Most people know it’s important to get 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night, but few people have a evening routine in place to make sure of it. As it turns out, what you do before bed each night makes a profound impact on how quickly you fall asleep, your sleep quality and your energy levels and drive the next day.
To understand how this works, let’s look at a brief summary of two key neurochemicals and their role in the sleep-wake cycle.
Optimizing your sleep-wake cycle
The sleep-wake cycle is highly complex, and it involves many different neurochemicals, but here, we’re doing a very brief summary of the two most important ones.
Secreted at night time to help us feel tired and drift off to sleep. Production ceases in the mornings as the production of dopamine increases.
The go-get neurochemical that helps us focus on important tasks, and goal-directed behaviours. Production ceases before we go to sleep, and begins again shortly after we’ve woken up.
The interesting thing about these two neurochemicals is that they are mutually inhibitory. That is, dopamine production halts melatonin production and vice versa. When this cycle is thrown out of whack, we produce these neurochemicals at the wrong times or even produce less of each. Our environment and behaviour are cues for the production of both neurochemicals, and we can easily disrupt our sleep-wake cycle if our evening habits support the production of dopamine instead of melatonin.
For example, if you’re up late at night thinking deeply about a work problem, you’re doing so at the expense of melatonin production. It might seem like a productive use of your time, but you’re effectively borrowing energy and drive from tomorrow.
If we want to support this natural cycle and feel focused and energetic during the day, we need to introduce habits that will ensure good sleep at night.
Here are 4 things you can do to optimise your sleep-wake cycle and sleep your way to success!
1. Take stock of your day and plan tomorrow
One of the biggest obstacles to a good night’s sleep are lingering thoughts.
What do I need to do tomorrow?
What should I have done today?
What will I do if this happens?
You can think of these as open loops. They repeat themselves over and over, trapping you in work mode and preventing you from shutting down. If you spend just 10 minutes capturing these loops on paper, you can close them, and return to them tomorrow. Taking these thoughts out of your head, and onto paper will make it it much easier to let them go for the day!
If you prefer to write things down on your computer, it’s important to do this as the first part of your evening ritual, for the following reason.
2. Avoid Screens
Research has shown that melatonin production is suppressed by bright light. So if you’re watching TV and checking your phone late into the night, you’re interrupting your body’s sleep-wake cycle. As much as possible, try to keep your evenings screen-free. Instead of watching TV, it’s best to read books using a dimly lit lamp or listen to some relaxing music.
3. Take a hot shower or a bath
As discussed in a previous blog, cold water immersion first thing in the morning can have a dramatic effect on dopamine production. But did you know that the same is true for hot water immersion and melatonin? If you needed an excuse to treat yourself to a hot bath at night, then here it is! Research has shown hot water immersion sends a signal to your body to begin melatonin production and will help you drift off to a restful night’s sleep.
If there’s one thing meditation does, it gets you in touch with what your body needs. Just as meditating in the morning helps your body energize and focus, meditating at night can help you switch off, and prepare yourself for sleep.