried various unsuccessful methods of trying to fall asleep earlier.

There are so many myths out there for helping people sleep. But there are also proven ways to shift your sleep schedule back to normal. Because delayed sleep phase syndrome involves the same mechanisms as jet lag, these treatments work well for both:

Many older adults with chronic delayed sleep phase syndrome often lament that behavioral treatments do little to nothing for them. Indeed, some sufferers have much more difficulty phase advancing their biological clocks than others. For stories of this, check out the visitor-submitted DSPS experiences.

Bright Light Therapy

Often the most successful treatment of DSPS is a method known as Bright Light Therapy.

Bright Light Therapy Bright light therapy, used strategically in the morning, can help shift the biological clock back so you can sleep at night.

Researchers have discovered that it is possible to reset the human biological clock via exposure to bright light. Essentially, through strategic use of bright enough light you can shift when your clock-dependent alerting occurs, and therefore how early you are tired.

This method was not discovered for some time because the light in fact needs to be of a sufficient luminosity, similar to outdoor light, in order to work (above 10,000 lux). Most standard indoor lighting is significantly below the 10,000 lux mark needed for this to be effective. But the treatment can be easily administered in a clinic or by getting your own light box.

A light box is a box of fluorescent lights above the necessary brightness of 10,000 lux. The individual positions the box so that the most intense light is shined into the periphery of the retina, where the majority of eye receptors are located.

Bright light in the morning will help to advance the biological clock, which is exactly the way you would use it for treating delayed sleep phase syndrome, and treatment continues until the resetting is achieved. If you're interested in this treatment, the light box to the right from Amazon offers an affordable option.

What do you think? Any questions or comments? Let us know!

Sleeping Pills

Sleeping pills, it can be said, have a bit of a taboo in our society. Some see them as dangerous or addictive. But in reality, if used properly, they can are an extremely effective tool for healthy sleep and are not in the least bit addictive.

Addictive? No!

It is a very common mythology that sleeping pills are addictive. In fact, they are not and the top three or four on the market can be great aids to a healthier life.

So how can they be used to combat delayed sleep phase syndrome? In theory, it's pretty simple really. Take a dose a bit before your desired bedtime, let the sleeping pill overweigh your clock-dependent alerting, fall asleep at the time you want, and then wake up refreshed at an early time in the morning. Then, once night rolls around again, you'll have been awake for a longer period of time since you woke up earlier, and will be more prone to fall asleep at the time you want again.

In practice, the sleeping pill technique can have mixed results depending on the severity of the DSPS. For some extreme cases, the pills may still not overpower the clock-dependent alerting, leading easily to more frustration. Despite this, do keep the following metaphor from Dr. Dement in mind.

Dr. Dement often equates keeping a bottle of sleeping pills in your medicine cabinet to having a fire extinguisher. In cases of sleep emergencies (prolonged, unwanted DSPS is definitely a sleep emergency) they are there to help you put out the fire. All you have to do is just make sure to follow the dosage instructions on the bottle and your body will thank you in the morning, and again the next night when your body clock is shifted that much closer to how you'd like it.

You can read more about both the light box and sleeping pill techniques from a visitor-submitted question, from Kay in Texas, here.

Sleep Debt

Ironically, even though sleep debt is one of the negative consequences of delayed sleep phase syndrome, it can also be a cure. Sleep debt increases the biological tendency to go to sleep (a fancy way of saying it makes you tired), so accumulating enough of it to outweigh your clock-dependent alerting can make it easier to fall asleep earlier in the night.

This method works best for mild cases of delayed sleep phase syndrome, in particular in cases involving adolescents who tend to sleep in very late in the morning or afternoon and thus don't have a huge sleep debt anyway.

Proceed With Caution!

If trying the sleep debt method, be careful going throughout your day, especially when driving, that your compromised alertness does not put you in harms way. Remember still that Drowsiness Is Red Alert!

An example of how you would do this might be to go to sleep when you can at night (for the sake of our example let's say that time is 3 AM). Then set an alarm for 7 AM the next morning. It will probably be quite hard to get out of bed, but it's all part of the strategy. After most likely being tired for a good part of the day, heed your body's desire for sleep as soon as you can in the evening, before the clock-dependent alerting kicks in. From there, you'll be well on your way to resetting your clock sustainably.

However, do bear in mind that this is a less perfect way of curing delayed sleep phase syndrome than the two methods above. A decently strong late-night dose of clock-dependent alerting could easily be enough to make it very difficult to fall asleep still, just leaving you awake and frustrated with the mind-numbing effects of sleep debt late at night.

But in any case, having a bit of sleep debt can make it easier to fall asleep earlier and earlier each night, so that over time and with some strategy you can shift your biological clock back to a time that lets you sleep when you want to.

A Quick Conclusion

In essence, circadian rhythm sleep disorders are reoccuring patterns that are extremely difficult to break or alter without proper treatment. For many who suffer from delayed sleep phase syndrome or other related disorders, the sleep pattern becomes a viscous circle, often leading to the accumulation of more and more sleep debt, which in turn negatively affects performance, mood, and other factors during the day.

According to Dr. D's sleep book, however, once scientists have had their crack at it, there will likely one day be quick and extremely effective treatments for major and minor biological clock related disorders, such as jet lag or shift work syndrome. Until this day, we will have to wait patiently for the "jet lag pill," and strive to maintain a normal sleep rhythm with a healthy lifestyle and the solid methods described above.

What do you think about delayed sleep phase syndrome or other circadian rhythm disorders? Share your thoughts and post your comments below.


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Your Thoughts On Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome?

What do you think about delayed sleep phase syndrome? Do you think you have it yourself? Is it getting in the way of your life? How do you plan to fix it?

Share your thoughts, feelings, or concerns with us and our visitors below. You could gain valuable suggestions for your situation and your insight could aid others who can relate to what you're experiencing.

Enter A Brief Descriptive Title (ex: "Trying To Fix My DSPS (4am-1pm)")

Read Other Thoughts About Delayed Sleep Phase

Click on the links below to read the submissions of others about delayed sleep phase syndrome. They were all written by other visitors to this page, just like you.

I'm A Day Sleeper, But People Don't Understand 
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It Has A Name! My Sleep Problem Has A Name!! 
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It's NOT Sundowning, Darn It! 
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Can't Figure Out How To Treat My DSPS  
My sleep pattern was (asleep) 3 or 4 am and (awake) 1 or 2 pm. My neuro said chronotherapy was the only way to correct my problem; he said it was impossible …

Living with DSPS for 46 Years - I am NOT LAZY, you ignorant jerks.... 
I have had DSPS since I was about 2 or three yrs old. Granted, one may surmise that it developed due to the nightly sexual abuse from my biological father. …

I'm not a lazy drug addict/vampire wanna-be. I'm an owl. Hoo-hoot. 8D 
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DSPS Questions... Please Share Your Experiences and Symptoms! 
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What Do You All Do To Cope With DSPS? Please Help! 
(First of all, English is not my mother tongue, not even second language, so bear with me, please) I have been reading several of the stories written …

DSPS Is Ruining My Life 
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Chronic DSPS 
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Delaying DSPS Treatment. Suggestions for Eventual Course of Action? 
The Short Version. I am confident I have DSPS but am delaying "treatment" while I look for some work that will accommodate my current sleeping habits. …

Can't Work First Shift & Diagnosed With Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome 
I thought I was going crazy and so did my family. I didn't know that there was a disorder out there. I didn't sleep at night and I slept late in the mornings …

DSPS Treatment SPECIFICS Lacking! 
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DSPD/ADD Since I Was 7 Years Old 
For years I never knew what was wrong with me. I'm 38 now and have struggled with DSPD (Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder) since about 7. I had been in and …

My Losing Battle With DSPS--SLEEP ALL DAY and AWAKE ALL NIGHT 
It is hell. No other word best describes DSPS . You are CONSTANTLY tired, have a VERY hard time falling asleep, and then wake up STILL feeling tired. …

A Teenage View During A Case Of Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome 
I'm 15 years old. I've heard many thoughts about the circadian rhythms affecting teens as well as other opinions on how electronic devices such as televisions, …

How To Use Light Therapy? 
I've been reading through the DSPS section of this website. In the main article, the author mentions light therapy as a way to treat DSPS. He says that …

Can't Fall Asleep Till 2:30 or Later, Should I Seek Help??? 
Since I was little I haven't been able to fall asleep before 2:30 without medicine. I can remember being in elementary school and looking at the clock …

Recovering from Long Term Sleep Deprivation and DSPS 
I am a 28 year old female, American. I am currently on Day 19 of trying Sleep Deprivation Therapy in a last ditch effort to balance my sleep. I've been …

I AM NOT A LARK!!! JUST A POOR OWL 
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Butane Honey Oil As Treatment For DSPS 
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I Finally Have An Answer To My Lifelong Sleep "Issues" 
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My Sleep Schedule Doesn't Fit Society's And It's Destroyed My Life 
I have been just like what was described in the article for years. It started at about age 10. I could never wake up in time to go to school but I was …

Child with DSPS 
Sadly, my 13 year old son was diagnosed with it . We had to set up a special program with the the school system. If he can't fall asleep until between …

Click here to write your own.

Why Cure The Uncurable!? 
Hello doctor. Listen, I have read your article, I have suffered from DSPS since I've been 14 (now I'm 25) And so many years of looking for a cure only …

I have N24. My sleep schedule shifts an hour later every day, regardless of treatment 
I have N24 {non-24-hour sleep-wake syndrome}. My sleep schedule shifts an hour later every day, regardless of treatment. Kevin: Can you share how …

This has affected my life for as long as I can remember. I'm 34 
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Attempting A "Fix" For My DSPS 
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DSPS: Genetically Inherited? 
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Upset & Almost Depressed Since My Sleep Pattern Became 3:30 am - 1:00pm 
My sleep pattern has been like this for a little while now, ever since my life has changed in a drastic way. I dont know if that has anything to do with …

Rotating Work Shift and Your Circadian Rhythm 
Ok long story made short. How does this apply to someone who works a rotating/swing shift? Does anyone have a solution for that? Your biological clock …

Coping With Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome For Over 40 Years 
I am a woman, who will soon turn 60 yrs. old. Have had delayed sleep phase syndrome since I moved from the West coast to East Coast, about 40 years …

Difference Between Delayed Sleep Phase (DSP) & Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS) 
An informative article , but it falls into the usual "daywalker" trap that DSPS is caused by poor sleep hygiene and bad habits. It can be, but for a …

Slept Debt Doesn't Work With DSPS 
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Can DSPS Ever Really Be "Cured"? 
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I can tell the author of this article does not suffer from DSPS 
I have done all of the above many times as I have tried to be in sync with the daytime world. By getting up early and depriving myself of sleep, I find …

Well I Definitely Have DSPS... 
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Understanding Reduces My Anxiety 
It just became crystal clear I have DSPS and have since I was a child. I managed years on normal sleep schedules but only with brutally fastidious habits. …

15 Year-Old Son Can't Sleep Before 3am and Sleeps Until 2pm :( 
My son seems to have an inability to feel tired in the evening, and head to bed. he will resist going to bed at all costs. Once in bed he is usually still …

My Extreme Case of Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome 
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My Solution To Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome 
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So I'd Never Heard Of This Before Yesterday, But It Makes Sense 
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DSPS Is Terrible--Wouldn't Wish It On My Worst Enemy 
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It Feels Amazing To Finally Know What It Is - DSPS 
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A Good Light Box 
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Choose A Career To Accommodate Your DSPS 
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Trying To Fix My DSPS Because I'm 100% Sure I Have It! 
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DSPS - It's 6am And I'm Still Awake... 
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Click here to write your own.

Had DSPS Since I Was 9 and I'm Nearly 21 
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Why Should We Fight DSPS - Just Makes Us Who We Are 
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Sleeping Woes - I'll Just Have To Live With It :) 
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Taking Its Toll On Me At 50 
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A Year of Grief and Worry Making it Hard to Sleep 
I believe this condition may have started for me due to the distressing situation of my stepmother's death. Her passing was a difficult one for many reasons, …

Didn't Even Know DSPS Was A Thing But It Makes Sooo Much Sense 
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I Am Not A 'Bad' Person! I Am Just Different 
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Husband Is Driving Me Crazy! Finally An Answer 
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I Must Have This BAD 
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Trying To Shift Circadium Rthym From 6a-3P 
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You Are Describing My 13 Year Old Son!! 
Jack was diagnosed at Penn with early childhood onset OCD. He's obsessed with fear of being pierced by sharp objects and hoards to prevent it. My reading …

Trying To Help My Daughter With Her Delayed Sleep Phase (4am-12pm) 
I am writing this because I am at the end of my tether trying to help my daughter with her delayed sleep disorder . A couple of weeks ago we went through …

My 19-Year-Old Should Be Your Poster Child 
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Finally Found An Answer! 
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My Son Has His "Days And Nights Mixed Up" 
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A Lot Is Finally Adding Up 
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Getting Up 10 Minutes Earlier Each Day...An Experiment 
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As Early As 7 and 8 Years Old I Stayed Up Later Than Everyone And Could Not Wake Up 
Getting up for school had been a nightmare for me as early as first grade. I have tried everything from drugs to sleep deprivation. I survived jobs …

Born This Way 
Born at midnight, of course (my special wake up time). As far back as I can remember, sleeping before 1 am was impossible. I especially remember my mom …

Freshman Year of College... With DSPS? 
It's about 5:20am as I am writing this. This is pretty typical - all my friends know I don't sleep very well or very much, and I've missed so many classes …

Always Tired During The Day, Wide Awake After 9:00 
Ever since I was a teenager, I have always been extremely tired during the day. I can easily sleep at any point in the day, even if I went to bed early …

A Helpful Solution If You Have The Time 
The best method I have found after 15 years of insomnia and delayed sleep phase syndrome (don't worry, it comes and goes and the issues are not always …

"The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions" (Author Debated) 
Re: After most likely being tired for a good part of the day, heed your body's desire for sleep as soon as you can in the evening, before the clock-dependent …

My DSPS Made Worse By Pregnancy 
I am 42 and have suffered from DSPS my entire life. I suspect I also have N24. I've tried sleep debt to no avail. I found that Melatonin at night helped …

Frustrated with Sleep  
I am 14 years old and I have this disorder . I wrote an essay to my English teacher about how one of my goals was to go to sleep earlier, for I did not …

Click here to write your own.

Night Time = My Time 
So happy i found such an interesting site on this topic...not really sure if i have DSPS . I find that night time is the best time for me to do anything, …

I've Been Living Like That My Whole Life, and I'm 28 
I think I have Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome , and that I had it my whole life. Right now, I'm 28. For me, going to sleep is very very difficult at …

2/8/2011: The Day It All Made Sense 
Hi, my name is David. I'm a 25 year old with a "day job," and today I was diagnosed with Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS) . All my life I've had …

Delayed Sleep Phase? Tired In The Morning 
This sounds a lot like myself. I have to drag myself out of bed and am a zombie until about 1-2pm where I happen to notice I am now fully awake, alert, …

Can't Sleep At The Same Time As My Husband Because Of DSPS 
Yet again another night not sleeping. I feel very lonely every night awake and only discovered a few days ago about DSPS . I thought that was just some …

My Sleep = 3am - 5:30am 
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THIS IS ME ALL OVER!!! 
Since age 2, my best hrs. have been 2pm to 12 midnight. My dad worked 2nd shift when I was young, so that's when Mom did her housework. She always let …

Help Me Wake Up 
I am 29 years old with 2 children. I work until midnight so I don't get home til about 12:30 am. I can never go straight to sleep so I usually stay up …

Is There Something I Can Do For My Delayed Phase Sleep Syndrome? 
I am 41 and have delayed phase sleep syndrome. I was born with a natural sleep cycle of 4am to 12 noon. This was confirmed by my mother who informed me …

Why Does Everyone Assume That My Sleep Cycle's Wrong? 
I'm on a 2am -2pm 'night time' I will generally sleep for 6-8 hours or so between 2am or 2pm. This is fine for me it genuinely does not bother me in anyway. …

Intermittent Sleep And A Doctor Diagnosing DSPS and ADD 
Hi, I am a 47 year old woman. From age 18, I can only fall asleep with the t.v. on, when it's quiet I can hear the silence and it sounds like an alarm …

Never Recovered From Jet Lag 
This article describes very well the condition I have had for years, recently exacerbated by moving from California to London for a study abroad program …

Broken Sleep 
I've been told by Stanford sleep that I have delayed sleep phase. Is there anyway to verify this...I think its something else I've been plagued with for …

My Sleep = 2/4am - 9am 
I have had a problem with my sleeping for a while now but never known what it was. My mother is very reluctant on taking me to the doctors as she said …

I Have It 
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Asleep 3-4 AM to 11-12 AM If I'm Lucky & Nothing To Do In Morning 
Wow, I can't believe I didn't see this before. I was surfing Wikipedia this morning when I came across this by accident. It may as well have been written …

Good 'Nights' Sleep is 3/4am til Midday 
Or it would be if I didn't have to get up for work at 6 am. After a day of this I'm whacked, never mind a whole working week. Get home from work, eat, …

I Sleep From 2-4am and 11-3pm 
I want to cure this so bad. Kevin's Answer Ah, the segmented sleep schedule that's even more unorthodox than the typical delayed sleep phase syndrome …

Click here to write your own.

About This Site

Welcome! This site is continuously being created by students of Dr. William C. Dement's Sleep And Dreams course at Stanford University.

We made this site as a call to action for people all over the world to live healthier, happier, safer, and more productive lives by learning about their own sleep. We have faith that reading the information provided on this site will motivate you to be smart about your sleep deprivation and strategic about your alertness in order to live life to your fullest, most energetic potential.

In fact, we challenge you to do so! What do you say, are you up for the challenge?


The Stanford Sleep Book

Stanford Sleep Book Picture

Dr. Dement's pioneering textbook has been the core text for Sleep and Dreams since 1980, but it has just recently been made available to the wider public for the first time.

In it you'll find a more detailed account of the most important things you need to know about sleep, alertness, dreams, and sleep disorders. Studies, statistics, plus plenty of Dr. Dement's classic anecdotes painting the history of sleep medicine.

Preface | Intro | Contents | Get A Copy

More Sleep Resources

The Zeo

A revolution in personal sleep tracking, the Zeo is a wireless headband that transmits your brainwaves in realtime to a dock (pictured here) or your smartphone. The result? You can wake up and see exactly what stages of sleep you were in during the night! Unprecedented personalized sleep knowledge.

Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer's Guide

Sleep Paralysis Treatment Book

Ever woken up paralyzed? A surprising number of us have, believe it or not. But few know the actual causes of this phenomenon, and fewer still how to exert control over it. Dream researcher and sleep paralysis expert Ryan Hurd shares breakthrough insights into how to do just that.

How This Site Was Made

In 2007 I discovered a guide to website building that would change my life. After learning from it diligently, it would eventually empower me to help Dr. Dement take his life's mission of spreading education about sleep health to the online world. Now, several years later, this site reaches over 100,000 visitors per month and counting.

The results are due in large part to the methods taught in that guide, and they are replicable for others who have knowledge of a subject they would like to share with the masses. I've detailed some of my journey here for those who might be interested.

Important Disclaimer

Please Note:

The information found on this page and throughout this site is intended for general information purposes only. While it may prove useful and empowering, it is NOT intended as a substitute for the expertise and judgments of healthcare practitioners.

For more info, see our
Terms of Use.


How did we make this website?
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