Inadequate sleep messes with our bodies in numerous ways, from mucking with our serotonin levels to affecting our immune systems.
When our hormones are thrown out of whack due to sleep deprivation, we gain weight, we’re more prone to anxiety and depression, and even our cardiovascular systems suffer.
Read on to discover what you can do before bed for a deeper, more restful sleep.
1. Stop Screen Time 2 Hours Before Bed
If you like to read before bed, that’s great… but make sure you’re reading a printed, paper book rather than your iPad or Kindle.
The blue light (short-wavelength enriched light) that electronic devices emit have been shown to interrupt a body’s natural circadian rhythm.
When you read books on screens, you’ll have a more difficult time falling asleep, and your melatonin levels will be lower. You’ll likely sleep lightly, and wake up feeling groggy.
Your concentration and alertness levels will be reduced, and your immune system will be affected. You might even find that you’re gaining weight more easily.
Your workplace energy and productivity will also be affected, which will increase stress, which then affects your sleep quality… basically an ugly vicious circle.
It’s especially important for young people to eliminate screen time before bed, as they need proper sleep more so than adults do. Children who don’t get enough sleep have difficulty learning at school and show higher degrees of anxiety.
This study from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital showed startling results after a two-week study on participants who read from screens before bedtime.
Turn all light-producing screens off 2 hours before bedtime. This includes TVs, laptops, iPads, Kindles, and phones.
Don’t give in to the temptation to check your texts as you’re drifting off out of “fear of missing out.” Those messages will still be around in the morning. Your sleep and overall well-being are more important.
2. Skip Caffeine After 2 PM
Many of us depend on endless cups of coffee (or tea) to get through the day. The “3 p.m. slump” is a very real thing, where we go semi-comatose at work and knock back a double espresso to power us through ‘til 5.
This creates a really crappy cycle in which we’re wired far later than we should be. This then causes us to get a less-than-adequate night’s sleep, thus requiring more caffeine the next day, etc. ad infinitum.
Skip the afternoon caffeinated drinks and aim for live juices instead. Vegetable juices in particular can give you a super-boost of living enzymes to keep you going. If you’re not fond of those, try other live drinks like kombucha or kefir.
These won’t interfere with your body’s natural wind-down time, so you’ll be able to fall asleep at a decent hour and get some solid rest.
3. Do Gentle Evening Yoga Or Tai Chi
Gentle exercise can help you release some of the day’s stress and anxiety so you can wind down a bit more easily.
We tense up over the course of the day, and that tension can keep us up at night, manifesting in joint and muscle pain.
By doing some gentle stretches and slow, purposeful movement, we work that tension out of our bodies.
People who are naturally anxious tend to suffer from hyperarousal and hypervigilance, so their “fight or flight” response is elevated.
Aim to train yourself to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
According to the Mayo clinic, the average adult does best with around 7 hours of sleep, so schedule sleepy time to correspond with whatever time you need to wake up to get the kids to school and/or yourself to work on time.
Go to bed, and if you don’t fall asleep within half an hour or so, leave your bedroom to do something that’ll relax you. Then try again. Repeat until you finally pass out.
Eventually, your body will learn that yes, this is bedtime, and will behave accordingly.
5. Make Aromatherapy Part Of Your Bedtime Ritual
Scents such as lavender and clary sage are known to relax people so they can get a better night’s sleep.
Others may be adaptogenic, meaning that they’ll have different effects on different people. Ylang ylang and jasmine, for example, can either relax or energize people, depending on their unique body chemistry.
Some people prefer chamomile, though people who have ragweed allergies should avoid it, as the two species are related and can cause similar reactions.
Experiment with a few different scents, either with an aromatherapy diffuser, or by spraying your room with an aromatherapy spray. See which ones work best for you, and incorporate that into your night-time ritual.
6. Consider A Herbal Or Melatonin Supplement
The aforementioned chamomile can be a wonderful sleep aid, provided you’re not allergic to it. Tea made from it, or other calming herbs such as catnip, kava-kava, hops, or valerian, can help your body relax and wind down for sleep.
Make a cup a couple of hours before bed, right around the time you turn off your phone. Be mindful as you drink it, and envision the soothing warmth slowly moving its way all around your body, relaxing you from toes to scalp.
Melatonin supplements can also be helpful, but should only be used on a temporary basis. You want your body to produce and regulate its own melatonin, not become dependent on pills.
If you’re on any medications, check with your health practitioner before taking any of these to make sure there are no contraindications to the herbs or supplements mentioned here.
7. Take A Hot Bath An Hour Before Bed
Although a deep, relaxing massage is ideal for winding down to sleep, a hot bath works just as well. Possibly even better. Immersing yourself in hot water relaxes your muscles and cocoons you in soft, nurturing warmth.
Better still, cooling down from that bath gives your circadian rhythm the heads up that it’s time to get sleepy. That triggers us to drop into the slower mode we need to sleep properly, in which our heart and breathing rates slow down so we can pass into dreamland.
If you like bubble baths (or any other scented products), avoid stimulating scents like citrus or anything sweet/sugary. Aim for lavender or sandalwood, which are known to reduce anxiety and relax muscles.
Waking up from a deep sleep because you have to pee is just awful. It interrupts your sleep cycle, and you might end up jolted fully awake by any number of things.
Your dog might see your late-night fumblings as an opportunity to play, or you might step on a lego piece and hop around, swearing, before limping back to bed.
Using the facilities just before going to bed decreases the chances that you’ll wake in the wee hours and not be able to get back to sleep.
Here’s a tip: don’t drink too many liquids within the last few hours before your scheduled bedtime. That’ll also help to prevent midnight bathroom visits.
9. Make Your Bedroom A Perfect Sleepy Spot
Fill your bedroom with duvets, comfy pillows, blackout curtains… whatever you need to be as comfortable and relaxed as possible.
Sleeping in a quiet space is absolutely vital. If you live in an urban environment where noise pollution from traffic keeps you up at night, consider investing in a white noise generator to block it out.
Studies like this one show that exposure to low-frequency noise and traffic noise prevent us from getting proper, restful sleep. They also contribute to you (and/or your partner) being a proper grumpypants in the morning.
Also, try to avoid making your bedroom a multi-purpose room. If you work from home, set up a home office in another room, or work from the dining room/kitchen table. Don’t bring electronics into the bedroom at all, if possible.
You’ll train your brain to associate that room with rest and relaxation, so you’ll naturally get sleepy just by being in there. Romance as well, which can also be good for your sleep habits.
10. Have Sex Just Before Bed
To build on the point above, having sex just before bed can do wonders to help you sleep. It releases dopamine and oxytocin, and also releases stress and tension. For women, the estrogen boost released after orgasm enhances REM sleep.
Can’t hurt to try it and see if it works, right?
11. Cool Your Bedroom Down
You know how in summertime you end up thrashing around because it’s just too hot to sleep? That’s because your body’s core temperature needs to drop a bit for you to be able to properly rest.
We’re naturally programmed to wake with the light, as the day warms up, and then get sleepy when darkness falls and temperatures plummet.
Living in the temperature- and light-controlled homes where everything remains constant means that we’re not in tune with natural light and temperature cycles.
As such, we need to program our thermostats to reflect the outside world. If possible, program yours to drop a degree or two hourly after dinner, and make sure your bedroom is never warmer than 70F/ 21C.
This encourages your body to release melatonin, which (as mentioned earlier) lets your body know that it’s sleepytime.
12. Kick Pets Out Of The Bedroom
It might be sweet to cuddle Mr. Fluffles as you’re falling asleep, but pets can actually hinder your sleep cycle, rather than helping it.
Cats are notorious for walking all over you at any time of day or night, and they might wake you by jumping on and off the bed to use the litter box.
Dogs can freak out and start barking at the slightest noise, take over your bed completely, or kick you if they’re having bad dreams.
Rabbits, being nocturnal, might decide to use your bed as an impromptu obstacle course.
Yes, we love our animal companions, but we’ll love them a lot more if they’re not keeping us up all night.
They might stress about relationship worries, financial problems, work-related issues, or agonize over that awkward thing they said at a party in 10th grade.
These roiling thoughts can set our pulses racing into “fight or flight” mode which really isn’t conducive to getting a decent night’s sleep.
When you meditate, you’re completely focused on the present moment. No past, no future, no anxieties, no embarrassment. Just the slow rhythm of your breath, letting any thoughts flow away freely without judgement.
Harvard Medical School recommends that people meditate for 20 minutes a day to get maximum benefits. They recommend choosing a short sound or word (such as “Om” or “peace”), or even a short prayer or phrase, and saying it aloud – quietly – as you exhale.
If you have difficulty with this, try a guided meditation. You can find oodles of them on YouTube: just look for one narrated by someone whose voice you find pleasant and relaxing, and let them talk you through some gentle visualization and breath work techniques.
Different people react to different techniques, so experiment with different combinations until you find one that works best for you.
You might do best with a yoga/chamomile tea/gratitude journal practice, while someone else will prefer a hot bath/aromatherapy/meditation combo.
Most importantly, please be gentle with yourself as you learn how to work with your body to help it rest. Rather than fighting with it or berating yourself, accept what is, and work with it. If you’re wide awake at 2 a.m., accept that you’re awake instead of worrying about how tired you’ll be tomorrow.
Go work on a crossword puzzle, sit outside for a few minutes, cuddle your pet, and then go back to bed when you feel tired. Focus more on relaxing and resting, rather that trying to focus on getting to sleep, no matter what.
Amazing things happen when we work in the spirit of gentle cooperation, even if it’s with ourselves.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.