10 Bedtime Routines That Turned Insomniacs Into Sound Sleepers
Is your nighttime routine in need of a makeover? Clinical psychologist, Michael Breus, PhD, aka The Sleep Doctor, shares before and after stories from patients who turned their sleep around by changing their nightly habits.
Stash your phone outside your bedroom
One patient with a demanding job had a habit of keeping her phone at her bedside, so she was never out of touch with her office. That's a dangerous habit for a number of reasons, including how damaging work stress can be to your health. In her case, the light from the screen—bright with melatonin-suppressing, blue-wavelength light—kept her from becoming drowsy. So did the mental stimulation from thinking about work late into the night.
She created a charging station for her phone (and her husband's) in the kitchen. Having her phone out of the bedroom removed the stress and vigilance that came with having work at her bedside. It also reduced her light exposure, allowing her body's natural melatonin to do its job. Though tough at first—she said she went through "withdrawal"—within a week she loved it.
Give yourself an hour to wind down
This patient, a mom with four kids under 10, used to squeeze every minute out of her day. When she finally collapsed into bed, she'd lie awake feeling wired and restless. "I'm exhausted, but I can't sleep," she told me.
I suggested she establish a Power Down Hour™ in her nightly routine. A 60-minute wind-down allows your mind to de-stress and your body to relax. I asked her to spend 20 minutes finishing up tasks, 20 minutes with nightly hygiene, and 20 minutes in true relaxation. It was tough for her to let go of that busy hour—until her productivity increased during the day, thanks to her additional rest. Having some time to herself at the end of the day also reduced her stress.
Use soothing sounds
I recently treated a guy who was waking up frequently after falling asleep—a habit that has been linked to Alzheimer's disease. After experimenting with different changes to his nightly routine, we identified the problem, and it might surprise you: His environment was too quiet.
Our brains continue to process sounds after we fall asleep. My patient was highly sensitive to incidental noises—a car door slamming, a barking dog. But not all sounds interfere with sleep. When he began using a sound machine during the night, his frequent awakenings diminished. He found one that included soothing lights and recommendations for meditative breathing—even better.
Use your wake time to set your bedtime
A patient of mine suffered from chronic daytime tiredness—struggling to stay awake in afternoon meetings, lacking the energy to get to the gym. His job started at 7:30 a.m., so he had to leave the house by 6:45. He often stayed out until 11:30 or later, not getting to bed until after midnight.
My patient wasn't being realistic about his bedtime. Starting with his necessary wake time, 5:30 a.m., we walked back seven hours and 20 minutes. (It typically takes about 20 minutes to fall asleep.) His new bedtime: 10:10 p.m. It took him a few weeks, but he committed to a new schedule—and stopped nodding off at his desk in the afternoon.
Keep your bedroom clean
I had a patient who seemed to avoid going to bed at night. She stayed up late, watching TV and reading. She averaged about five-and-a-half hours of nightly rest, much less than the seven or more hours most adults need. It took her a while to admit to me that her bedroom made her uncomfortable because it was messy.
Even though my patient knew her messy bedroom caused her anxiety, she'd never connected that anxiety to her sleep problems. She needed a guide to decluttering life. A clean room is a more soothing place to rest. It's also much less likely to contain allergens that can interfere with your breathing at night. When she started spending a few minutes every morning straightening up, her bedroom became a place she wanted to be. Here are 10 effortless things clutter-free people do every day.
"I don't know how to relax before bed," a patient said to me not long ago. At the end of a long day he was physically tired, but his mind was racing.
A 2015 study showed that mindfulness meditation improves insomnia, as well as mood and daytime fatigue. I taught my patient a simple mindfulness exercise to use before bed: Sit quietly, in comfortable clothing, with eyes closed. Breathe naturally, and put your attention on the movement of breath in and out of your body. "It calms me right down," he told me at his next visit. Meditation is easy to pick up—check out this guide—and doing it at any time of day can help your nightly rest. I meditate during my morning shower.
Dim the lights throughout your house
One of my patients was very disciplined about keeping a dark bedroom. She used blackout curtains, low-watt bulbs, and refused to let her husband put a TV in the room. Still, she struggled with insomnia a few nights a week. I asked her to describe the rest of her house, and we discovered the problem: too much light elsewhere.
Light is a powerful stimulant. Lights blazing around your home at night will keep you alert and awake. My patient switched to 45-watt bulbs in her den, where she spent time in the evenings, and kept her exposure from all light sources below 200 watts. She found special light bulbs for her bedroom that filter out stimulating blue light. Now she is sleeping like a baby.
Sip a cup of tea
Tea can be a great part of a bedtime routine—which is key to improving sleep—but it's best to stick to caffeine-free. I had a patient recently who drank a cup of black tea after dinner most evenings. She felt it relaxed her, but she also had trouble dozing off at bedtime.
It took some convincing, but I persuaded my patient to switch to a different "tea" altogether. My favorite before-bed drink is banana tea. It's simple to make: Cut off the ends of a banana and cut it into three pieces, with the peel on. Boil for 5 minutes, and strain the liquid into your mug. It's full of potassium and magnesium, which will soothe you and relax your muscles.
Have a light snack
A very fitness-oriented patient came to me recently, complaining of insomnia. We talked through his daily habits, including his nighttime routines. He ate a healthful, light dinner at around 7 p.m., and went to bed at 11. His trouble with falling asleep? He was hungry.
I suggested my patient start having a light snack about halfway between dinner and bedtime. He was concerned about eating at night. I recommended a snack of no more than 200 calories that combines protein with complex carbohydrates—the good kind of carbs like the others on this list. One example is a bowl of whole-grain cereal with milk. Carbohydrates boost serotonin, which makes you drowsy. With his stomach on less-than-empty at bedtime, he started falling asleep more easily. He even found a company that makes snacks designed specifically for before bed!
A patient described her bedtime routine to me this way: "It's dull. I know it's supposed to be relaxing," she said, "but mine just feels boring." Routines that feel stale can make you the opposite of relaxed, not what you need at bedtime. My patient's same-old habits were making her restless, and preventing her from getting her best sleep.
I recommended she begin using aromatherapy, which have a lot of healing properties—a simple fix to make her bedtime ritual feel more indulgent, and to help her sleep better. Scents including lavender, jasmine, and vanilla have sleep-promoting properties. My patient started taking a warm bath using lavender oil about 90 minutes before bed. It quickly became the part of her nighttime ritual she looked forward to most.