In today’s fast-paced world, where our minds are busier than ever and we often don’t physically tire our bodies out enough during the day, one of the biggest challenges is getting a good night sleep. Your body and brain’s recharge during a 24-hour period is far more important than you probably realize. From increasing productivity, aiding weight loss and increasing peak performance to improving our mood, quality of life and functionality, it really is the key to better overall health and happiness…
Why Is Sleep So Important?
Your mood and energy while you’re awake depends largely on how you slept the night before, and over the course of the last few nights. Adequate sleep gives your body the opportunity to recover, recharge and heal. For children, it supports growth and development, and for adults, teens and children, it supports healthy brain function and physical health. Therefore, on the other hand, sleep deficiency can be extremely harmful, raising the risk of chronic health problems, including heart disease, as well as potential short-term dangers, like car crashes caused by fatigue. Sleep deprivation has been linked to behavioral problems, emotional turmoil, anger and difficulty coping with change, but it has also been linked to more serious mental issues, including depression and suicide.
Sleep doesn’t only minimize the likelihood of life-threatening incidents and diseases; it also supports everyday health. It helps your brain function properly and encourages emotional well-being. That means everything from work to leisure activities will be more functional, effective and enjoyable. Adequate sleep supports your memory, ability to learn new things and problem solving skills, while also enhancing your attention span and creativity. A healthy sleep pattern strengthens the immune system, increases the body’s ability to heal itself, and supports muscle recovery and formation.
Because sleep is so important to the healing and repairing process of heart and blood vessels, it is extremely vital to maintaining physical health. The risk of diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure and stroke is increased by chronic sleep deprivation. It can also increase the risk of obesity because a lack of sleep can lead to hormone imbalances that make you feel hungry or full. Similarly, an ongoing lack of sleep can affect the way your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls your blood sugar levels, causing it to be higher than normal.
So, how Much Sleep Do I Actually Need?
There are arguments about how much sleep an adult actually needs each night, but the truth is, it’s not as black and white as that. The amount of sleep needed varies quite substantially between individuals. General guidelines suggest between seven and nine hours sleep per night is sufficient, but some people just can’t make themselves sleep that long, and others can’t drag themselves out of bed with only that amount of sleep.
We all have an internal ‘body clock’, which, in scientific terms, is called the circadian process. It is based on our natural sleep tendency over a 24-hour period. We also have homeostatic processes, which are influenced by internal and external factors, including our genes, physical and mental activity, previous sleeping patterns, and short-term or long-term illnesses. Together, the circadian and homeostatic processes determine how much sleep we need, and when we need it.
Some external factors cause more interruptions and interference than others, such as being a shift worker and restricting and changing your natural sleep pattern, or finishing work late and starting again early in the morning, causing you to have fewer sleeping hours than your body needs on weeknights. As a result of increased sleep pressure, the human body needs to sleep longer to make up for lost sleep, enabling it to recover. You probably would have heard it called, ‘catching up on sleep’. Age also plays a role in deciphering how much sleep you need. Elderly people tend to sleep less than young and middle-aged adults. This is believed to be caused by changes in the interaction between the circadian and homeostatic processes.
Work, health, exercise, labor and mental activity all affect the amount of sleep we need each night, so, while seven or eight hours is generally a good minimum idea of sleep needs, don’t be surprised if you actually need more.
Insomnia Or Other Factors?
The first thing you need to decide if you are struggling to sleep is whether you have insomnia or stress related sleep deprivation or deficiency, or whether your habits and daily activities are causing your inability to get to sleep. If you think it is stress related, then there are ways of dealing with anxiety, like consuming certain herbs and foods, practicing anxiety relieving yoga and seeking professional help. However, it could be something very simple that is causing the problem, like a lack of routine.
Many healthy adults who are not stressed out to any great degree find it hard to sleep if they keep changing their sleep routine by going to bed and getting up at different times throughout the week. This can be particularly difficult for people who study, work from home, or sleep in on weekends. If you are not naturally a morning person, you may be familiar with that feeling of struggling to force yourself out of bed, especially if there’s nothing particularly pressing that you have to get to. If you have experienced that, then you may also have experienced that restless feeling of lying in bed for hours and hours unable to sleep, then when you finally do get to sleep at all hours of the early morning, you start the whole cycle again – unable to get up when the alarm clock beeps.
By being actively aware of your sleep cycle and setting a time to go to bed and a time to get up every day, including weekends and days off, this problem can be resolved. Consistency reinforces your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, which ensures better sleep at night. It can be difficult to start this, because it will involve forcing yourself up for a couple of mornings until you are used to it, but once you are, it will become completely natural to you. If a lack of routine is all that’s causing your sleepless nights, then it really is an easy fix.
However, you may need more assistance. Here are 11 evening rituals that will help you wind down, relax and hopefully drift off to sleep…
Exercise During The Day
Although this isn’t technically an evening ritual, it is an extremely important ingredient in being able to wind down at the end of the day. If you have a stressful office job that makes you exercise your mind all day and absolutely exhaust it, it doesn’t necessarily mean your body will allow you to sleep later on. Have you ever experienced restless legs or found that you couldn’t stop fidgeting in bed or switch your mind off? It could be because you haven’t done enough physical work or exercise during the day and it could be the reason you’re finding sleep difficult to come by.
It’s important to note, however, that exercising too close to bed time can wake your body up and stop you from falling asleep for hours. The best time to exercise is in the morning, but if that doesn’t fit into your routine, try to make sure you plan your exercise session a minimum of four hours before bed. Anything from hill climbing or running to gym classes or swimming is great – whatever you enjoy and know you will stick to. It’s also a great idea to try different exercises throughout the week to allow different parts of your body to benefit, as well as stopping it from becoming too boring.
Eat A Healthy, Early Dinner
Before we get to the juicy facts about how warm milk and calming teas can help you sleep (and some great recipes), we should take a look at what you eat and drink throughout the day, especially in the evening, because that has a big impact on your ability to drift off to sleep and enjoy a restful, uninterrupted slumber. If you go to bed hungry, even if you feel quite tired, your hunger can keep you awake for hours, and in worst-case scenarios, you will find yourself forced to get up and eat late at night, which is not a good idea either. Similarly, going to bed too full can cause discomfort and an inability to sleep, and can also result in a nauseous feeling when you wake up the next morning. Eating late and going to bed full will force your digestive system to work overtime as you sleep, which will mean you won’t get much of a restful sleep. If you drink a lot before bed, it can also cause disruptive midnight toilet breaks, which, over time, can creep their way into your everyday sleep pattern.
Avoid nicotine, caffeine and alcohol late in the day if you have been finding it difficult to drift off to sleep. Nicotine and caffeine are stimulating substances and can disrupt your sleep, stop you from falling to sleep, or cause you to have a lower quality of sleep. Alcohol on the other hand can help you drift off to sleep, but it can cause disrupted sleep later in the night or early in the morning. Avoid eating or drinking too much sugar throughout the afternoon and evening, and cut out things like lollies and sodas. Instead, try to consume healthy meals, lighter dinners and herbal teas later on.
Try to eat dinner at least a few hours before bed and keep it as healthy and natural as possible. Salads, small portions of meat or fish, and soups, are great options. There are some easy, healthy recipes available online and in cookbooks, so there’s no need to worry about limited boring options or how time consuming it is. There’s everything from healthy 10-minute meals to big batch meals that you can prepare and freeze for busy evenings.
Take An Evening Stroll
If you start eating dinner earlier, then you might have time for a relaxing evening stroll afterwards. It’s great to get some fresh air and maybe even see the sun go down in the evening, which can subconsciously prepare your body and mind for sleep. Avoid power walking or getting your heart rate up too much, because that could energize your body. Instead just take a short, slow walk along your street and enjoy the scenery. You could also find a nice place to just sit and enjoy your surroundings along your walk before slowly making your way home.
Read A Chapter
This is an evening ritual suggested with caution, because it can have the opposite effect on some people. Many adults find that reading in bed is the only way they can get to sleep, and it works by tiring out your eyes and brain, and allowing your mind to switch off. It’s a great way to stop yourself from stressing about work or other responsibilities, and some people can drift off to sleep mid-sentence, with their book still in their hands. If that works for you, then that’s a great evening ritual to add into your bed time routine, but make sure you go to bed half-an-hour or even an hour earlier than you need to so that reading doesn’t cut into your important sleeping time. Similarly, try to avoid gripping novels that will have you on the edge of your seat and that you won’t be able to put down!
Write A Journal
This is a great ritual that can help you reflect on the day or on anything that interests you. It can calm your mind and get all your thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Again, it works for some people better than others, but is well worth trying if you struggle with thoughts and worries as you lay in bed trying to sleep. Writing can also tire your brain out a bit, if you are already physically tired but still need to tire yourself mentally. If you struggle to think of things to write, you could even try jotting down things you remember from your childhood, which can also have a calming, homely effect on your mood.
Drink Warm Milk
The age-old trick of warm milk before bed has been used by mothers to tuck their children into bed for decades – maybe even centuries. The thought was that the enzyme tryptophan, found in milk (and also in turkey), helped lull people to sleep. That seems to have been disproven in relation to milk, because tryptophan has to cross the blood-brain barrier in order to have any effect on sleep, and protein-rich substances, like milk, might decrease its ability to reach the brain. In fact, the idea of warm milk helping us sleep appears to be largely psychological. It is like a comforting feeling of home, and because it’s so entrenched in our culture, even if you didn’t have that tradition growing up, it can still work for you as an adult, because of the association of warmth, comfort and homeliness. The good news here is that you can choose your milk – you don’t have to stick to cow’s milk if you are lactose intolerant or vegan. And if you don’t like the taste of milk on its own, there are some great warm evening beverage recipes like this spiced Ayurvedic ‘sleepytime’ milk to try.
If you don’t like any kind of milk and would rather a lighter beverage option in the evening, a calming tea, like chamomile or valerian root, can really relax your mind and body and warm your insides up, ready for sleep. Not only that, but the act of preparing tea can also work as an evening ritual to help your mind prepare for sleep. You probably won’t have time to enjoy the traditional ceremonial four-hour Japanese chaji tea preparation, but you can create your own little ritual, between the whistling of the kettle, the steeping of the tea, watching it change color, and taking that first relaxing sip. After a while, the ritual of preparing your evening cup of tea will itself have a calming effect on you and notify your body and mind that it’s nearly bed time.
Use Lavender Scent
A great evening ritual is simply preparing your home or bedroom for sleep, creating a calming, relaxing environment. One of the best and quickest ways to do this is by introducing an evening scent like lavender, which originated in the Mediterranean mountains and has been used in baths since ancient times to ‘purify the body and spirit’. Studies have found that aromatherapy using lavender may slow the activity of the nervous system, promote relaxation, and improve sleep quality. You can use lavender essential oil, incense, candles and sprigs of fresh or dried lavender in the evening around your home or in your bedroom. Setting it up can also be part of your evening wind down rituals. For example, if you take the incense out and light it, or light a candle to burn lavender essential oil before starting your journal, then your brain will start to associate that routine with bed time and winding down.
Give Yourself A Massage
This is a great way to release tension and relax your body. If you have someone who can give you an evening neck, head or foot massage, that’s great, but you can also massage yourself. Start by rubbing your hands together to warm them up and then use the index and middle finger of each hand to massage both sides of your temple by rubbing your fingers in small circles along it. Move down to the bones on your face next to the front of your ears, then the protruding bones behind your ears, then around the back and sides of your neck, and lastly, the top of your spine, where your back meets your neck. You only need to spend a few minutes massaging those key areas around the face and neck and it should make you feel much more relaxed.
Meditate Or Practice Breathing
If you enjoy meditating, it’s a great way to slow down your mind after a hectic day and put yourself in a more peaceful mood. However, if the thought of meditating daunts you and you don’t think you can do it, all you need to do is simply close your eyes and imagine watching your breath as it makes its way in through your nostrils, around your body, and then picture it exiting through the crown of your head. As thoughts pop into your mind, just observe them and let them float away, bringing your awareness back to your breathing. You can sit cross-legged on your bed, or on the floor, leaning up against the wall, or lying down for your meditation or relaxation breathing. And it’s a great way to set yourself up for some relaxing stretches…
Stretches To Help You Unwind
One of the best things you can do in the evening to help you unwind and de-stress after a busy or tense day is stretch. Relaxing yoga poses can help you calm your mind and rid any tension in your body from the day. It’s even better if you dim the lights or use candlelight to further relax yourself and prepare your body and brain for sleep. Try these easy wind down exercises, either in bed, or on a mat on the floor in your bedroom…
Child’s Pose – This gentle pose stretches out the back (especially the lower back), and gives your body and brain a sense of safety. It also allows your mind to shut out whatever is happening in the world because your forehead is resting on the floor and literally blocking anything from view. It is constantly used during yoga classes as a resting pose between sequences, and is also the pose students are told to come back to if they need a break.
Start by kneeling either on your bed, yoga mat, or carpeted floor and then sit back onto your heels. The tops of your feet should be flat to the ground and your toes shouldn’t be curled under. Once you are sitting on your heels, you can rest your forehead on the ground, close your eyes and let your arms rest along your sides. If you are finding it difficult to breathe in this position, you can turn your head slightly to one side. Rest in this position for a couple of minutes and try not to attach yourself to any thoughts as they pop into your head.
L-Shape (Against A Wall) – This relaxing pose reverses blood flow from your feet. It is a mild inversion, which can help you view the world from a different perspective and shake any worries from the day that are lingering in your mind.
This is a really nice calming pose to practice in bed. Move your pillows away and sit sideways up against the wall on top of your blanket or duvet. Start to lift your legs gently up against the wall and lay down on your back. If the backs of your legs are tight, start with bent knees and as you relax you should be able to start straightening them, so that your body is making an ‘L’ shape. Close your eyes and think about your breath, trying not to let any thoughts linger in your mind. You should feel a nice stretch and release in the muscles on your legs as well as your lower back. Stay in the pose as long as it’s comfortable, or for two to five minutes.
Universal Spinal Twist – This gentle twisting pose is often used at the end of a yoga class to slow everything back down and prepare the body and mind for relaxation. So, unsurprisingly, it works well in the evenings to wind down and relax for bed.
If you are moving straight into universal spinal twist from L-shape, you just need to change directions on the bed so that your whole body is able to lay flat. Start by lying on your back with your arms stretched out on either side, so that you’re making a ‘T’ shape with your body. Then, bend your knees and let them rest to one side, keeping both shoulders on the ground. Turn your gaze in the opposite direction of your knees and close your eyes. You can stay in this pose for about a minute and then slowly swap sides.
Knees Into Chest – This pose is similar to child’s pose – it stretches out your lower back and gives your body and mind a feeling of safety. It is often used at the very end of a yoga class, after corpse pose to release any tension in the back.
Start by lying flat on your back and then bend your knees, bringing them towards your chest. Take hold of your shins and gently pull your knees closer into your body. You should feel a nice stretch and release in your lower back. You can turn your head from side to side or roll your knees in circles to further stretch and massage your back. Stay in the pose for a minute or so and then gently release your knees. You should be able to crawl straight into bed by this stage, ready for a restful slumber.
However, if you feel like you still need a little help after stretching out your body, and if you find it difficult to meditate and relax on your own, there are a number of great guided meditation videos online, both for helping you sleep, and dealing with anxiety. This is a great one to start with if you’re having trouble sleeping and struggle with silence as you’re drifting off.
If you suffer from insomnia, or continue to have difficulty sleeping after introducing these evening wind down rituals into your routine, you should seek professional help or speak to your doctor.