We can all relate to the struggle of wanting to get to bed earlier, whether for our health, our training goals or just to, you know, not feel terrible and drowsy throughout the day. The simple advice to just “go to bed earlier” will rarely cut it. That’s like telling somebody who’s looking for fitness advice to just “exercise more and eat healthier.” They’re not wrong, but that’s not useful.
Often when people aim to go to bed earlier, they don’t necessarily get more (or better) sleep. In fact, when you shift your patterns, your sleep latency often increases. That’s a fancy way of saying your head is resting on the pillow and your eyes are closed, but it takes you a long time to fall asleep.
If you’re trying to build better sleep habits, and have trouble falling asleep, here are five habits that can help you fall asleep faster.
Before we get into the specifics, falling asleep faster (and improving sleep in general) revolves around our body’s circadian rhythm, which is governed by a few key hormones. For simplicity’s sake, there are sympathetic hormones and parasympathetic hormones.
To fall asleep faster and improve your sleep in general, we want to increase sympathetic hormones during the day and increase parasympathetic hormones as evening approaches. This is what makes up our circadian rhythm.
These hormone types work inversely. When one is high, the other is low. By understanding this conceptually, you’ll have a good grasp on what will help you fall asleep faster. If it pumps you up in any way, you should do it in the morning but should keep off of it at night and vice versa.
When we wake up in the morning, one of the ways our body’s circadian rhythm knows to get up is because of sunlight. Since the sky is blue, our bodies have come to associate blue light with the daytime.
If you’re on screens well into the evening, you’re keeping sympathetic hormone production high, while blunting parasympathetic hormone production. This will keep you wired into the night, and make it harder to fall asleep.
The earlier you can get off screens, the better. As a general rule, if the sun is down, try not to be on screens for continuous amounts of time. However, this may require a huge life shift. If you’re on your phone all the way until you go to sleep, start with a 10 minute screen curfew. Over the course of several weeks, move it toward 90 minutes before bed.
Replace that screen time with reading, meditation, or anything relaxing and away from screens.
A caffeine curfew sounds kind of obvious. Caffeine obviously keeps you awake. However people generally underestimate the impact of caffeine on their sleep and sleep latency. Caffeine has an average half-life of 5 hours. This means if you have 200mg of coffee at noon, at 5pm 100mg will still be in your body, and at 10pm 50mg will still course through your bloodstream. Not good for your sleep.
Knowing this, a good framework is to stop drinking caffeine by noon. If you’re used to sipping coffee or diet coke all day, again, this is going to take some time to adjust, so you can taper out of your caffeine addiction and limit your use to the morning hours.
Caffeine affects sleep in other complex ways that we cover deeply in this article on caffeine intake.
Working out jolts us awake as effectively as almost any drug. And once our workout is done we won’t magically shift out of a sympathetic state. It takes several hours to not only shift into a parasympathetic state, but to physically cool down. If we are physically more hot, then we’ll have a harder time falling asleep.
As a general framework, aim to complete your physical activity by 5pm. (If you workout right after work and finish by 6pm, that’s not the end of the world.) Ideally, you can workout in the morning or afternoon, because then the hormone boost from training will help you stay alert throughout the day.
Enough with the curfews. When you’re taking away all of these activities to your evening routines, you have to replace it with something. Any type of massage comes with a host of benefits. Pertinent to this article, massage signals relaxation and an increase in parasympathetic hormones. This makes it a perfect pre-bed activity as part of your evening ritual.
Luckily there are a lot of ways to make this happen. If you live with a partner, making massage a part of your routine (and perhaps a great lead into sex, which also helps you fall asleep faster) will improve your sleep.
You can also grab a foam roller, and spend just a few minutes targeting big muscle groups: the quads, the hip flexors, the mid back, the abdominals. Plus we all know we’re not stretching enough, so this builds in time for that. You’ll sleep better and feel better.
We talked about blue light can cripple your sleep quality before bed. But first thing in the morning, getting blue light, ideally in the form of the sun, calibrates our circadian rhythm. Yes, your actions early in the day affect your ability to fall asleep in the evening.
There are many ways you can incorporate this habit. The easiest is to go for a short walk in the morning. If you have a dog, they might make you anyway, so you can embrace this as also helping you sleep. While I wouldn’t getting a dog for the sole purpose of getting more sunlight, it is a bonus benefit in addition to all the love and snuggles.
Another strategy to get a double-whammy is to get some exercise along with the sunlight. Go outside and aim to do 20 reps of something. 20 squats, 20 pushups, whatever. That will further increase your sympathetic hormone production and keep you alert throughout the day, setting you up to be tired at bedtime.
Habits take time. It’s okay to choose one from this list and spend a few weeks or months building up to it. That’s better than trying to do too much at once. So choose one and work on it until it’s a permanent change. Then move on to the next one.
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