Shutting everything down to prepare for sleep is one of the hardest decisions one has to make every day. You know the sooner you put down the phone or close the lid of your laptop the better you’ll feel in the morning. But that feels like surrendering: you stop doing what you love and admit that sleep has won once again.
I’ll show you that preparing for sleep can be just as fun as watching your favourite TV show, waking up doesn’t have to suck and how you can have the best night of your life – every night.
As with sports, great results can only be achieved when maximum effort is combined with good preparation. Actually, preparation is everything when it comes to sleep: there’s little you can do when you’re dreaming.
Let’s explore what you can do and what to avoid to get ready for the best night of your life.
Stimulants keep you awake and signal the brain that it’s not time to sleep yet. That’s why you should steer clear of them in the evenings. Here are some common stimulants disrupting our sleep.
- Caffeine for at least 6 hours before bed.
We all know better to drink a cup of coffee before heading to bed. But did you know that caffeine is also in tea, chocolate (cocoa has it) and some soft drinks? And did you know that drinking coffee even 6 hours before sleep can disturb it? That means a general rule of “no coffee after lunch”.
While alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, it decreases the overall sleep quality. There is a myriad of other reasons to cut the poison out of your life. There aren’t many health benefits of alcohol consumption, unlike coffee.
As a stimulant, it disrupts your sleep by suppressing sleep phase called “rapid eye movement” (REM). Humans get nicotine mostly from tobacco (directly or secondhand). Some common vegetables such as tomatoes and potatoes contain it too, but not enough to make any practical difference. Just stay away from smoking and other smokers.
- Saturated fats and sugars.
More saturated fats reduce the amount of “slow-wave sleep” (SWS) and more sugar is associated with more arousals (a light phase or state of sleep when you’re either awake or easily awakened).
- Excess liquids.
Okay, this one isn’t technically a stimulant, but I can assure you: a full bladder very stimulating. Nocturia impacts the sleep across the board: it makes it harder to fall asleep while decreasing sleep quality and duration. If it’s a problem you deal with, try to drink (or eat watermelons) less before sleep and more during the day. Listen to your body: if you feel thirsty, then drink, and have water at hand so you wouldn’t have to go for a hunt in the night.
Unlike what most people suggest, exercising in the evening doesn’t seem to harm sleep. On the contrary: it seems to have a positive effect if it’s done at least an hour before bed. After that, it starts to disrupt sleep efficiency (SE), lengthens the time to fall asleep and reduces total sleep duration.
The positive effect likely comes from you tiring yourself and further solidifying the circadian rhythm, while the negative comes from elevated body temperature and physical stress. So, exercise whenever you like during the day, but don’t go to sleep right after that.
Light is the main source used by our brain to calibrate the circadian rhythm. It’s like an internal clock telling our body what to do based on the “internal time”. When the sun goes down, the environment darkens and your body prepares to sleep. However, the artificial light we’ve surrounded ourselves with meddles with our natural clock and causes the sleep to postpone.
Blue light is especially harmful because it’s naturally occurring only between sunrise and sunset. For your body, that’s the time you should be awake, and that’s what it’s trying to do. Blue light is being emitted by screens (phone, computer, TV etc.) and most LED and fluorescent lamps. That’s why you should avoid lights, especially blue lights, in the evenings – even 2-3 hours before sleep. If staying away from screens isn’t possible for you, enable the blue light filters on your devices or use blue-light filtering glasses.
I’ve set my computer to shut down automatically and my phone to turn off colours (I have Do Not Disturb enabled all the time) an hour before sleep every night. It lets me know that it’s time to start my evening routine. You can also check the settings of your TV, you may be able to achieve something similar with that as well.
Social media usage can predict your sleep quality – and no, it isn’t a positive correlation. In addition to the blue light problem, those social platforms along with different notifications stimulate your brain with dopamine. And dopamine is shown to suppress the production of melatonin, a hormone which induces sleepiness in the evening and keeps us asleep during the night.
Furthermore, if you don’t take precautions, the notifications can disrupt your sleep when they make sounds and vibrate. When it wakes you up in the middle of the night anyway, you might as well check what’s the buzz about, right? And that’s when the blue light comes to play again.
To combat all of that, activate the Do Not Disturb mode on your Android or iPhone and shut down your computer. If it helps to stop your paranoid self from checking the phone every 5 minutes, you can allow phone calls from certain contacts so you would be available for any emergencies (even though they’re extremely unlikely). Unless you get paid for being available at night, work is not an emergency.
Picture this: you’re lying in your bed, ready to fall asleep. Everything is nice and cosy… wait… let me just adjust my leg. Yeah, that’s better. I wonder what’s this “big thing” my boss told me about today? Maybe it’s a promotion! But what if he wants to transfer me to another city instead? I’ve never lived in a big city, I don’t know anybody outside my hometown… I should google it. Aha! “6 ways to make a great first impression”… no, damn it. I should be sleeping, not wasting time. Oh, I better be well slept for tomorrow… but I only have 6 hours left now! Why can’t I fall asleep in 2 minutes like that navy guy…
Doesn’t look like a great way to fall asleep, does it? Creating a mental buffer to prepare your mind for sleeping can help to reduce the thoughts and worries you have and thus decrease the time it takes to fall asleep (known as “sleep onset latency” in the scientific world).
Like every other habit, an evening routine needs a trigger to start. Here are some ideas:
- Start right after a specific event.
Be it watching the evening news from the TV, doing the dishes after dinner or your first yawn – it has to be something that happens every night. This is a good option if you don’t like to be bossed around by a clock.
- Have an alarm for it.
Just like you have an alarm to start the morning routine, you can have an alarm to start the evening routine as well. This can be the last time you touch your phone for the day, for example.
Your evening routine is a great time to prepare for the next morning, and I’ve already covered this more in-depth in the morning routine article. In short, you should clear everything to neutral, make simple decisions like what to wear and what to eat the next morning, pack your bags and plan your day (or at least your morning).
Simply trying to block thoughts doesn’t work very well. Your brain needs to process all the events both while you’re conscious and while you’re sleeping. However, oftentimes it doesn’t get a chance to do that before sleep, because we keep distracting it with smartphones and TV every available moment during the day. There are three solutions to escape overthinking:
- Bore yourself on purpose during the day.
I find that I’m a lot calmer in the evening if I haven’t overwhelmed myself with digital problems and distractions. Also, a bored brain is more creative, which I can confirm: I’ve come up with many good ideas while doing nothing else but thinking.
- Include the thinking process into your evening routine.
It can be in a form of meditation, journaling, or simply sitting down to think. Observe your thoughts and write down your worries to deal with them the next day. This way you don’t need to think about them anymore. If you find yourself constantly thinking about work at home, you should do a mini-version of the same process when coming home from work.
- Don’t go to bed angry.
Having an argument with your loved one can very easily push your mind into an endless cycle of justification and accusation. Being angry can postpone the time you fall asleep and reduce the quality of sleep, so make up with whomever you were fighting with before heading to bed.
When we’ve finished the day, it’s time to start deliberately thinking about sleep. Here’re some tips to help you induce sleepiness.
- Take a warm shower or bath.
Studies have shown that being in warm water (40-42.5C is quite hot if you ask me) for just 10 minutes increases the blood flow and thus, surprisingly, helping the body to cool down. This reduces the time to fall asleep while increasing sleep quality. Cold showers in the morning and hot showers in the evening, then?
- Do some yoga or stretches.
Stretches, yoga and other peaceful exercises are very useful to stay flexible, but they can also be used to fill the time between finishing the day and going to sleep. They’re especially useful if you combine them with deliberate thinking or meditation from the previous paragraph or listening to relaxing music from the next tip.
- Read a book, listen to an audiobook or peaceful music.
While listening to music before sleep has shown good results, reading a physical book can help you focus and create a buffer before sleep. An audiobook is a combination of both. Building a portfolio of knowledge comes as a bonus!
- Drink some herbal tea or warm milk.
This is another non-scientific tip, but it works if you link the drink with going to sleep. It’s just a simple habit: if you drink the warm substance right before sleep, your brain will, after some time, start expecting to feel sleepy after drinking it.
Even if we decide to go to bed early, falling asleep is often what we struggle with the most. We just keep switching positions and our mind wanders, but the sandman is still nowhere to be found. So, what can we do about it?
- Go to sleep at the same time every night.
Consistency is the key once again. Going to bed at irregular times will increase the time it takes to fall asleep. We are habitual beings and if we’ve done something at a certain time, we tend to continue that behaviour. It also means that if you want to change the time you go to sleep, you should do it gradually.
- Distract your mind by focusing on breathing.
It doesn’t have to be breathing in particular, but it should be something that distracts your mind from wandering. An active mind keeps the sleep away, so calm it down.
- Use a sleeping mask and earplugs.
If the street lights or traffic noise is what’s keeping you up, try a sleeping mask and earplugs. They’re very cheap and can work wonders, so give them a shot.
- Do something else if you don’t feel sleepy.
Have you ever had trouble falling asleep, but kept tossing and turning in the bed? It can ruin the whole night, even if you eventually manage to fall asleep. So, go to another room, grab a book and read until you feel sleepy. Classic literature works wonders – I bet you can’t finish a page without already yawning. Don’t check your phone, though – intense light will scare the sandman.