Parents of young kids prioritize a consistent bedtime routine because they know good sleep is important for developing brains. Once their kids are in bed, they then make the most of their precious kid-free time, often at the expense of sleep. This is one reason that one in three adults don’t get enough sleep, putting them at risk for diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression. Other reasons include various medical conditions affecting sleep that are more common in older people.
Medical conditions and children who delay bedtime are things out of your control; your own bedtime routine is one thing you can control. Creating a bedtime routine that promotes good sleep may be the best thing you can do for yourself.
The nighttime activities you choose should focus on two things: relaxing, reducing any anxiety from your day, and creating a space that induces sleepiness. Going to bed at the same time each night helps achieve this goal by maintaining your body’s natural circadian rhythm. The human body has a 24-hour master circadian clock that regulates body functions including temperature and hormone levels. The clock’s main function is the sleep/wake cycle, and it is set by visual cues. One of the hormones involved in this cycle is melatonin, which is released leading up to sleep—but only if you are in a dark place as bright light inhibits its release. For this reason, it is best to stay off your phone and other electronics before bed.
But wait, you say, I always check my phone or iPad before bed. It helps me relax and unwind. First, don’t worry. You are not alone. The National Sleep Foundation reports that 90 percent of people check an electronic device within an hour of bedtime. It may be a hard habit to break, but it is possible. Here are six activities you can do instead of scrolling on a phone or table to relax and unwind before bed:
- Write your to-do list for the next day: Anxiety is a leading cause of insomnia in adults. This includes people anxious about work or family situations and those with an anxiety disorder. For some people, making a to-do list before bed for the next day reduces stress and lets them calm down. One study even found that a to-do list for the next day was more effective at inducing sleep than journaling about what was accomplished during the day.
- Meditate: Meditation was created to form a deeper understanding of the sacred and mystical forces of life. Today meditation is used mostly as a form of relaxation and stress reduction, making it a perfect pre-bedtime activity. There is no right or wrong way to meditate. You can sit Indian style and chant for long periods of time, you can walk in silence, or you can lie in the dark and quiet of your bedroom for a few minutes before bed. By focusing your attention on one thing (your breath, or flexing and unflexing your muscles), you can relax and destress.
- Read: Reading, like meditating, requires your full attention. Reading a magazine article or chapter of a good book before bed (not on an electronic device) can help you relax, which will also help with sleep. As an added benefit, you will also be learning and stimulating your brain.
- Take a warm bath or shower: The body’s circadian clock regulates temperature and tends to lower it as bedtime approaches. Taking a warm bath or shower an hour or two before bed leaves you feeling a little cooler upon exiting and could more quickly induce sleep. Using soap infused with jasmine or lavender could help even more, as these scents are known to be calming.
- Talk with your partner: Many people these days lead very busy lives and don’t have a lot of time to talk with their partner or spouse, even though they share a house. Sharing your successes and frustrations of your day has the dual benefit of connecting with your spouse and getting anything off your chest that may make it harder to fall asleep.
- Listen to music: Ritual drumming and rhythmic prayer are parts of many cultures and are used throughout the world in religious ceremonies to induce people into a trance. Researchers at Stanford University found that soft, slow music encourages slow brainwave signals associated with meditation and hypnosis. If you sleep with a partner, use earbuds and make sure your device emits no light.
· Whatever activities you choose, remember, stick to your routine and turn off the lights at the same time each night. Our body’s circadian clock expects darkness to come at a certain time and sends cues to the body to cool down and slow down. Disrupting that clock will not only inhibit your sleep, but also your energy levels and productivity the next day if the disruption is severe. This internal clock was in existence long before the invention of artificial light and electronics, but it still operates optimally in response to the appearance and disappearance of natural light. Respecting its needs and choosing bedtime activities that reduce stress and promote sleep will benefit you for years to come.