Sleep is natural. So, naturally, modern life gets in the way. Because sleep is so essential to our health and well being, I prioritize sleep, and I recommend you do, too. Here are my basic guidelines for creating a relaxing sleep environment and abiding our natural rhythms.
A regular routine before bed can allow us to settle in and let go of the day’s concerns. Get creative and build a routine that addresses your particular challenges with sleep. Some ideas: A hot bath, relaxing music, yoga or stretching, prayer, meditation, a cup of herbal tea (finished more than an hour before bed), massaging acupressure points, or a guided meditation for sleep.
Can you imagine a mouse settling into a snooze with a cat crouched beside it? We need to feel safe in order to sleep. What makes you feel safe? How can you get more of that? Here’s just one idea that helped me: an evening journaling habit where I briefly jot down the concerns rattling around in my head. For each concern, I notate an action plan for dealing with it. If I’m not ready for action, I write or say aloud something like this: “I can rest assured that I am doing the best I can. I’ll put this aside to give my mind the break it deserves, and which will help me address this challenge tomorrow.”
Guard your well being by drawing clear boundaries around your bedtime and activities. Do you have a time after which there is no stimulating screen time? No news, no or little food, no potentially upsetting conversations, and no noise to the extent you have control over that? Know your tolerance for caffeine and how long it lingers in your body. Hold your boundaries firmly–they’re protecting your most sacred possession: your well being.
Remove extraneous sensory stimulation
Try an eye mask, black out curtains, ear plugs, removing or unplugging devices, or a white noise machine to help create a peaceful environment. Teaching your companion animals to sleep elsewhere or, at least, not step on your face at 5am can really help! 😉
Our bodies are built for movement and many physiological functions improve when you get enough. So what kind, when, and how much do you need? Find types of movement that you enjoy and do them enough that you feel like you’ve challenged your body and you’re pleasantly tired afterwards. If you’re not sure what you need, the national guidelines are built on extensive research. They include both frequent aerobic exercise (I like 5-7 days/week) and resistance exercise to challenge your muscles, at least 2 times per week. As wonderful as movement is, the 2-3 hours before bed is, for most people, not a good time for vigorous exercise. Opt for a little gentle yoga or qigong instead.
Your daily exposures to light are a little-known key to healthy circadian rhythms. The quality of my sleep was greatly improved after listening to the Huberman podcast in January 2021. (Listen to his 3 episodes for the details.) Here’s what helped me: 1) I make sure to get outside shortly after waking, for at least 2-10 minutes, and 2) I expose myself to outdoor light for 10 minutes in the 1-2 hours before sunset whenever possible, and 3) I dim indoor lights and screen lights as much as feasible after sunset.
Even if you’re not a regular meditator, you can absolutely use its principles to quiet an overactive mind. Don’t be discouraged if your first attempts are lackluster. Keep experimenting! What I find particularly helpful are the guided meditations that focus your mind on specific perceptions of your senses: touch, hearing, seeing or smelling. Actual perceptions, like the rise and fall of your chest, or the feeling of cool air on your cheeks, actually shift your brain to relaxation mode. Imagined perceptions like seeing the velvety petals of a pink rose and smelling its fragrance are also effective. Creating exquisite detail in your perception leaves no room for worries.
Have you done all you can but you’re still suffering? If you are waking often during the night, having frequent nightmares, waking with a dry mouth, sore jaw or headaches, getting very sleepy during the day, or even just snoring, don’t hesitate to discuss your concerns with your doctor, or get a referral to a sleep expert. The field of sleep medicine has made huge strides in the last 20 years so many sleep issues that previously went undiagnosed can now be remedied. Don’t delay in getting help. A good night’s sleep may be just around the corner. Nourish yourself with this essential nutrient for your well being!