The two key steps to falling asleep: relaxing your body and shutting down a busy mind.
That means you need to detach yourself from the stressors of the day. Stress elevates all your body’s functions. And the very thought of what you have left undone from the day can trigger the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, elevating your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and body temperature. In fact, it's the release of cortisol in the early morning hours that signals the brain to “wake up” for the day. This is the last signal you want to be sending your brain in the evening hours before sleep.
I recommend setting aside an hour in the evening, a few hours ahead of bedtime, to make two lists. One list is for your unfinished business from the day, and a second will be your "to do” list for the next. Then, make a contract with yourself to end all work for the night. Say out loud, “I am done for today. I will start again tomorrow.”
As a Ph.D. diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, I've devoted 35 years to the study of human sleep and clinical sleep disorders. Here are some of my favorite tips for winding down and shutting down your mind for sleep.
How to relax your body before sleep:
The final hour before bedtime is time for you to relax. Let’s start with four easy strategies to physically relax the body:
1. Turn off the gadgets.
Stop texting on your cellphone, stop sending and answering emails on your computer, and turn these devices off for the night. You should also turn off your TV at least an hour before sleep.
2. Try light yoga or Pilates stretches.
Gentle movement that ends in quiet meditation is fine before bedtime if it helps you relax your body and mind.
3. Pamper yourself.
Consider a long, hot bath or shower. The warm water will achieve two objectives: It will relax you as well as artificially raise your body temperature so it will fall quickly and trigger a rapid sleep onset if you go to bed afterward. Use a soothing lavender bath or shower gel and a scented body lotion if you enjoy aromatherapy.
4. Keep your feet warm.
You won't fall asleep with cold feet because your body temperature is not dropping. If your feet are cold, wear heated booties or socks to bed. Heating your feet will force your body temperature to drop quickly and trigger sleep onset.
How to shut down your mind before sleep:
After relaxing the body, it's time to calm your busy mind. Here's what I recommend:
1. Put on a relaxing guided meditation or nature sounds.
Play an mp3 track on a 30- to 60-minute timer. The best nature sounds are ocean waves or falling rain. Our brains are wired to attend to novelty. So, the continuous in-and-out rush of waves against a shoreline is very similar to a normal, slow breathing cycle, which will only occupy the brain’s attention for a short time before being ignored, allowing you to drift off to sleep. Your “thinking” brain literally gets bored and shuts down so you can fall asleep.
Don’t listen to an audiobook, as this will hold your brain’s attention.
2. Practice mindful breathing.
This is very important because the minute you shut off the lights for sleep, your mind is going to start up again. As long as your brain stays active thinking and worrying about what you did not get done or what you need to do the following day, you will not fall asleep. Focus your attention on controlling your breath.
Close your eyes, place your right hand on your abdomen. You want to feel your abdomen expand as you slowly inhale. Take a deep breath and visualize a balloon filling with air. Pause at the top of the breath and then exhale slowly while visualizing the air being let out of the inflated balloon. Since slowing your exhalation is easiest for most people, focus your mind on making your exhalation longer than your inhalation. Repeat this process several times until you feel your breath has slowed and your body feels relaxed. Then just breathe normally.
You can use this same mindful breathing practice in an upright position anytime during the day when you feel yourself becoming anxious or stressed out. Simply concentrate on slowing your exhalation, which will automatically slow your next inhalation. As you slow down your breath, your heart rate will also slow down and you will calm down.
3. Play white noise while you sleep.
A simple white noise sound generator in the bedroom helps to keep your mind quiet in the middle of the night and masks disruptive outside noise. Our brains are designed to wake us up if there is any sudden or intermittent noise in our sleeping environment. A white noise sound generator emits a continuous background hum—similar to the background hum of a humidifier, a fan, an ionizer, or a diffuser.
Inexpensive “white noise” sleep sound machines are available through multiple vendors, such as Hammacher Schlemmer and Homedco. White noise sound generators are a must for night shift workers who sleep during the day.
The bottom line: Neither a tense, stressed-out body nor a busy mind are conducive to sleep. Adopt these nighttime rituals to chill out, shut down, and sleep peacefully through the night.