Aah, a good night’s sleep… nothing is more refreshing. In contrast, nothing is more frustrating than being rudely jolted awake by an alarm clock, only to find we are feeling more tired than the night before. We can’t force ourselves to fall asleep, but we can provide the right conditions that allow it to happen more easily.
When my husband and I visit our granddaughter, we enjoy participating in her bedtime rituals. As we see how much comfort and enjoyment she gets from doing the same things, in the same way at the same time each night, we are reminded that we can all benefit by developing our own healthy sleep rituals.
Sleep is part of a cycle that begins in the morning. Consider a gentle start with a Lumie alarm clock. The dim light turns on fifteen minutes before the sound alarm is set, and slowly brightens allowing time for a gradual transition from dreaming to waking. Also be sure to go outside. The early morning sun on our face and in our eyes stimulates the release of serotonin, the wakefulness neurotransmitter that helps to set our internal clock and aligns us with the rhythm of nature. Think of it as free phototherapy that makes it feel natural to rise with the sun. An outdoor walk at this time would be ideal but if your mornings are in a rush, start by just taking a moment to pause to turn and face the sun on the way to wherever you have to be.
Those who prefer to stay up into the wee hours of the morning and sleep well past dawn are thought of as ‘night owls,’ though there are no actual human night owls. When we stay up past a certain point, we do seem to rev up again but this is because our body is gearing up for its internal house cleaning. This only happens when we are sleeping, so if we are up and active we are disrupting the process and wearing down our systems. This is why statistics show that people who work nights have more health issues. It is also why only sleep that happens before midnight is called ‘beauty sleep.’
We do not have an on/off switch, but it does help to unplug by disconnecting from our electronic devices (TV, computer, cell phone) at least an hour before bed. In nature the setting sun provides a wind-down time, as the natural light gradually grows dim. Blue light from the electronics disrupts this process.
Unplugging gives us the time to incorporate our own sleep rituals to prepare ourselves for bed, ideally at the same time every night: a warm bath, a foot rub, writing in our gratitude journal, sipping Sleepy Time Tea, star gazing, doing some gentle yoga, needle work, playing an instrument—anything that comforts us. Even folding laundry or doing the dishes in a contemplative way can be very relaxing.
It helps to have an inviting space to relax into, our own personal retreat with no distractions—quiet, uncluttered and dark. If quiet is not possible a neutral background noise, like a fan, is helpful. Remove anything from the room that is not related to sleep, especially anything that produces light. Close the drapes to shut out any outdoor artificial light. Studies have shown that light at night (LAN) is damaging to humans. Consider buying blackout drapes and/or adding reflective/darkening window tinting. They shut out the light and cut down on the cooling bills in the summer.
Sometimes we have set the stage and performed our peaceful rituals and are still awake. Or, we have fallen asleep only to wake in the wee hours of the morning. Feelings of frustration, anxiety, and anger only make it worse. This is the time when a relaxation practice comes in handy. This way, even if we are not asleep we can rest easy knowing that we are still nourishing ourselves.
There are many methods; breath counting is a favorite of my students. Inhaling to a count of two or three, and exhaling to a count of four or six makes the exhalations twice as long and gives the mind something neutral to focus on. It is sort of like being a kid again, pretending to be asleep so your parents would think you were asleep only to find that pretty soon you actually were asleep.
Some things are beyond our control, but little changes can make a huge difference in the quality of our sleep. Start with the one thing that is easiest for you to incorporate into your routine and begin to develop your own bedtime ritual. Getting comfortable with gearing up and winding down with the sun, unplugging, creating an inviting space, and practicing relaxation help us to reclaim the night as the nourishing, peaceful pause that nature intended it to be.
For more information, read Healing Night: The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming and Awakening by Rubin R. Naiman, Ph.D. He is the sleep and dream specialist for Dr. Andrew Weil’s Program in Integrative Medicine. Janet says, “It is the best book I’ve found on the subject and is beautifully written.”