Habit: Follow a Sleep Routine

The Habit this week is to create and follow a sleep routine.

What is a sleep routine?  Just like it sounds, a “sleep routine” is something you do every day to prepare you for a good night’s sleep.  We’ll explore why sleep is so important in a different lesson.

While it sounds like a sleep routine would start in the evening, the activities that determine how well you sleep at night actually start in the morning:  Waking up at the same time every day and NOT pressing the snooze button is the first step in creating quality sleep later that night.

How to wake up

While a jarring alarm will certainly get us out of bed, it doesn’t exactly start the day on an enjoyable note. Not only that, it jacks up our stress hormones immediately.  Use a quieter alarm if you can – as long as it will wake you up!

There is a “best” time to wake up.  Sleep occurs in multiple stages, alternating between deeper and lighter sleep. We sleep more and more lightly as the night goes on.  If we wake up at just the right moment in our lighter sleep stages, we’ll feel reasonably good and snap into alertness quickly.  But if the alarm goes off while we are in a deep sleep phase, we’ll feel groggy, disoriented, and sleepy – sleep inertia.

There are many gadgets and apps that will sense your sleep cycles and wake you up when you’re sleeping your lightest.  For example, the iPhone SleepCycle app or SleepBot will wake you up within a pre-specified time window when it senses your wakefulness.

Wake up to light.  The human body is designed to get sleepy when it’s dark and to wake when it is light.  But if you need to wake up before sunrise, due to an early flight or short winter days, expose yourself to light as soon as possible after waking.  This will stop melatonin production and increase wakefulness.

In addition to, or in order to, head for the light, get moving right away.  A good recommendation is to put your feet on the floor the minute you wake up.  Once the alarm goes off, don’t hit snooze, simply sit up and put your feet on the floor.  Shuffle towards the bathroom, or anywhere else that is light and bright.

When your alarm goes off, one of the worst things you can do is hit snooze.  Snoozing seems to increase sleep inertia.  But there is something magical about movement that seems to speed up the waking process.

Once you’re up

Feel free have a cup of coffee, but don’t over-do it, and don’t add sugar – that is just going to add to the artificial stimulation.  Three cups a day or fewer is fine, but don’t drink any caffeine after noon or 2:00 in the afternoon.

Naps.  Even if you are tired, do your best to avoid long naps.  If you absolutely need to, take a five minute power nap instead.  If you are feeling tired during the day, ask yourself: am I really just thirsty?  Have I eaten a nutritious meal or snack in the past 3 hours?  If you drink some water and  determine that you are not needed a nutritional boost, get up, stretch, walk outside for a few minutes to see if these things wake you up.

Exercise can help improve sleep.  Exercising regularly helps normalize circadian rhythms, tone down the sympathetic nervous system, and regulate endocrine function.  Be sure to save the intense exercise for during the day if possible — a weights or interval workout in the evening can rev us up and make it tougher to get to sleep.

Throughout the day, get as much light as you can.  The more bright natural light you can get during your normal waking time, the more your body will know to gear down at your normal sleeping time.

Daytime Routine

OK, so far we have a few parts of the “routine” that take place during the day:

  1. Wake up to light, and at the best time if you can
  2. Put your feet on the floor as soon as you wake up
  3. Avoid caffeine late in the day
  4. Avoid long naps
  5. Exercise, but not strenuously too late in the day
  6. Get as much natural light as you can

Evening Routine

Now, let’s look to the evening routine.  First of all, determine what your bedtime should be by counting seven or eight hours back from when you need to get up – that will be the ideal time to start your sleep.  We’ll call this your bedtime, and you should stick to it.

With a bedtime set, establish a routine and don’t deviate from it, even on weekends. Changing your behaviors, even for a few days, can sabotage your sleep.

Having a large meal immediately before bed can disrupt your ability to fall and stay asleep.  Instead, eat a regular-sized (or even smallish) meal a few hours before bedtime.  A nice blend of protein, carbs and fats will help to keep you satiated, and might even improve your ability to fall asleep as your brain converts carbs to serotonin.  But only eat to 80% full!  Eating a dinner that makes you overly full can disturb sleep.

Two hours before bedtime, minimize liquid intake to keep yourself from having to use the restroom during the night.  Especially important is alcohol – stop consuming any alcohol at least an hour before bedtime.

Drinking alcohol in the evening may seem to relax you, and it does at the time.  But it can disrupt your sleep a couple hours later.  As your body digests and metabolizes alcohol, it is turned into energy, and that extra energy can wake you up a few hours after you have gone to sleep, and keep you up.

At least half an hour before bedtime, decrease stimulation by shutting off cellphones, televisions, and other devices.  (For me, reading an engaging book is also too much stimulation at bedtime.)   Digital devices stimulate our brain with their light, noise, and mental demands.  Our brain produces melatonin as light levels decrease. Melatonin ensures deep sleep, and may also help regulate our metabolism. If we have too much light at night, we don’t get proper melatonin production.

During this half-hour of no-digital-devices, use this time to relax:

  • Get ready for bed
  • Make a cup of relaxing tea and read a (not too exciting) book
  • Write in your journal to record your thoughts, accomplishments and activities from the day, and what you are thankful for
  • Plan out the next day
  • Do a brain dump.  Write down anything that’s bugging you: Emails you need to send or reply to, calls you have to make, project ideas, creative thoughts,  conversations you had earlier.  This will help you from thinking about it as you fall asleep … “zzz … oh!  I need to remember to …”.  If you have it written down, you don’t have to remember it until the next day.  Whatever is in your brain, get it out and on to paper.

If you need to, you can take a Melatonin supplement, as directed, to help regulate your sleep hormones, especially if a long day at work or travel has interrupted your usual sleep routine.

If you are not at all sleepy as your bedtime approaches, try taking a warm bath or shower: your body temperature is raised by the warm water, and when you get out, as your body cools off, it simulates your body temperature dropping as you drop off to sleep.  If you take a bath, throw in some magnesium-based epsom salts as magnesium is known to help with sleep.

Use ear plugs and a sleep mask to block out distractions when you lie down for sleep.  And commit to starting the next day when your alarm goes off so that you can tackle a new day full of potential and rich with opportunities!

Here are the parts of the evening routine:

  1. Establish your bedtime and stick to it!
  2. Make sure a meal within a few hours of bedtime is medium or small.
  3. 2 hours before bedtime, minimize liquid intake and stop drinking alcohol.
  4. 1/2 hour before bedtime, turn off the TV, and stop looking at iPads or cellphones and other stimulating activities.
  5. Write down whatever is in your head (Brain Dump)
  6. If you are not sleepy, take a Melatonin supplement or take a warm bath or shower.
  7. If you use them, put in ear plugs, put on your sleep mask, tuck in and drift away.

Link to Sleep Routine Worksheet


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