After a long, stressful day, the last thing you want is to bring all that tension, anxiety, and nerves into bed. Because one thing’s for sure. When your alarm goes off, you’d have counted to the 1,765,895th sheep … and not slept a wink. But, of course, getting home, then immediately stepping into “a state of calm” is a tall order. That's why you need a wind-down routine; it'll bridge the frazzled you and the relaxed-and-primed-for-sleep you.
Here’s a four-step guide that’ll help you build the perfect wind-down routine that’s perfect for you (psst: meaning you don’t have to meditate or soak in bathwater till you’re puckered like a raisin if you don’t want to!)
#1: Decide on a set bedtime
Going to bed and waking up at the same time daily — yes, even on your off days — regulates your body's internal clock (i.e., circadian rhythm), helping you be alert or sleepy at the appropriate times. A consistent sleep-wake cycle doesn't only mean you'll find it easier to fall and stay asleep, either. Research also consistently links the practice with major health benefits, such as a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and mood disorders (1, 2). So, set a fixed time to get into bed daily. It could be 10 pm, 11 pm, or 12.30 am. Just make sure it gives you the following:
- Enough time to fit the wind-down activities you’d like to do before bed (more on this in a bit), and
- At least seven hours of sleep (FYI, most adults need anywhere between seven to nine hours of sleep nightly for optimal health and well-being) (3, 4)
#2: Pick wind-down activities you’d enjoy
Now, let's say you usually get back from work at 7 pm and have set a bedtime of 11 pm. What should you do with the four hours in between? Well, obviously, if you haven’t eaten dinner, there’s that — and for the remaining time, you could consider any or a combination of the following wind-down activities (note: only pick the one(s) you’d actually enjoy and find relaxing).
Take a warm bath
Your core temperature follows a circadian rhythm (i.e., rises and falls across a 24-hour cycle). At the start of the day, your body temperature starts low and rises steadily throughout the day before dropping as evening draws in. This drop in core body temperature is believed to signal our bodies to prepare for sleep (5).
To make use of this, consider taking a warm bath about an hour before you sleep; your body will heat up from the water, then cool down quickly post-bath — mimicking a nighttime drop in body temperature, helping you feel tired and relaxed (6). By the way … even if a warm bath isn't your idea of relaxation, ideally, you'd still shower before bed. You know, for hygiene reasons.
Avoid the “page-turners”, of course. You should also avoid reading on screens — the short-wave blue light they emit could interfere with your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that’s key in regulating the circadian rhythm (7, 8, 9). In fact, a large body of evidence shows blue light exposure before sleep negatively affects sleep quality and duration (10).
If you must read from electronic devices, you could minimize your exposure to the sleep-interfering blue light by switching to dark mode display settings and wearing blue-light-blocking glasses.
Rewatch your favorite TV shows or movies
Once again, steer clear from anything too gripping. TV shows and movies (e.g., Friends, The Office, and Modern Family) you've watched before are excellent choices since you won't be left on the edge of your seat, lying to yourself: "OK, this is the last episode/scene I'll watch before I turn in." (Spoiler alert: it never is.) Also, as with reading, try to minimize blue light exposure by dimming the lights and wearing blue-light-blocking glasses.
Light physical activity
Keyword: light. This means HIIT is most definitely out of the question. Instead, go for stretching and meditative movement (e.g., yoga); research shows that such light exercises could help elicit your body’s relaxation response — involving a flood of calming hormones and physiological reactions that quiet the nervous system — and improve sleep time and quality (11, 12).
If meditation's your jam, it could be the perfect wind-down activity for you. The practice is believed to lower your heart rate by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for your body's relaxation response) and encouraging slower breathing, increasing the likelihood of a quality night’s sleep (13).
Research agrees. According to a 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, participants (randomly) assigned to six weeks of meditation experienced fewer insomnia symptoms and less daytime fatigue than those in the sleep hygiene education group (14). Don’t know how to get started with meditation? You could try guided meditation apps like Calm, Headspace, and Waking Up.
Listening to music
Many studies have found that listening to music improves sleep (15, 16). Wondering if genre matters? The current scientific literature suggests that it probably doesn’t — and that the only thing that does is whether you find the music relaxing. After all, relaxation is personal, so if heavy metal soothes your soul, go for it.
Get busy with your hands
Um, no, not in that kind of way. We’re talking about PG-13-friendly, repetitive activities, such as drawing, painting, sewing, knitting, and even baking (basically, anything you can do without using too much brainpower).
If you’re always in a Great Rush in the morning, consider dedicating some time in your wind-down routine for self-care. E.g., catching up on all your supplements, from your probiotics to multivitamins to beauty boosters (where applicable). And FYI, if you’d like to maximize your chances of drifting off to restorative sleep, consider adding vitamin D and stress-lowering supplements, like Dr. Danielle’s Stress Lift, to your “repertoire” (17, 18, 19, 20).
#3: Prepare your bedroom for ZZZ success
OK, it's bedtime. How can you set up your bedroom so you get the best sleep possible? Here are five sleep hygiene tips:
#1 - No night eating
Say no to those late-night cravings. Consuming too much food just before bedtime could raise your core temperature and increase the likelihood of you experiencing indigestion, acid reflux, heartburn, and … unsurprisingly, poor sleep (21, 22, 23). A general rule of thumb is to stop eating three hours before bedtime (i.e., if you have dinner at 8 pm, your earliest bedtime is 11 pm) — unless you have a medical condition and have been advised otherwise by your primary healthcare provider (24).
#2 - Keep it cool
As mentioned, scientists believe that a drop in core temperature helps signal your body that it’s time for sleep. So, to “facilitate” this decrease in temperature, sleep experts recommend keeping your bedroom temperature cool, specifically, between 60 to 68 Fahrenheit (or 15.6 to 20 degrees Celsius) for the most comfortable sleep (25, 26).
#3 - Make sure the room is dark enough
All types of light suppress your body’s production of sleep-inducing melatonin (27, 28, 29, 30). In other words, you shouldn't only minimize your exposure to blue light from digital screens and general room lighting sources (e.g., ceiling lights, lamps, and recessed lighting). When it's time to sleep, ensure your room is as dark as possible. Consider curtains with blackout lining to block out light from neighboring buildings completely. You could also try a sleep mask as well.
#4 - Block out as much noise as possible
City noises (think: drivers who think they’re in a Formula 1 race and, ahem, overly enthusiastic neighbors at midnight) can make falling and staying asleep challenging. But if you can't stand using earplugs, noise machines may be a good option for you; they can help generate a steady color noise that "cancels out" unwanted sounds. Examples of the most research-backed, sleep-boosting color noises include white, pink, brown, and blue noise (31, 32, 33, 34). Feel free to experiment and see which works best for you.
#5 - Use your bed only for sleeping and intimacy
This means you shouldn’t use the bed for talking on the phone, watching television, scrolling social media, or eating and drinking (remember: no eating before bed!)
#4: Do it again (and again)
At this point, you should have built the perfect wind-down routine that works for you. But the work doesn’t stop here. The most important part of a routine is that … well, it’s a routine. Meaning? You’ll need to do it consistently.
Of course, "routine" shouldn’t mean "regimented". In reality, things happen — you get home late from a night out with friends, or you need to burn the candle at both ends to meet an important work deadline, and your routine gets thrown off. In that case, you could either do an "abbreviated" version of your routine or skip it, but make sure you return to it the following day. As with most things in life, what matters is you do it regularly.
See a doctor
Still feel like you're suffocating under a thunderstorm of anxious feelings and thoughts even after having built the perfect wind-down routine for yourself? Then it may be time to see a doctor. They could help you rule out underlying medical conditions and/or recommend treatment options to improve your sleep.