A SLEEP ROUTINE FOR BETTER HEALTH AND PERFORMANCE
By Jaime Tartar, Ph.D., O2X Sleep Specialist, Professor of Neuroscience, Nova Southeastern University
As humans we spend nearly 1/3 of our lives asleep – or at least we should! In our modern fast-paced world, sometimes sleep is too easily cast aside as a luxury. We can even mistakenly think of sleep as optional, but actually sleep is essential for health and performance. When we don’t get enough sleep, everything suffers – from our physical performance to our mental health. However, when we sleep, amazing things happen to our body and brain!
Our brains are extraordinarily metabolically expensive – even though they comprise only 2% of the body weight the brain uses about 20% of our daily calories! While working at such high speed there is no opportunity during the day for that poor tired brain to repair and restore itself. This is one reason why we must sleep. All the metabolic waste that builds up during the day is cleaned out at night while we sleep. During sleep our brains are literally taking out the trash! We also need sleep to help new memories form and strengthen. It is also a time when our brain can process our emotional lives and help to prepare for emotional experiences in the future.
Even though I do research on sleep, I know that sometimes it can be difficult to wind down and go to sleep. Modern humans experience something of an evolutionary mismatch when it comes to sleep. We are simply not adapted to sleep in a modern world with things like artificial light, too much social stress, and electronic stimulation. Luckily though, our brains are fantastic at responding to routines! Many of us have seen the benefits of using a nighttime routine with infants and children. We are truly just big babies in that regard. Our adult brains respond to nighttime routines in very similar ways.
With that in mind, I can share my sleep routine with you…
O2X SLEEP SPECIALIST’S
PERSONAL SLEEP ROUTINE
7:00 AM – Take the dog outside for at least 15 minutes.
That’s right- my sleep routine starts early in the morning! There is nothing sleep-inducing about my dog- she is just an excuse to go outside. Otherwise, I would look weird standing in the middle of the lawn staring blankly at passers-by. So, the dog is worth it. I do this because morning light is important for sleep. We have special cells in our eyes whose only job is to detect short wavelength (blue) light. Unfortunately, indoor light is not bright enough to accomplish this – morning light exposure is a natural way to train the circadian rhythm and to help get regular sleep.
6:00 PM – Hit the gym!
There are endless benefits of exercise – from looking and feeling better, to improving brain health. It turns out exercise is good for sleep, too. Despite my efforts, I have yet to find a good excuse not to exercise. Exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality and increase deep sleep. Sleep-regulating components of the immune system (e.g. cytokines) and other metabolic factors released during exercise recovery promote healthy sleep.
8:00 PM – Set phone to “do not disturb”
I stop responding to emails and have my phone automatically turn on “do not disturb.” This helps to decrease work stress from interfering with my nightly routine.
8:30 PM – Set temperature to 70◦F
Body temperature decreases about two hours before sleep. Decreasing the temperature is a natural signal to help your body start to feel sleepy. Lots of research has shown that a drop in core body temperature helps us go to sleep. Dropping core body temperature can also be accomplished through taking a warm bath or shower, which promotes a natural cool down effect. Most people find that room temperature between 60-72◦F is optimal for sleep. I can’t go lower than 70◦ because the stress of my electric bill also decreases my sleep quality.
8:30 PM – Dim the lights
Around the time that I decrease the temperature I also make sure that I dim the lights in the house as much as possible. Those cells in our eyes that responded to blue light in the morning need to not respond to blue light at night. These cells ultimately regulate the release of melatonin. When there is too much light at night, we can experience melatonin suppression. This hormone is not only important for synchronizing our sleep and wake cycles, but melatonin also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant functions in the body.
9:30 – 10:00 PM – Wind down routine
Before bed, it is helpful to have a routine that you do every night. This helps your brain recognize that it’s time for bed. Not everyone needs to have the same routine – just one that your brain recognizes over time as a signal that it’s time to sleep. Mine is:
- Make a to-do list*
- Put on relaxing music
- Shower/Brush my teeth
- Say goodnight to kids
- Put the dogs to bed
* This helps prevent me from ruminating on next day activities – they now live on the note page.
10:00 PM – Go to bed
An important component for good sleep health is making sure that you don’t use your bed for waking activities. For good sleep hygiene you want to reserve the bed for sleep, sex, and sickness. For example, don’t watch tv or do work in your bed. Your brain should associate “bed” with sleep. We can also try to make our sleeping environment fun and comfy – something you can look forward to. Since we spend 1/3 of our lives asleep, we can invest in making our sleeping environment into a sleep oasis!
10:05 PM – Turn on an audiobook
Part of transitioning from wakefulness to sleep is being able to calm down our nervous system – turning off the “fight or flight” system and turning on the “rest and digest” system. Unfortunately, when we lie in bed at night we can easily ruminate on our problems and use this time to worry. This worrying will activate stress hormones and keep us awake. A good way to combat this is to try progressive muscle relaxation, listening to soothing music, or meditation recordings. I find audiobooks are helpful, as I can’t listen to someone talking and worry at the same time!
Since this is an example sleep routine, it is not one that will work for everyone. The hope is that we can all make small adjustments in our routines to promote better sleep and think of sleep as part of our training and part of our general health. Better sleep often starts with a better mindset about sleep.
Finally, if you have tried to sleep better and are still struggling with sleeping difficulty or daytime sleepiness, it is worth considering seeing a specialist – sleep is part of our health and many sleep problems are treatable.
Wishing you a future filled with soothing sleep.