Updated: Jan 28
The purpose of a healthy bedtime routine is to form lasting habits which ensure good quality sleep. This will help you recover from work, exercise, socialising and many other things, and make it possible for each morning to begin more positively as a result of having more energy to make the most of it (1).
A healthy routine can take a long time to develop when you do not understand exactly how your actions during the day affect how you sleep. Without good quality sleep, everything tends to feel harder and less enjoyable compared to when you are well rested. The key is to understand why what you do in the daytime matters and learn what you can do to change your habits.
Related Post: How Long Should I Sleep For?
Why is it important?
When we think about how important bedtime routines are, we often think of how important they are for children. If you are a parent, you would know how important a proper bedtime routine is for a happy, energised child the next day (2). It isn't just children who benefit from a set bedtime routine though. A study published in 2018 showed a significant correlation between sleep irregularity and an (3):
- increased risk of cardiometabolic conditions such as obesity and elevated fasting glucose levels,
- increased risk of developing atherosclerosis,
- increased depression severity,
- increased perception of stress
Developing a healthy, sustainable bedtime routine should be one of the first steps to transforming your health. In order to do so, we must first evaluate our routine to identify areas to improve.
Symptoms of poor or insufficient sleep
As mentioned above, a proper bedtime routine can help to facilitate a good nights sleep. If your sleep quality or quantity is not good enough, you might experience some of the following symptoms (4):
- depressed mood
- difficulty learning new concepts
- inability to concentrate or a "fuzzy" head
- lack of motivation
- increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings
- reduced sex drive
Identify your flaws
Your habits are most likely preventing you from having successful sleep so the sooner you can pinpoint the ones doing the damage, the better you will feel. It could be that your favourite TV programme starts at 11pm almost every night or that you don't eat enough during the day so you overeat too late. Recognise the causes then eliminate those bad habits.
Why you may be struggling to sleep
High core temperature
As previously mentioned in the exercise section above, training hard before going to sleep can work well, however, if you are not taking recovery seriously by cooling down at the end of a workout, eating nutrient dense foods and making your room silent, dark and cool, it will take longer for you to fall asleep and your sleep cycles may be affected which can result in you feeling tired and hungry the following day (5) (6) (7).
Stress hormones can easily elevate to levels which prevent good sleep. If you are trying to sleep, the last thing you want is to be full off adrenaline and cortisol (8). In addition, even though going for a walk or leisurely swim sounds therapeutic, such activities can stimulate the brain to plan or organise ideas which can also make it harder to calm down and rest.
Eating too late
When food is consumed, melatonin levels typically drop. Furthermore, it makes little to no sense to eat just before sleep unless you are trying to recover from a gruelling workout which you completed beforehand. Even if you feel you need the nutrients at that time to achieve good health, if you are not careful, your sleep time will become later, your energy levels the following day may be adversely affected and you may gain weight (9).
Going to bed too late
When bedtime is delayed for whatever reason, it has a negative effect on your health (10). Even if you are staying up for a good cause such as studying or composing music, your body will usually be fighting against your desire to do so by reducing mental and physical performance so you're probably better off sleeping and completing those tasks when you are fully awake (11).
Vitamin D supplements
Vitamin D is naturally sourced from direct sunlight. This isn't normally a problem unless you have been in direct sunlight in a new destination when you would be preparing for sleep in your home country. Additionally, vitamin D cannot be obtained from sunlight when the sun is not strong enough so many people take vitamin D3 supplements to ensure they do not become deficient. If ingested in the late afternoon, evening or night, the supplementation can increase vitamin D levels which sends a signal that it is daytime and keep you awake. If you want to know more about vitamin D, read our article here.
Sleeping pill dependence
Taking sleeping pills to simply improve sleep (as opposed to treating a serious health condition) can have side-effects such as breathing difficulties, daytime sleepiness and depression (12). If you are becoming overtired and struggling to achieve the amount of good quality sleep you need consistently, look for natural sleep aids instead of using hypnotics or other medication to try to sedate yourself. You may worsen your symptoms and become even more drowsy and dysfunctional. For serious conditions, sleeping pills may be more appropriate, however, proceed with caution and never ignore the advice of your doctor or physician with regard to a specific illness you have.
Want to stay up to date with our latest articles and recipes?
How to create the ideal bedtime routine for you
For one month, choose a realistic bedtime that you have to stick to without fail. Think of a reward at the end of each successful week to keep you motivated and keep track of every single time you make it to bed when you were supposed to. Consistency is everything.
The following tips have been listed under three categories: lifestyle, nutrition and exercise. They are all worth trying; some will work better than others so continue to use whichever ones help you most and intend to slowly introduce others if appropriate.
Make a plan that suits your chronotype
There are four chronotypes: lions, bears, dolphins and wolves. They each relate to certain human behaviours such as sleeping, eating, exercising and are affected by your circadian rhythms and PER3 gene (13).
Lions wake up earlier and are productive in the first part of the day before becoming tired in the evening and falling asleep earlier.
Bears fall asleep soon after the sun sets and wake up when it rises. They have plenty of energy through out the day and sleep well at night. They are most productive in the mornings a short while after waking up but as the day goes on their performance dips. Most people fall under this category.
Dolphins are woken up by the faintest of noises and disturbances. They struggle to be consistent with their bedtime routine because of this. Their productivity reaches its peak between 10am and 2pm.
Wolves stay up later than others and prefer to sleep in. They are able to perform at their best in the afternoon and evening when most other people start to become tired.
When you take your chronotype into consideration, you may find it far easier to organise your day and life around what comes naturally to you. Your circadian rhythms (body clock) will then be able to help your body work optimally which can dramatically improve how you feel and look.
Go to bed at the same time as your partner
If you are in a relationship with someone who is affecting your sleep, it is possible to discuss any actions which prevent you from sleeping well and/or suggest activities where you can enjoy each others company more in the evenings without sabotaging sleep quality. If you have kids, dedicate 1-2 hours of down time after they are in bed to unwind and spend quality time together.
As mentioned previously, your eating patterns strongly influence your body clock (14). Consequently, by avoiding unnecessary snacking after an early dinner, your body will have far less work to do leading up to and during sleep. This will more than likely result in you experiencing better sleep quality and duration regularly.
Win the war against blue light
Most, if not all, of the technology in your bedroom will emit blue light. This type of light tricks the body into thinking it is still daytime. As a result, the production of melatonin is inhibited. Melatonin is a neurotransmitter which prepares your body for sleep by reducing core temperature and calming the nervous system among other things (15), so when you use your computers, TVs, phones and other electronics at night time or leave them switched on and do not cover the light they emit with clothing or other materials when you are trying to sleep, your body will not be able to naturally fall asleep earlier and your sleep quality and quantity may be greatly affected. This can leave you feeling drained the following morning and over subsequent days. There are goggles which you can wear after dark in order to block blue light and some electronic devices have "night shift" colour modes which reduce the amount of blue light they emit by switching to warmer hues. Most smartphones have this feature and free programmes exist for computers such as "f.lux" which do the same.
Read fiction in bed
Instead of fuelling an addiction to electronics, you may find that once you immerse yourself into a good book, the enjoyment of reading, the effective sleep tool, the organic feel of a paperback novel and the sense of achievement after having avoided becoming a slave to technology, it becomes an important part of your day, not just something you do on holiday. Try to read in low-level, warm lighting such as candlelight and stick to books which are easy to read and make you feel positive.
Smell something nice
Try to remember the last time you smelled lavender, rose, cocoa, coffee, chamomile, mint, ginger or another flower or food with a powerful scent. Think about how it made you feel and use that memory to help you select the best scents for sleep in this case. It could be an oil you apply to your skin, inhalations of eucalyptus oil, a mixture of lavender, sandalwood and bergamot in an oil diffuser, a soothing pine bath essence or herbs from your garden. Lavender seems to be particularly effective and has been used to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and loss of daily function (16) (17). If you make sure you have at least one option available when you need it, you may find that anxiety, stress or blood pressure levels decrease and sleep improves (18) (19).
Enjoy physical therapy
Physical touch such as long, meaningful hugs, holding a baby, painting someones nails, sex, massage and stroking animals releases oxytocin, a hormone released in the brain, which can lift your mood and make you sleep better (20).
Massages are commonly used to treat fatigue, injury and stress (21). There are many types, some more relaxing than others but for the purpose of trying to sleep better, you don't have to book a treatment with a massage therapist; a friend, family member or partner can be persuaded to help you loosen up and you would really benefit no matter how good, bad or brief the massage is. If you can afford the time and expense to have regular professional massages then the benefits may be far greater (22). Giving someone else a massage is also effective tool for combating anxiety especially if you are able to remain relaxed when giving the massage by breathing deeply, softly and slowly, focusing on the tight muscles you are attempting to loosen (23). Simple areas include the upper shoulders, back, neck, temples, head and hands (24).
Spend time outside when it's dark
When it comes to improving sleep, light is normally at the centre of the discussion whether it is a lack of exposure to direct sunlight early in the day or an excess of blue light after dark, however, not much is said about the dark other than how sleeping in a pitch black room can induce sleep (25). Being outdoors when it is dark may sometimes be dangerous or make you feel on edge or alert but there are many activities which can be enjoyed in the moonlight. Lighting fires outside has played a huge part in human evolution as a means to cook food, improve visibility, protect against intruders, explore or relax. In terms of developing an effective bedtime ritual for better sleep, eating socially, storytelling, having conversations under the stars and becoming mellow from the glow of the firelight (which doesn't affect circadian rhythm the same way that blue light does) can produce natural and beneficial effects on health and sleep (26).
Do anything that you find soothing. This can range from meditation to having a bubble bath. Meditation is a great way of treating insomnia and stress (27) (28). Focusing on breathing in and out while adopting the most comfortable position possible makes it easy for the brain to reduce its output as the task of following two actions is relatively simple in comparison to complex and concerning thoughts you may have through out the day. Thinking of a flower opening as you breathe in and closing as you breathe out allows you to be and remain positive and peaceful. The deeper breathing also aids in the accumulation of oxygen in the body and the removal of carbon dioxide which can make you feel refreshed and calm (29). You can meditate for minutes or hours and even fall asleep during meditation. Certain sounds have also been proven to improve sleep and some dawn-simulator alarm clocks have options like birdsong, rain or the radio to help you sleep as well as wake up more naturally as the light they emit gradually increases the closer it gets to your desired wake up time.
Be sensible about alcohol consumption
If you are going to drink alcohol, drink it several hours before bedtime otherwise it may lead to poor quality sleep (30). Some say it helps them sleep but it does in fact hamper sleep quality and duration so limit intake, have some in the early evening if at all, go to bed well before midnight and if you do wake up in the middle of the night, don't turn on the lights, check your phone or look at the time. To find out more about the effects of alcohol consumption read here.
Make yourself a cup of tea
By having a non-caffeinated, pre-bedtime tea-drinking ritual (say that 10 times as quickly as you can), your body will become more aware that it is in the period before sleep. Fresh mint tea, lemon & ginger tea and chamomile work best for us as the ingredients they contain have calming effects which, when combined with a bedtime ritual, almost guarantees you will sleep like a log (31).
Eat when your digestive system is more active
You digest food better when your body is more awake so consume larger meals earlier on in the day. Saturated fat from healthy animal sources, extra virgin olive oil and/or macadamia nuts should be eaten through out the day as they contain oleic acid which can treat sleep disorders (32). Furthermore, don't skimp on salt either (unless you're still eating processed food) because when the body is low in sodium, sleep is affected by an increase in stress hormones and increased blood pressure which will be detrimental to good sleep (33). Just don't have too much salt before bed as this can lead to a disrupted sleep due to waking up to drink, and therefore go to the toilet, several times per night.
Eat less at the end of the day
When digestion slows as night-time approaches, meals should consist of easily digestible foods such as fish, eggs, vegetables and liquid nutrition. You may find consuming other protein sources and carbs for dinner (chicken and sweet potato or lamb and parsnips) can reduce the length of time it takes to fall asleep, provided you have exercised intensely beforehand (34). To the surprise and joy of many, a tablespoon of raw honey may improve sleep by ensuring the liver has enough glycogen (35). Roughly an hour before bedtime, consuming glycine from bone broth or a collagen supplement has been linked to better sleep quality (36).
Melatonin is available as a supplement which may prove useful if you have been drinking alcohol before bed, exposed to blue light for a prolonged period of time such as watching a 2 hour film or travelling to a different time zone. Supplementation should be infrequent and in order to mimic the process of endogenous melatonin production, quick release melatonin should be taken before a dose of slow release melatonin otherwise try to find a supplement which contains both forms.
Taking 100mg γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) at the same time as 50mg Apocynum venetum leaf extract (AVLE) can speed up the process of falling asleep as well as induce deep sleep (37).
Magnesium supplementation can reduce chronic inflammatory stress via improved magnesium status (38). Having low stress levels often contributes to good quality sleep.
Cannabidiol can effectively treat REM sleep behaviour disorder and excessive daytime sleepiness (39). It may also reduce anxiety (40).
L-theanine supplementation of 200mg before bed may improve sleep by inhibiting anxiety (41).
Lutein, zeaxanthin and mesozeaxanthin supplements can combat stress especially in those who look at screens a lot (42). This may in turn alleviate symptoms of poor sleep.
Rhodiola rosea and other adaptogens have the potential to modulate the stages of sleep which can promote sleep quality (43).
Valeriana officinalis (valerian) extracts have had positive effects on inducing sleep and sleep quality without side-effects (44).
Being physically active has a profound effect on sleep. You will need to experiment with the timing of more intense bouts of exercise as sometimes hard workouts can have a positive impact on hormones when performed in the evening or even later rather than in the morning especially if you cool down properly and replenish with food (45) (46). In addition, intense workouts can prove useful near bedtime for those who know they will be sleep deprived the next day and train hard in order to reduce the negative impact of sleep deprivation on insulin resistance, however, they can also make you feel so energetic that you cannot fall asleep (47) (48). It is important, therefore, to experiment with the timing of your sessions to optimise your sleep.
Exercise at a low intensity
If heavy or glycogen depleting training doesn't seem to help you wind down, you may want to try walking or even easier movements such as gentle yoga, a slow, barefoot stroll around the garden, Feldenkrais and Tai Chi instead; they should stop your mind racing and ease the transition from day time to night time (49). Regular exercise is the key as you will release endorphins, lower blood pressure and burn body fat (50) (51). For best results, plan your movements so you can breathe in fresh air and access direct sunlight (52) (53).
Use what you have discovered in this article to create a sleep friendly bedroom. You don't have to use every option right away as even the smallest changes can yield enormous results. Make an effort to try all of them so you become more experienced in the choices you can make to attain your goal(s).
Related Post: How Long Should We Sleep For?
Related Post: Why You Should Avoid Alcohol
Related Post: 5 Cold Water Health Benefits
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Co-founder of 'The Evolved Way', and experienced personal trainer, Samson practices what he preaches. His own healthy lifestyle, which informs this site, is based on understanding the right way to eat and exercise, not excluding of course going out and enjoying life knowing you can still feel and look good.
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.