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The Last Thing A Neuroscientist Does Before Bed To Prep Her Brain For Sleep

the wind down bedroom routine
Image by mbg creative x Max Vakhtbovych / pexels
October 26, 2022
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Our sleep series, The Wind Down, provides a minute-by-minute peek into the wind-down routines that get well-being experts ready for bed. Today, we're relaxing with neuroscientist Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D., who ends every day with a visualization exercise that primes the brain for bed.
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Getting enough high-quality sleep is one of the most important factors in terms of brain aging. As a neuroscientist, I am acutely aware of the benefits of a good night's sleep—both short term and long term. The reality is that one bad night's sleep can seriously affect your memory, concentration, decision-making power, and energy levels the next day.

Long term, if the overnight cleansing of the brain is disrupted, toxins from the wear and tear of daily life begin to accumulate. If they do not get flushed out, these toxins can build up to the pathology behind dementia-type diseases.

Since sleep is so essential to brain health, I have done a lot of research on sleep hygiene—which has been of tremendous help to me personally! I require a lot of sleep and fortunately have always been a good sleeper. I sleep best when I'm at home in my own bed and when I am not jet-lagged. In terms of barriers to sleep, outside noise, digital light, uncomfortable temperatures, and stress are the biggest ones for me.

sleep stats written over line gradient
  • Average hours I sleep a night: 8 hours and 15 minutes. More than this can be depressogenic.
  • Ideal bedtime: 11 p.m.
  • Ideal wake-up time: 8 a.m.
  • Nightstand essentials:Aromatherapy Associates deep relax sleep mist, a clock (because I never take my phone into my bedroom), ear plugs, eye mask, remote control for my Dyson air purifier (for white noise), a glass of water, cashmere bed socks, the book that I am reading, my annual Action board (see below).
  • Favorite place I've ever slept: My bed! I have invested a lot of effort into making my bed as conducive to a good night's sleep as possible. I have a coil spring mattress filled with silk and lambswool, a temperature-regulating wool topper, a Tempur memory foam pillow, Snooj silk pillowcases, a silk duvet (also thermo-regulating and heavier than a feather duvet), and a Baloo weighted blanket at the foot of my bed.
  • Sleep bad habit: I don't leave a full hour between last looking at my phone and going to bed. It doesn't seem to affect my ability to fall asleep, but theoretically, it is not ideal.
  • Caffeine consumption: I have 1 to 2 cups of English breakfast or ceremonial-grade matcha tea soon after I wake up (never after 10 a.m.).
  • How I track my sleep: From time to time, I will wear my Oura ring for a couple of weeks just to make sure that my subjective feeling about sleep patterns is reflected in the data. I think it is important to have a good "felt sense" of my sleep patterns rather than continually relying on a device.
  • The last product or habit that changed my sleep for the better: Focusing on keeping regular sleep and wake times within a one-hour window has been a helpful habit. For product, it's been my Tempur pillow, designed to help me sleep on my side (as this position is more efficient for the glymphatic cleansing of the brain overnight). I've also started taking magnesium bath soaks three to five times per week, which has been helpful!
my sleep routine written over gradient
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Here is what a typical sleep routine looks like for me these days. Yes, it starts in the morning!

8 a.m.: Wake up and give gratitude, then do some deep breathing in bed. Get up and make my bed.

8:15 a.m.: Go downstairs and take my probiotic Symprove and my brain care supplement. After 10 minutes, I drink a tall glass of water. Then I make my cup of tea and drink it mindfully, then check my emails.

8:45 a.m.: Return to my bedroom, open the blinds, brush my teeth, dry body brush to wake up my lymphatic circulation, have a magnesium bath or shower, do my skin care routine, and get dressed.

9 a.m.: Do admin (work or household).

Noon: Make and eat lunch. (I only eat between noon and 8 p.m., ensuring that I have finished eating at least two hours before bed so that my digestion is complete before the falling-asleep process is underway.)

1 p.m.: Work

6 p.m.: Spend an hour winding down from work. I'll either go for a walk, have a call/chat with a friend/family member, listen to a podcast, or start preparing dinner.

7.30 p.m.: Eat mindfully, with no TV or phone.

8 p.m.: Dim the lights and watch TV, read, or listen to classical music. At some point before bedtime, I go up to my bedroom and close the blinds, switch on my air purifier, turn down my duvet, lay my eye mask on my pillow, place my cashmere socks on the bed, and spray the inside of my bed, my pillow, and my eye mask with sleep mist.

9:45 p.m.: Take my last peek at the phone for the day. Research shows that if you look at a bright device (not just blue light devices) between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. consistently over time, it lowers your brain's dopamine levels1, leading to an increasing sense of disappointment in life.

10 p.m.: Get in bed. I try to maintain an earlier bedtime because I know we need to be in bed for seven to nine hours (the brain cleansing process via the glymphatic system takes seven to eight hours.).

Once in bed, I meditate and look at my annual Action board, a collage of all my goals and desires. I look at the board, visualize it as if it is already true, feel what that feels like in all my senses, and give gratitude for it becoming real. The reason for looking at the board last thing at night is the psychological phenomenon called the Tetris effect. This shows that the last thing you look at, visualize, and think about before you fall asleep has a big impact on your subconscious and your dreams. That leads to the priming of the brain as it chooses what to filter out/tag as important to you thriving the next day.

I then do a progressive relaxation from my toes upward (yoga nidra or psychic sleep), and I also use a mantra.

11.p.m.: Put in my ear plugs, put on my eye mask, and fall asleep on my side.

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Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D.
Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D.
Neuroscientist & bestselling author

Dr. Tara Swart Bieber is a neuroscientist, former medical doctor, and author of the bestseller The Source, which merges science and spirituality, and has translations in 38 languages. She specializes in mental resilience, manifestation, and personal evolution. She is Faculty at MIT Sloan, and hosts a podcast called Re-invent Yourself with Dr. Tara with stories of people who have used neuroplasticity (the ability for your brain to grow and change throughout life) to transform themselves.

Tara believes that you can re-invent yourself at any age, any stage, or any mindset. )She recently manifested becoming a songwriter!) Tara is also a Trustee for the Lady Garden Foundation, a charity for gynaecological cancers.