9 Ways To Hack Your Brain For Better Sleep, From A Neuroscientist
Sleep and the brain go hand in hand. As we sleep, our brain goes through different stages, which serve different purposes, from consolidating memories to flushing the brain of waste, "recharging" our physical batteries, and, of course, dreaming.
Even if you're getting a full night's sleep, there's always room to improve your actual sleep quality, as well as initiate sleep more effectively. To find out how, we asked neuroscientist and author of Biohack Your Brain Kristen Willeumier, Ph.D., for her top strategies to help the brain prepare for deep sleep:
Dim the lights.
As Willeumier explains, lights will decrease your body's production of melatonin, which is what helps signal the body that it's time to sleep. To help support melanin production, she recommends dimming the lights about an hour before you go to sleep.
Don't eat too soon before bed.
Eating anything (particularly a large meal) too soon before bed can have negative effects on your quality of sleep because it takes a fair amount of energy to digest food. Willeumier recommends reducing your food consumption at least three hours before bed. If you do need to reach for a bedtime snack, she says magnesium-rich foods like nuts and seeds or a bit of dark chocolate are good options.
Add magnesium into your bedtime routine.
And speaking of magnesium, it's a favorite supplement of Willeumier's for clients who have trouble getting to sleep. She also recommends pharmaGABA, the natural form of the GABA neurotransmitter. (It just so happens that mindbodygreen's sleep support+ formula contains both sleep enhancers, as well as relaxing jujube!) Magnesium is an "essential mineral needed to help calm the body down," Willeumier notes, and it also works to calm the mind, so you can get to sleep faster and wake up more rejuvenated.* Take it about half an hour before bed to see the best results, she adds.
Have a consistent sleep schedule.
One of the best ways to avoid tossing and turning at night is to go to sleep at the same time every evening. "Your brain does very well when it's on a routine," Willeumier notes. If possible, she always tells her patients to aim to sleep between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. to sync up with their body's natural production of melatonin, which kicks off at around 9 p.m.
Cut off the caffeine early in the afternoon.
As you likely know, caffeine and sleep don't mix. But a lot of people don't realize that caffeine has a half-life of up to six to eight hours, meaning it takes a while to pass through our systems. As such, Willeumier advises avoiding caffeine after 3 p.m.—and that includes things like tea and soft drinks, as well as coffee.
The same goes for alcohol...
You might be able to get away with a glass of wine at dinner if you're eating early enough, but Willeumier says to try to stop consuming any alcohol at least five hours before bed. "It interferes with your sleep architecture in the evening," she notes, and it's known to inhibit REM sleep.
Do a relaxing meditation.
If you're looking for some calming evening activities to do rather than staring at a screen, Willeumier suggests trying a guided meditation geared toward sleep, "to help shift your brain into those slower brain wave states." Other types of audio such as binaural beats for sleep, or even soothing nature sounds, would work here as well.
Try an Epsom salt bath.
Epsom salt baths can be particularly helpful if you're holding a lot of tension in the body or are feeling physically restless, Willeumier explains. Taking any kind of bath can be a calming self-care ritual, and the salts contain magnesium, giving you the added benefit of deep physical and mental relaxation.
Reach for your lavender essential oil.
And lastly, one more great hack for sleep is calling on your sense of smell. As you're getting ready for bed, Willeumier recommends sniffing lavender essential oil for relaxation. You can add 5 to 10 drops to a diffuser or 3 to 6 drops to your Epsom salt bath to help signal to your body that it's time to start unwinding.
There's no question that if you want to have a great day, it starts the night before, with sleep that's deep and restorative. Whether your issue is actually falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night, incorporating these brain-supporting activities into your nighttime routine can help prepare the brain to catch plenty of zzz's.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.