If you often succumb to one more episode on Netflix when you know it’s time for bed, this article is for you! Same goes for those who are tempted to get one more video game in, or scroll endlessly down into that social media rabbit hole!
The timing of our sleep onset is determined by various factors, all of which interact closely. These include:
A fourth, and often forgotten factor, is our chronotype.
This refers to our individual and natural inclination to sleep or be wakeful and energetic at particular times of the day. Our chronotype is programmed genetically and also depends on our stage in life. Some sleepers are morning larks, they naturally go to bed early and get up early. Others are known as night owls, prefering to go to bed and get up later. The majority of adults are somewhere in between. Children tend to have an early chronotype and teenagers, a late type. Most seniors revert to early mode.
You can figure out your chronotype by completing the short test here. This questionnaire is widely used in clinical research. Depending on your result, you may find that you are better suited to going to bed later or earlier than you initially thought.
Whatever your chronotype, here are my top key tips for getting to bed on time – whatever time may be for you!
A key way to ensure we become sleepy at the appropriate time at night is to get up at the same time each day. We are unable to force ourselves to fall asleep, but we can make ourselves get up at a specific time (no matter what!). If we anchor our wake up time in the morning, our natural bedtime will manifest itself in the evening. This is provided that we’re not stressed out. We need to be calm enough to secrete the hormones that are conducive to sleep.
Sleep pressure (or appetite!) is an amino acid called adenosine that accumulates in our system as the day progresses. It is at its lowest in the morning after sleeping and at its highest in the evening, following wakefulness. If you get up at 11am on a Sunday, your sleep pressure will not be sufficient for you to feel sleepy by 11pm. This not only makes it more difficult for you to fall asleep on Sunday, but also for you to get up on schedule on Monday. By anchoring your wake up time at the same time each morning, your natural bedtime will establish itself (as long as you don’t seek to override it!).
Caffeine masks the adenosine buildup and temporarily tricks your brain into thinking you’re not tired. This is why it’s recommended to avoid caffeine later in the day. Naps obviously reduce our sleep appetite. Just like when we have a snack in the afternoon, our appetite for sleep is reduced if we take a “nap snack”! Exercise during the day also strengthens our sleep pressure & allows us to reduce our stress and anxiety levels. It is recommended to avoid intense exercise late in the day as this increases our cortisol levels and also augments our temperature. Our body temperature decreases naturally to prepare for sleep. It’s best for us not to interfere with this!
Reduced concentration, yawning, eyelids closing & a slower breathing rate are all indications that it’s bedtime. Learn to listen to your mind and body and respond accordingly. If we override this sleepy feeling, our body will reboot. Our cortisol levels then increase until the next sleep cycle sets in, around 90 minutes later. This physiological response was likely programmed when our ancestors needed to override their sleep onset. This was to face threats from predators or for other survival needs! Obviously, it’s not worth activating an increase in cortisol for the sake of Netflix or a video game! It’s a much better idea to get sufficient sleep at the appropriate time for your body. That way your body recuperates and restores itself and you can be in good shape the following day and make the most of it!
Many people begin their morning with a whirlwind of activity, applying the accelerator pedal of the day ahead full throttle. We often keep that pedal down all day long, maintaining our elevated stress levels constant. However, we expect to be able to slam the brake down at the red light just before we need to go to sleep in the evening.
The key to avoiding this is to begin the day with a calm moment. This can be 5 minutes of meditation, a breathing exercise, some exercise. Whatever relaxes you! Integrating any activity that brings a sense of well-being and relaxation throughout your day is beneficial. For example, I have a peaceful gong alert on my phone that chimes at 11:30, 15:30 and 20:30. This is to remind me to check in with myself. I do so just for a minute or so. If I notice that I’m feeling stressed, I take a few deep breaths to reset myself and feel slightly calmer. This prevents stress from accumulating as the day goes along.
Creating a wind down routine in the evening is an excellent way to facilitate your sleep onset. It’s even better if you start your day with a morning routine too, as mentioned earlier.
A routine provides a sense of security, stability and calm, allowing us to secrete the hormones conducive to sleep onset. Once established, our brain becomes accustomed to this regular and predictable pattern. And this happens after only a few days. Our brain learns what comes next without us needing to think about it. This results in facilitating sleep onset and a restful night of sleep. One thing leads to another and becomes an automatically programmed outcome. This is one beneficial way to design your sleep.
My evening routine is quite straightforward and something I look forward to. It is key for you to find your own routine pleasurable and figure out what works best for you. Routines are highly personal. I’ll share mine as an example. From 20:30 I usually read until around 21:15. I then change into my bed clothes, wash my face and brush my teeth. After this, I write a short gratitude list and then settle down with my partner to watch a series til 22:30. Sometimes I become sleepy before the end of the series. I head to bed whenever that happens.
I often recommend avoiding screens before bed. However, light emanating from a TV a few metres away is much less detrimental than a LED screen in your hands and close to your eyes. I also turn my TV to night mode before viewing.
Exposure to bright light in the morning is essential for resetting our circadian clock each day. This facilitates our sleep at night. Our internal clock doesn’t run on an exact 24-hour cycle: it can be some minutes more, or less, depending on the individual. For this reason it is important for us to synchronize ourselves with our environment. Otherwise our body clock and sleep get out of whack.
When light hits our retina in the morning, a clear signal is received by the brain: it is time to begin the physiological symphony of the day. The circadian clock orchestrates the functioning of our organs. It dictates if and when hormones are secreted & also manages changes in body temperature. Our sleep-wake cycle, digestion, and many other physiological processes depend on it.
Light during the day
Light early in the day boosts our mood and is proven to improve both quality and quantity of sleep at night. If you are unable to get sunlight in the morning, investing in a light therapy lamp is an excellent alternative. Ensure your lamp emits 10,000 lux and stay close to it (around 30 cm) for at least 30 minutes in the morning. Is ideal to do so from the moment you get up. You may also use it throughout the morning in your workspace. For many of my clients, light therapy has proven to be extremely beneficial for both mood and sleep. This is especially the case for those who struggle with depression.
Light suppresses melatonin, the sleep hormone. It enhances our circadian alertness. A a result, we expose ourselves to light at night and close to bedtime, we delay our ability to fall asleep. Certain cells in the retina send alert signals when receiving light. They continue to send alert signal to the brain, even after the lights are turned off.
Screen light in the evening has been shown to impair our ability to wake up in the morning (this is known as sleep inertia). On top of this, light also increases the time necessary to fall asleep. At the same time it decreases the likelihood that we will feel in good shape when we wake up. This is because it worsens the overall quality of sleep. It is better to play cards rather than a video game before bed. Screens, and the associated alertness, affect the time it takes to fall asleep and increase our chances of waking up during the night.
A phone screen is more detrimental for sleep onset than a lamp on the other side of the room. This is because LED screens emit a brighter white light. Traditional incandescent bulbs emit a less yellow light.
As the sun sets, the angle of the light that enters our environment changes. The colour also evolves from bright white closer to noon and moves more towards red, naturally reducing the intensity of the light entering the eyes. This also decreases the intensity of alertness. By following the natural rhythm of the sun during the day and at night, you will fall asleep faster, improve the quality of your sleep and your chances of feeling well-rested the following day.
Blue light filters are not the ultimate solution, although they do help to mitigate the effects of light. Electronic devices such as telephones and video games are stimulating and prevent melatonin from being secreted. This is not only because of the light, but also because these devices connect us to the stressful and stimulating activities of the day: work, school, notifications, emails, social media etc. In other words, they trigger dopamine and cortisol. If you are reading a book on an e-reader, with a blue filter applied to the maximum, and the subject of the book is not anxiety-provoking or violent, this should not have a significant impact on your sleep.
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