When you were a child, you probably had a bedtime ritual. Perhaps you took a bath, got into your pajamas, brushed your teeth and lay in bed under soft light while your mom or dad read you a favorite story. The soothing process helped your body relax and signaled to your mind that it was time to cool down, let go and fall asleep.
The snooze-inducing power of a relaxing routine in a comfortable environment doesn’t fade as you get older. In fact, the stressors of adulthood—coupled with technology that keeps us wired (literally and figuratively) at all hours—makes a cozy bedtime ritual more important than ever for us grown-ups. We often find it necessary to remind guests we meet with to reclaim the bedtime ritual as an integral component of a healthy sleep plan—no matter their age. The best part? Setting the stage for sleep is an all-natural way to get your Zzzzs.
The Slumber Cascade
To discover the best routine for you, it helps to understand what happens in your body before you nod off. As you go through your day, particularly when you’re physically active, the neurotransmitter adenosine rises in your body. High levels of this compound make you feel tired. The gradual dimming of light (artificial or natural) brings an increase in melatonin—a hormone produced by the pineal gland that affects alertness—signaling sleep to come. With that relaxation comes reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which would otherwise keep you bright-eyed. Finally, your body temperature lowers, making it easier to fall asleep. (The small drop—around one degree—makes a big difference.)
When setting the stage for shuteye, then, it’s important to think about all of these factors and how they affect your body’s ability to wind down.
Create a Soothing Environment
You can help ease your sleep well before it’s even time to hit the pillow by making sure that your bedroom is conducive to a good night’s rest:
- Keep your bedroom cool. Studies show that temperature levels above 75° F (and below 54° F) interfere with sleep. Each person is individual, but for most people, somewhere between 65° F and 72° F is a good place to set the nighttime thermostat.
- Block out light and noise. Blackout shades can keep streetlights (or early morning sun) from seeping in. Use earplugs if sounds (car alarms, your cat meowing at the bedroom door) disrupt your slumber.
- Make your bed a sanctuary. Ideally, you’d use it for only two things: sleep and sex. Try not to watch TV, use your laptop or other screen devices or eat in bed. Reading in bed is fine as long as you are getting to sleep without difficulty. If not, consider taking your book to another comfortable place and going to bed when you're tired.
Transition Your Body and Mind
“You can train the body to start slowing down for sleep,” says Param Dedhia, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. Start by developing a consistent sleep schedule. Keeping regular sleep/wake times (or as close to it as possible) helps regulate your body’s daily rhythms. Even on the weekends, try to stray from this as little as you can.
Be mindful of the clock in other ways, too. Seven or eight hours before bedtime, stop drinking coffee and consuming other sources of caffeine, which block adenosine. You should be finished with exercise, food and alcohol two or three hours before retiring, as they all have arousal properties that can interfere with sleep. Then, half-an-hour to an hour before you want to drift off, dim the lights, turn off electronics and engage in a soothing practice that works for you. Here are some of our favorite suggestions:
- Jot down your worries. Journaling about what’s bothering you can trick your brain into feeling like it’s dealt with the problem—at least for now.
- Take a warm bath or shower. When you get out, the air temperature will cool your core.
- Do some gentle stretches, yoga moves, progressive muscle relaxation, a visualization meditation or breathing exercises. They all help your mind and body wind down.
- Use aromatherapy. Lavender is a popular bedroom scent for calming down and falling asleep.
And Finally, To Get Back to Sleep…
Since you may be sleeping lighter than you used to, it’s easy to wake up during the night. You may need to use the bathroom more frequently. The worries from your day may show up in disturbing dreams. Whatever rouses you, “Don’t wake up and turn on the TV or start answering emails,” Dr. Dedhia says. “I ask people to do some stretching or yoga, and if you can’t fall back to sleep, sit in a specific chair with a soft light and pull up a book.” When you feel tired, your bedroom sanctuary will be ready for you.