We don’t fully understand the mechanism of insomnia (defined as difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep). But some theorists believe that it is driven by central nervous system arousal. Your brain is always on. When you are focused on something, your brain is more activated than if you were doing something on autopilot.
Caffeine too close to bedtime can increase brain arousal as can bringing work home and doing stressful work before bed. We don’t know how long it takes for the mind to wind down after doing stressful work, but I compare it to lighting coals on the grill, getting them red hot then white, cooking your food, then having warm coals smolder long after you’ve eaten your meal.
To keep your coals from getting too hot, you have to watch carefully what you do before bedtime. Smartphone use in the evening has now become a huge contributor to disrupted sleep.
Smartphones make our lives undeniably more convenient, but their addictive pull can also interfere with your body’s circadian rhythm and prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. When you’re plugged in you are constantly available to family, friends and work colleagues. There is no down time. Even when you are not actually checking your phone for the latest text or update, a corner of your brain is constantly distracted, wondering if a new message has arrived.
The end result is that you’re always on call. Being “on” 24/7 can leave you feeling distracted and anxious. If you check your phone at night it can arouse your brain and make it hard for you fall asleep.
But distraction is just part of the problem with electronic devices. The screens of smartphones and other digital devices emit short wavelength blue light that can suppress melatonin production and interfere with sleep. Melatonin is a hormone the body produces at night in response to dwindling light. Melatonin signals the body to sleep. Disruptions in melatonin production can disrupt sleep duration and quality.
If you want to improve your sleep and fall asleep faster, you need to develop an evening routine that promotes sleep. This starts with setting a regular bedtime.
Once you have your bedtime, you need to reserve the hour before that bedtime as your wind down period. If you want to be asleep by 10pm, you can’t work on your taxes until 9:55pm, then turn off the lights and expect to fall asleep by 10pm.
Here is a countdown to bedtime.
Suppose you choose a bedtime of 11pm.
Six Hours Before
BeforeSix hours before bedtime or 5pm, you are to cut out the caffeine so its stimulating effects don’t interfere with your sleep. If you really want to be cautious, you can stop ingesting caffeine after noon.
Four Hours Before
At 7pm, no more alcohol. Alcohol inhibits your slow wave sleep which is the most restful sleep.
Two Hours Before
At 9pm, no more exercise. Your core body temperature needs time to drop. Also, no more fluids. But if you just can’t help yourself because you just get so thirsty, you can drink up until 10pm.
One Hour Before
At 10, absolutely no more fluids. This is the beginning of your wind down period. No more work. Shut off that TV and get off the computer.
This would be a good time to prepare for tomorrow by choosing your clothes or packing your lunch. This would also be the time to brush your teeth or whatever else you do before bed.
Thirty Minutes Before
At 10:30 it’s time to relax in bed by reading, meditating or listening to music just as a few examples. Keep your lights dim to help you settle down. If you read with an electronic device, put on your blue light blocking glasses so that the blue light from the device doesn’t disrupt your sleep.
Adjust your thermostat to 68 – 74 degrees or turn on the ceiling fan. Cover your LED displays. Those modems and indicator lights can really light the room.
At 11pm – lights out. Put on your eye covers and/or ear plugs if needed. Hopefully you’ll start drifting off soon and be asleep within 15 to 20 minutes. Who knows, if you are really successful with your relaxation, you may be asleep before 11pm.
This is how you can have an evening that promotes sleep. It may seem complicated, but it really can become routine just like brushing your teeth. It’s a matter of thinking of bedtime as an event that you prepare for instead of something that just happens whenever and however.
Until it becomes routine for you – you can use this cheat sheet to help you keep up. You can print it and keep it by your bedside to remind you.