Bet­ter Sleep Tonight

Get­ting the rest you need isn’t just about bed­time:You’ve got to play the long game. For­tu­nately, it’s easy to make zzz-friendly tweaks to your daily rou­tines—and your brain and body will thank you.


Alot of us think about sleep ap­prox­i­mately twice a day: at night when we’re tired and need to go to bed, and in the morn­ing when we’re still tired and want to stay there.

But lack of sleep af­fects our whole day: Poor sleep­ers miss out on im­mune and emo­tional reg­u­la­tion as well as tis­sue restora­tion and re­pair, says sleep-re­search psy­chol­o­gist Jes­sica Payne, Ph.D., an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Notre Dame. Stress may keep you awake, but in­som­nia can im­pair your abil­ity to reg­u­late stress the next day, cre­at­ing a “sleep-stress snow­ball,” adds Payne. Stress in­creases lev­els of neu­ro­trans­mit­ters and hor­mones such as cor­ti­sol and nor­ep­i­neph­rine, keep­ing you in a hy­per­vig­i­lant state, al­ways watch­ful for tigers (or of­fice en­e­mies). “The more you’re stressed, the poorer your sleep is and the worse your stress is,” Payne says.

Given sleep’s abil­ity to wreak havoc on our wak­ing hours, it only makes sense that our days might be caus­ing us trou­ble at night. Think of your day like a fit­ness class, says W. Christo­pher Win­ter, M.D., pres­i­dent of Char­lottesvill­e Neu­rol­ogy and Sleep Medicine and au­thor of The Sleep So­lu­tion: Why Your Sleep Is Bro­ken and How to Fix

It. Your de­ci­sion-mak­ing brain is like a good in­struc­tor who leads you through the class, giv­ing no­tice of what’s com­ing up next or how many burpees you’ll be do­ing. Without that sort of guid­ance, your body holds back, he says, try­ing to con­serve to pre­pare for the un­known.

What it all boils down to: A healthy night’s sleep re­lies on healthy day­time ac­tiv­i­ties to cre­ate your body’s “bi­o­log­i­cal clock,” or cir­ca­dian rhythm. “The in­ter­play of sleep and rest, when it’s on a sched­ule, helps sig­nal your brain as to where it is within a 24-hour cir­ca­dian rhythm,” Dr. Win­ter says. Cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties send the right sig­nals and oth­ers can be harm­ful, says Donn Dex­ter, M.D., a neu­rol­o­gist at Mayo Clinic Health Sys­tem. Here’s your 24-hour guide to which is which so you can sleep bet­ter, start­ing tonight.

MORN­ING Quit Hit­ting Snooze

Our great­est sleep mis­takes hap­pen in the morn­ing, Dr. Win­ter says.

Af­ter a bad night, it’s tempt­ing to give our­selves a pity pass to sleep in or take a sick day. On the other hand, a reg­i­mented re­sponse at the start of the day helps set your brain’s sleep-wake clock. The ex­cep­tion: If you wake up too early, don’t try to force a re­turn to sleep—it’s smarter to go ahead and get up. That re­duces the chance of de­vel­op­ing a chronic case of in­som­nia, ac­cord­ing to re­search con­ducted by Penn Medicine.

Eat Break­fast. Yes, Even If You Aren’t Su­per Hun­gry

Bank­ing calo­ries for din­ner leads to overeat­ing in the even­ing, then a night of fit­ful sleep as you try to digest that ap­pe­tizer, din­ner, dessert, and drink. In the morn­ing, be sure some pro­tein—such as eggs, yogurt, meat, or milk—is on your plate. “In gen­eral, pro­tein tends to fa­cil­i­tate the pro­duc­tion of dopamine, a wake­ful­ness neu­ro­trans­mit­ter,” Dr. Win­ter says.

Step Out­side Early

Ex­po­sure to morn­ing day­light, prefer­ably com­bined with ex­er­cise like a walk with the dog or to the bus stop, sup­ports in­ter­nal clock reg­u­la­tion, as the sun sup­presses mela­tonin. Even on a cloudy day, a 10- to 30-minute out­door walk pro­vides more light than be­ing in­doors with all the lights on. If you can do a heart-pump­ing work­out, even bet­ter: That’ll in­crease the sero­tonin that en­hances mood and wake­ful­ness and in­forms your in­ter­nal clock, Dr. Win­ter says.

AF­TER­NOON Catch 10 Min­utes of Down­time

Our tem­per­a­ture nat­u­rally drops around lunch, aligned with cir­ca­dian rhythms, caus­ing sleepi­ness. A short cat­nap dur­ing your lunch break at the same time each day can reboot en­ergy lev­els, but it isn’t nec­es­sary to fall asleep. “Rest­ing isn’t a failed nap,” Dr. Win­ter says. The goal is to prac­tice re­lax­ation tech­niques that will be use­ful later at night. Al­low your mind to wan­der and get drowsy for about 10 min­utes, then get back to what you were do­ing, re­freshed.

Don’t Chug Liq­uid Wake­ful­ness (That Is, Cof­fee)

Our bod­ies pro­duce adeno­sine, which pro­motes sleepi­ness, says Dr. Mathew. As a stim­u­lant, caf­feine blocks adeno­sine and in­hibits your brain’s nat­u­ral in­crease in sleepi­ness as you move to­ward night­time. Herbal tea or wa­ter is bet­ter in the af­ter­noon. Plus, if you drink wa­ter through­out the day, you’ll need less in the even­ing, help­ing you avoid 2 a.m. bath­room trips.

Work Out Be­fore Dark

Ex­er­cis­ing raises body tem­per­a­ture and lev­els of ep­i­neph­rine and adren­a­line, known sleep fight­ers. Ex­er­cis­ing in the late af­ter­noon or early even­ing gives time for heat and hor­mones to quiet down. “A fall­ing body tem­per­a­ture al­most acts like a sig­nal that brings on sleep,” Dr. Mathew says.

Do a Short Med­i­ta­tion

De­creas­ing day­time anx­i­ety and worry can help you doze more deeply at night. Find five to 10 min­utes to use the “body scan” med­i­ta­tion tech­nique, ob­serv­ing your body’s sen­sa­tions, mov­ing slowly from toes to scalp (or the re­verse). Melt away stress ei­ther on your own or us­ing a guided med­i­ta­tion in an app or on YouTube.

EVEN­ING Turn Off the Over­head Lights

Ex­po­sure to bright blue light can re­duce mela­tonin lev­els by up to 50%, says Satchi­dananda Panda, Ph.D., a pro­fes­sor at the Salk In­sti­tute and au­thor of The Cir­ca­dian Code. Af­ter 6 p.m. or so, turn to table lamps and floor lamps with warm- or orange-hued light­bulbs. Elec­tronic de­vices should be set to night mode to warm the screen color.

Cre­ate a Rit­ual

Any kind of stim­u­lus is prob­lem­atic— even House Hunters re­runs. You’ll ex­pe­ri­ence sub­tle in­creases in blood pres­sure, heart rate, sweat­ing, and pupil di­la­tion. In­stead, take at least 20 min­utes to dial it down. Try gen­tle stretch­ing, med­i­tat­ing, or tak­ing a bath. Think of it as a “book­mark” at day’s end, Payne says, telling the body and brain it’s OK to sleep.

Stop Eat­ing at Least Two Hours Be­fore Bed

And keep din­ner on the lighter side.

Your body’s di­ges­tive and waste func­tions need rest and down­time and to learn when “the kitchen is closed,” Panda says, to pre­vent mid­night snack­ing.

Write Down What’s Bug­ging You

Payne says that without of­fload­ing the day’s events, your brain con­tin­ues to process stress­ful sit­u­a­tions through­out the night. Im­prove com­part­men­tal­iza­tion by writ­ing down prob­lems and seal­ing them in an en­ve­lope—save so­lu­tions for the morn­ing. And if you’re ly­ing in bed stress­ing about sleep it­self ? Tell your­self that rest as such is im­por­tant, even if you’re not in dream­land yet—or get up and do some­thing quiet for 15 min­utes. “Some peo­ple treat the bed like a bus stop,” Dr. Win­ter says, and ob­sess over miss­ing the sleep bus. Ad­just your ex­pec­ta­tions and start again to­mor­row.

Don’t try to take all of these steps at once, as big life­style changes can feel over­whelm­ing. Try chang­ing a few ac­tions at a time in­stead. “A lot of peo­ple have messy sleep habits,” says Reeba Mathew, M.D., a sleep ex­pert with McGovern Med­i­cal School at UTHealth/UT Physi­cians in Hous­ton— so you’re in good com­pany, and there’s no need to re­make your dream world overnight.

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