Good sleep hygiene is the most boring thing in the world — when you’re doing it right. But when a lack of regular high-quality sleep makes you sleep-deprived, and everything annoys you, and you can’t concentrate at work, and small tasks are overwhelming — that’s when you realize working on your sleep habits might be worth getting intentional about.
If you get insomnia, or it takes you forever to fall asleep at night, or if you just don’t feel rested when you wake up, don’t start googling sleep-aid drugs just yet. Getting to sleep at night isn’t too complicated. Chances are you’re unknowingly sabotaging yourself with a few common bad habits. And that’s good news — it means it might not take more than just a few tweaks to your routine to solve your exhaustion problem.
Turn off your screens well before bedtime
Studies have shown that the blue-wavelength light from certain artificial lighting, which we get especially from electronic screens, is enough like actual sunlight that your brain takes it as a signal to stay awake. Light from our phones and computers has “a profound suppressive effect on melatonin levels.” Melatonin is the hormone that’s responsible for regulating the quality and duration of your sleep, so lying in bed texting, or scrolling through Instagram while you wait to start feeling sleepy is actually counterproductive. You’ll only feel less sleepy the more you scroll.
If you’re going to be watching movies, don’t plan to turn off the movie and be able to go right to sleep. The more time there is between when you shut off the TV and when you get into bed, the better. If your phone on your bedside table is too tempting, keep it out of arm’s reach. You can mute your notifications at night, too, so you don’t have to work as hard to resist checking the phone every time it beeps or buzzes.
Get as much daylight as you can, especially in the morning
It might be the last thing on your mind when you’ve just finished your first cup of coffee, but your morning routine actually has a big effect on the quality of your sleep. “When people are exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning,” writes researcher M. Nathaniel Mead, “nocturnal melatonin production occurs sooner, and [people] enter into sleep more easily at night.” The more sunlight you take in during the day, the better you’ll sleep. Even small measures — like leaving your sunglasses off or taking your lunch break outside — can make a real difference.
Watch what you eat, especially before bed
The National Sleep Foundation recommends fruits (especially raspberries, pineapple, and banana), walnuts and almonds, and lean proteins (like cottage cheese) as better bedtime snacks (and better snacks in general) than sugary foods and simple carbohydrates. The fruits and nuts naturally boost melatonin, and the tryptophan in the protein gives your brain the serotonin it needs to fight insomnia. And chamomile tea is a classic for a reason: the herb has mild sedative properties. Whatever you do, avoid alcohol. It may make you sleepy initially, but ultimately, it disturbs the deepest, most restorative part of your sleep cycle.
Give your brain something to do
Say you didn’t manage to follow a single one of those suggestions, and now you’re lying in bed tossing and turning. Maybe you’re still feeling the tension of the day, and your thoughts won’t settle down. There’s still something you can try. Your brain might just need something to do.
No, I’m not talking about counting sheep — that’s way too boring. Your brain needs something that’s interesting enough to focus on, but not exciting enough to keep you awake. Try listing something you’re grateful for, one for every letter of the alphabet. Try naming all the things you can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell — this is a technique people use to head off a panic attack, and it’s incredibly relaxing. Or try progressive muscle relaxation: lying there in the dark, relax the muscles in your toes, and then your feet, and then your legs, and keep moving up your body till the tension is gone from every muscle. It’s been shown to combat insomnia, and it’s very soothing.