It is one of the cruelest ironies in life: crawling into bed after a grueling day only to find yourself staring at the ceiling for hours, unable to sleep. Struggling all day to keep your sluggish mind engaged and your heavy, bloodshot eyes open, only for your body to reverse direction and refuse to shut off when you finally get the chance.
If you’ve been there, you aren’t alone. Insufficient sleep is a modern pandemic. Studies show that more than half of American adults are chronically sleep deprived. These figures persist despite the abundance of sleep aids all but spilling off our shelves. From prescription pills and their “holistic” alternatives (such as melatonin) to old-fashioned nightcaps, we have been taught to rely on bottles as our best hope of plucking sleep back from the grip of stress and distraction every night.
Sometimes these substances work. Sometimes they don’t. In too many cases, whether they help or not, these medicinal keys to dreamland open up entirely new and terrifying Pandoras boxes of addiction, drug complications, and the worsening of other chronic health conditions.
Fortunately, there are alternatives. In fact, you can program your brain and body to consistently get great sleep using a few simple science-based tips and tricks. To build a strong, healthy sleep routine, start with these five easy steps.
- Give yourself an early(-ish) curfew. The CDC, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and others have recognized that erratic sleep schedules or sleep schedules that run counter to humans’ natural circadian rhythms directly result in an array of negative health consequences. Adults with disrupted and irregular sleeping patterns are at higher risk of chronic illness and injury, are more likely to experience social and relational strain, and to suffer other negative physical, mental and emotional health outcomes.
The first step to creating a strong sleep routine, then, is to consistently go to bed at a time that supports and aligns with your body’s natural rhythms. Aim for approximately 10 or 10:30 pm each night. If you regularly need to be up early in the morning, move that time back as much as necessary to ensure that you can get a full night’s sleep.
If you are currently going to bed much later, Ayurvedic practitioner Cate Stillman suggests slowly working backwards in 15 minute increments to ease the pain of adjusting your schedule so drastically. For example, if you are going to bed around 1 am, aim to be in bed by 12:45 am the first week. The next week, shoot for a 12:30 bedtime, and so on until you reach your target time.
- Close the kitchen. Every time you eat or drink, you trigger chemical and hormonal responses that affect every aspect of your mind and body. Eating late at night interferes with your body’s ability to achieve the physical state it needs to attain and maintain sleep. Consuming sugar, caffeine, high-carb meals, and other stimulants exacerbates these effects. Making an effort to eat an earlier dinner and to avoid snack and drinks (other than water) before bed will go a long way toward improving your sleep.
Note: if you are on medications that must be taken with food at certain times, or receiving treatment for blood sugar or other conditions in which food is involved, talk to your physician before changing your eating habits.
- Shut off your screens. Technology has an enormous influence on how our brains – and therefore our bodes – function. Turning off the television, computer and other digital devices at least one hour before going to bed can lead to significant improvements in your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Removing electronic devices from the bedroom (or covering them so that blue light screens are hidden) can help, as well. If you absolutely must have your cell phone in your bedroom, adjust your alert settings so that only emergency calls or texts can interrupt your sleep.
- Empty your head. If you struggle with intrusive thoughts, anxiety, or the feeling that you just can’t “turn your brain off” when it is time to sleep, create a habit of clearing your mind before climbing into bed. For some people, short sessions of meditation or yoga are an ideal way to decompress and release hectic thoughts. For others, journaling, or “brain dumping” everything they can think of onto a master to-do list can achieve similar results.
Dedicating even a short period of time before getting ready for bed to quieting your mind can pay tremendous dividends. Experiment until you find the method that works best for you.
- Create a ritual. The more scientists study rituals, the more data we amass on how incredibly powerful they are. Rituals tap into deep neurological patterns and connections within us, giving meaning and emphasis to even small actions, and align our minds, bodies and intentions.
As children, most of us had bedtime rituals – brushing our teeth, reading a story, snuggling in with a favorite stuffed animal, perhaps listening to a lullaby. While adult rituals often have less charm, they are no less impactful.
Consider what you need and want to do before bed each night and create a simple bedtime ritual for yourself. Include things that are soothing and satisfying, as this will help you practice your ritual consistently and stick to your chosen bedtime.
These steps aren’t magic bullets. If you find yourself still struggling with sleep after implementing them, you may need to work with your doctor or another qualified health professional to drill down into your environment and habits for other complicating factors. But one thing is for sure – addressing these key areas is a great way to start building a routine that will help you sleep like a baby.