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7 ways to establish a nighttime routine for better sleep

There’s no magic recipe for establishing the perfect pre-bedtime routine. It should be tailored to what you can feasibly accomplish and what relaxes your mind and body. For the most part, the human brain responds positively to patterns, and setting up a routine for winding down every night can help you fall asleep quicker, stay asleep throughout the night, and feel well rested the next day.

When it comes to good sleep health, consistency is key. Doing the same thing repeatedly brings structure to our lives and creates a feeling of safety and comfort. Here are some quick suggestions for you to consider when creating your own wind-down routine:

1. Re-think the alarm clock.

Many people use some form of scheduled alert to wake up in the morning. Consider employing a bedtime signal (many smartphones now have this function) to help you establish a habit of going to bed earlier. It’s easy to get distracted and then look up and realize we should have gone to bed long ago. A gentle reminder like a bedtime alarm can have a strong impact on your sleep quality.

2. Screen your screen time.

Humans are hard-wired to respond to light and darkness, and when our brain receives signals that our environment is shifting from one to the other, it acts accordingly. Special photoreceptors in our eye’s retina pick up on these changes and help align our circadian rhythms—the closest thing we have to an “internal clock"—to the external cycle of day and night.

But what happens when that light source is coming from a computer screen, tablet, TV screen, or phone? It can mess with our perception of whether or not it’s time to fall asleep. So avoid falling asleep with the TV on, and remove every screen from your bedroom, if possible. And, frankly, it’s possible.

3. Avoid caffeine before bed.

It’s well known that caffeine can keep you awake when you’re feeling drowsy. And you’ve probably already heard that you should avoid caffeine before bedtime. But how long should you wait?

Researchers specifically monitored the effects of caffeine intake on sleep in a recent study. Participants were divided into groups and each group was given either a moderate dose of caffeine exactly at bedtime, 3 hours prior to bedtime, or 6 hours prior to bedtime. A fourth group was given a placebo. The results yielded significant disrupted sleep for every single group given caffeine, save for those given the placebo.

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4. Avoid alcohol before bed.

It may seem like having an alcoholic beverage before heading to bed gets you to sleep faster. Some people think that a drink aids them in their sleep health, but the reality is quite the opposite, asthe negative effects of alcoholconsumption on sleep are well-documented.

Alcohol is a sedative, which means it causes your muscles to relax. Sedatives sometimes cause the throat to relax more than it needs to, resulting in higher instances of sleep-disordered breathing, including snoring and sleep apnea.

Then there’s the matter of staying asleep. Alcohol is also a diuretic, which works in direct contrast to how your body normally functions during sleep. This can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night to visit the restroom. The more your normal sleep patterns are interrupted, the poorer quality of sleep you receive.

Avoiding alcohol before going to bed can dramatically improve your breathing and oxygen intake over the course of the night, making for a more restful sleep experience. Alcohol consumption is also often followed by fragmented sleep, which inhibits the deep, restorative sleep our bodies need to fully renew themselves.

5. Create an optimal environment.

What does your ideal sleep environment look and feel like? Take some time to experiment with darkness and temperature. As we discussed earlier, our circadian rhythm guides us in and out of wakefulness and sleep. This inner clock operates more or less on a 24-hour schedule. Studies have shown that your body’s temperature also operates along a similar 24-hour schedule. It is at its coolest in the very early morning (around 4 a.m.), then gradually warms up again as you leave sleep and cross into wakefulness.

Because of this, it is recommended that adults sleep in a slightly cool room, at a temperate hovering around 65 degrees. This is because our body’s temperature dips slightly during certain phases of sleep, and having an environment that isn’t competing with the temperature can make for a more restful experience.

Also, consider your light sources. This may mean wearing an eye mask or buying blackout curtains. Conversely, when morning comes, waking to light from a specialized light therapy lamp or light box can help your circadian rhythm stay on track. This can be especially effective as the seasons change and the days grow noticeably shorter in more extreme latitudes.

6. Create a custom wind-down routine.

Create the ultimate wind-down routine that works for you. One person’s version of how they’d prefer to go to bed is as unique as anyone else’s. Relaxing activities like stretching and meditation can also put someone in the mood for sleep. For others, a bath can be soothing, more so than a shower, which some find too energizing and stimulating when it’s late at night.Or, sip a cup of tea. Take care that this tea is herbal, not black or green, which can contain caffeine. Consider sipping your tea while reading a chapter from a book. Choose activities that you feel the natural inclination to gravitate toward, not just because you think it’s the “right” thing to do.

7. Start a sleep journal.

An effective wind-down routine is as unique as the individual. You don’t have to do everything suggested, but feel free to experiment and keep track of what works in a sleep journal to help you figure things out. This way, you’ll be able to see the difference a consistent wind-down routine makes for your sleep health.

Brandon R. Peters, M.D., is board-certified in both neurology and sleep medicine and currently practices at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. He is also a Clinical Affiliate at Stanford University's School of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. His latest book, Insomnia Solved, is available on Amazon.

September 10, 2018