If you're a night owl, you may be missing out on the important benefits—both physical and mental—of hitting the hay earlier. Many people get distracted watching television or surfing the Internet into the wee hours of the morning leaving them tired and irritable the next day. In the past 30 years, scientists have learned that quality sleep is not only important for learning and memory; it also plays a role in immune function and metabolism. Hitting the hay earlier may help you be more creative, lose weight, and even live longer. But for many folks, getting to bed earlier is easier said than done.

Here are five ideas to help you make it happen:

1. Start your mornings at consistent times—even on the weekend. According to Helene Emsallem, MD, medical director of the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, MD, your bedtime patterns are regulated very closely by your wake-up times. Sleeping late may set you up for failure when you try to turn in earlier. "Our internal clock is slightly longer than 24 hours," Emsallem explains. "So we tend to want to shift later." Sleeping in on weekends, for example, provides the opportunity the body is looking for to get on a slightly later schedule.

If you want to stay in bed longer on the weekend, Emsallem recommends there not be more than a 90-minute difference between your weekend wake-up time and your weekday wake-up time. This will encourage your body to establish a healthier sleep-wake cycle. You'll sleep more soundly, too.

2. Set visual and auditory cues to help you end your day. Put an alarm clock next to your computer and set it to go off 15 minutes or so before your desired bedtime. It will remind you to shut down for the night. This tactic worked for Emsallem who sets multiple alarms on her phone so she can stop talking at a decent hour.

3. Carve out time for yourself during the day or early evening. One reason so many people have trouble going to bed at a reasonable hour is that they don't have a minute to themselves during the day. Late-night hours may be the only time they can count on to engage in enjoyable activities. Take your lunch hour away from your desk a few times a week, or read a chapter of a novel while you wait for your kids to finish practice.

4. Give yourself the luxury of wind down time. Allow at least 20 minutes to transition from a wakeful state to a restful one. Take the time you need to get ready for bed. Brush your teeth. Apply face cream, and do some gentle stretching so you're not physically tense. These actions are relaxing and signal your brain and body that it's bedtime.

5. Consider your caffeine consumption. The conventional wisdom is to stop drinking coffee six hours before bed, but according to Emsallem some people need even more time. "If you have your last cup in the late afternoon but still can't fall asleep, consider pushing that last cup back to lunch," says the sleep expert. Also, be wary of chocolate, tea, and diet colas unless "decaffeinated" is specifically listed on the label.      

Shelby Harris, MD, reviewed this article.

Helene Emsallem, MD, www.sleepdoc.com.