A routine built around the senses makes it easy to always wake up refreshed.
Cross posted at The Fallible Mind, my Psychology Today blog.
Good sleep can be so glorious as to be some people’s favorite activity. Not much else matters at 2 a.m. when you’re restless and staring at the ceiling. As time ticks by, this alertness can start to feel oppressive. After all, sleep is one of the most basic physiologic states during a human day, and a lack of it wreaks havoc on both mind and body. For those challenged in the wee hours of the morning, that must surely come to mind.
Happily, the solution to insomnia lies in routine—a routine that is specific to you.
A routine is any mix of action and environment that “lets the brain know what’s coming,” says Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist and author of The Sleep Solution. A consistent set of nighttime techniques can help your brain chemistry support the complex architecture of neural activity that makes for a good night’s sleep. Far from a passive state of being dead-to-the-world, sleep is part of a complex neurological rhythm that we can condition ourselves to. Much as an exercise regime conditions the muscles, establishing a sleep routine trains the brain to undo the stresses of the day.
A number of research-proven techniques, either alone or in combination, can be your personal elixir to a nightly restful sleep. To help you experiment, here are four changes you can make to wake up feeling great.
1. Arrange a tranquil bedroom for the senses.
Keep it dark. There is a reason we call dark, dreary days “sleepy” ones. A lack of light triggers the brain’s pineal gland to secrete melatonin, the hormone that makes us drowsy. Light, on the other hand—which few people know can pass through closed eyelids as well as the skull—wakes us up. This physiological fact makes any kind of digital screen a powerful sleep-stopper when viewed before bedtime for even a brief period. The blue light that screens emit suppresses the release of melatonin by tricking your body into believing it is daytime. Putting your smartphone aside at least an hour or two before your scheduled bedtime helps your body fall in step with its natural rhythm.
If you live in a large city, screens are not the only source of light that can keep you tossing and awake. From streetlights to storefronts to automobile headlights, modern light pollution is a far cry from the natural nighttime sky under which we evolved. People are typically astonished at how deeply they sleep when they put on a black-out mask of the sort airlines provide on long-haul flights. The equation here is simple: quiet eyes = quiet mind = a brain that quickly falls asleep. You can achieve the same effect with black-out curtains. You’ll know your room is dark enough when you hold your hand about a foot in front of your eyes and cannot see it.
Try a fragrance like lavender. When a breeze wafts in the smell of rain, or you walk into a bakery suffused with delicious scents, you are not just sensing an aroma. You are remembering. The reason you do so is that olfactory neurons are linked directly to the brain’s emotional circuits. Some scents tie directly to a memory, like the smell of grandma’s perfume and the sense of comfort it may carry. Others, like lavender, carry a subliminal message that reminds your mind to unwind and slow down.
Lavender has been shown in scientific tests to promote sound sleep. Wesleyan psychologists recently found that sniffing lavender oil just before bedtime increases slow-wave sleep, the very deep and restorative slumber during which your heartbeat slows and muscle tension melts away . Spray some lavender on your pillow and you’ll be simultaneously nudging your brain into the groove of its routine. Unless you are surrounded by the scent all day, the smell of lavender at night reminds your head why it’s resting on that pillow: It’s time to go to sleep. Zonk.
Make your bedroom cool. To conserve energy while we sleep, the body lowers its temperature, reaching its lowest point around 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. Most people sleep best in a cool room kept between 60–67 degrees. Impeding the body’s natural drive to cool down throws it out of its thermoneutral zone, with significant consequences. Lower your thermostat and nix the electric blankets and down comforters . Too high a thermostat setting or heap of blankets leaves you too warm and prevents you from reaching Stage III and IV sleep, the deepest stages that leave you raring to go in the morning. Though you might balk at experimenting with such a change, your body will thank you for letting it naturally cool down.
2. Get a move on during the day.
Twenty to thirty minutes of exercise a day is all your body needs to feel naturally tired at the end of the day. Studies have shown that either morning or afternoon workouts improve sleep quality. Exercise need not be herculean . In fact, vigorous exercise too late in the day increases body temperature and muscle lactate, which make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Instead, opt for any kind of activity that reduces your stress. Walking or merely climbing stairs a few times are perfectly fine. Insomnia is often linked to feelings of arousal, anxiety, and depression—which exercise can alleviate. A quick jog after work or any brief aerobic activity that raises your pulse and breathing rate will help clear your mind and prime you for sleep.
3. Step off the coffee-nightcap rollercoaster.
You’re groggy in the morning, so you drink coffee. You’re still wired in the evening, so you pop a sleeping pill. But down and up and over again is no way to achieve consistent, high-quality sleep. Avoiding caffeine at least six hours before bedtime will ensure that its stimulating effect is out of your system by the time you’re ready to nod off. If you’re still alert as the night progresses, try to avoid pouring a glass of wine or popping a sleeping pill—these are short-term solutions that quickly worsen the quality of sleep. They might help you nod off at first, but they mess with the architecture of the sleep cycle, the orderly progression from Stages I to IV and back up again to REM sleep, during which we dream. Each night consists of three to four of these 90-minute cycles. Alcohol and pills disrupt the deepest stages, which is why you don’t feel refreshed in the morning. You might instead try a cup of herbal tea or relaxation techniques like gentle stretching or a short walk. A quiet mind is the key. To achieve it, less is more.
4. Consistency is the key.
Sleeping in until noon may seem like a luxury, but it’s doing you no favors. The most important aspect to any sleep routine is consistency—going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time each day. This includes weekends. Not only does this help the body maintain its rhythm, but it also has additional benefits. Research has repeatedly supported the link between adequate sleep (7 to 8 hours) and a healthy body weight. Further research shows that those who have consistent sleep schedules also have a lower percentage of body fat . Instead of a mad dash to dress and hurry off to work, put down the phone and go to bed. Set your alarm for an early-morning stretch or a quiet 5-minute meditation, and you might already be halfway to a healthier body and deeper, dreamier nights.