6 Neuroscience Tips for The Perfect Bedtime Routine

Getting a good night’s sleep is critically important, but it’s not always easy.  We all know how much better we feel when we get a quality eight hours than a restless five or six.  Our culture tends to readily sacrifice our sleep to do more, and even when we get in bed on time, we can find ourselves tossing and turning.

Sleep is a complex, biological process that depends heavily on our environment and behavior, which is a good thing because we can impact it. Unfortunately, our 21st century American lifestyles and homes make it very easy to counteract the biological process of falling asleep. So, here are 6 sleep tips for a perfect bedtime routine based on neuroscience.  These principles will help you customize a routine that you look forward to every night. 

1. Create a Recognizable Pattern

How: Create a bedtime routine so your brain recognizes it as, “It’s time for sleep” 

Why: Our brains are the perfect pattern recognizers because they’re constantly trying to find better ways to respond to our environment.  Everything we do and every environment we put ourselves in creates a unique set of chemical and electrical signals in the brain.  The brain integrates these signals and stores them so that when it recognizes a similar set of signals in the future, it can respond to them more effectively.  Our brains are like computers in this way.  Once your brain recognizes your bedtime routine you’ll find yourself falling asleep quickly and effortlessly.  The next 4 tips will help you unwind before you sleep and keep you sleeping soundly all night. 

2. Dim The Lights & Black Out Your Bedroom

How: Keep the lights dim and avoid bright, fluorescent light and all lit screens for an hour or so before you want to fall asleep. Eliminate all light sources in your bedroom.

Why: Our bodies have evolved so that they stay in sync with the daily alternation between night and day.  Our brains mediate the activation of the appropriate systems for each portion of the day by releasing hormones.  For sleep, as the retina stops receiving bright light, it sends a signal through the superchiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of your hypothalamus to your pineal gland to trigger the release of melatonin.  Melatonin is the hormone responsible for initiating our sleep.  In fact, sleep onset usually occurs about two hours after the initial release of melatonin.  This system works great with natural sunset, however nowadays we have lights everywhere: TVs, phone screens, etc.  When we expose ourselves to those bright lights before bed, we’re stopping the melatonin release in its tracks and setting ourselves up for tossing and turningYou will also want to black out your windows (especially in the city) and reduce any light coming into your bedroom so that you have no stimulus to signal wakefulness until your alarm goes off.

3. Put Your Mind At Ease By Preparing for Tomorrow

How: Use your bedtime routine to make your morning stress free by laying out your clothes for the next day, packing a bag for work, and maybe even writing a “to do” list

Why: Everyone knows that stress before bed is a recipe for a racing mind and tossing and turning, but what does that mean at the level of the brain?  The stress response is activated whether a tiger walks in your room or you’re simply worrying about an overdue assignment.  This “fight or flight” response from your sympathetic nervous system directly opposes the “rest and digest” activity of the parasympathetic nervous system.  This means your brain is flooded with stress hormones, which cause your blood pressure to go up, your pupils to dilate, and worst of all, a blocking of melatonin’s activity.  To combat this late night stress, take advantage of your unwinding time to prepare for your next day.  This relaxing productivity will stop that stress response in its tracks and you can go to bed feeling stress free and ready to tackle tomorrow. 

 4. Chill Out, Literally! 

How: Keep your bedroom cool (65-68 degrees) and wear minimal clothing to bed

Why: Your body temperature is actually affected by your circadian rhythms.  Your body temperature bottoms out in the middle of the night and comes back up as you go wake up and go about your day.  Melatonin mediates this process by acting as a potent vasodilator.  This means that melatonin causes your body to release heat through the skin by expanding your blood vessels and promoting blood flow.  Our extremities, specifically our hands and feet, give off the most heat.  This explains why we tend to sleep with our feet poking out from under the covers.  We actually can’t fall asleep until our body temperature drops sufficiently.  Sleeping in a cold room has also been shown to increase sleep quality.  This is another brilliant but logical adaptation.  It gets colder when the sun goes down so our bodies have adapted to sleep best in those colder temperatures.    

5. Meditate Your Way To Sleep

How: Sit at the end of your bed with good posture but relaxed and eyes closed. Take a deep full breath, noticing the sensations going in and out. Count AFTER each breath, not during and make your way up to 10 and back down to 1.

Why: Many meditation practices are not really about sleeping, they are about building your mindfulness/awareness muscle, however many of the breathing and focus techniques are used in relaxation techniques that are perfect to help you prepare to sleep well.  When we do meditative breathing exercises we are consciously slowing down all of our body’s systems since breathing is both a cue for the body and will respond to the body. With nothing to do, our mind naturally wanders, especially if your day had some juicy experiences, but when we give our minds the simple task of counting in a mindful way while we breath, we don’t allow space for the wandering mind to get churned up. When the mind quiets, it is perfect conditions for sleep, which is why sleepiness is one of the obstacles for long meditation. Interestingly if we try too hard at meditation technique it will create the stress of needing to do it well, so we must practice them gently.

6. Be Consistent With Your Timing

How: Start your routine at a similar time everyday

Why:  You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythms before, but let’s take a closer look.  The word circadian is Latin for “about a day”.  So our circadian, biological clock regulates our bodily systems to be active at the appropriate times of day.  The same brain area with the ridiculously long name, the SCN, is the body’s “master clock”.  It keeps us trained to the light/dark cycle by recognizing the timing of the change from light to dark.  This is why jet lag is so brutal and why our bodies feel better when we’re consistently asleep for the same hours of the night.  Of course, exposing yourself to bright, artificial light messes with this system.  Being consistent with your timing will add another layer to your brain’s ability to recognize your routine. 

Make Your Routine Enjoyable

This one’s pretty simple.  If you look forward to unwinding every night, doing it everyday will be effortless.  Like all things, if you’re enjoying the process, your goals are as good as conquered.  For me, I like to take a warm shower in the evenings which is both a time saver in the morning (one more thing done) and a warm shower is one of the easiest and most relaxing things we can do for ourselves. So make your bedtime routine something you look forward to and you’ll be sleeping like a baby, waking up refreshed, and feeling better everyday.

Evan ShaulsonComment