Getting your sleep right is perhaps the best thing you can do for your health, but it’s hard to get quality sleep. Not only does it take a long time, but it’s easily disrupted because we’re so vulnerable while sleeping. If we could’ve evolved away from sleeping, we would have. Instead, most adults require 7-9 hours of quality sleep to maximize their health, especially mental health like mood and focus. This post focuses on routines for quality sleep because sleep depends on the circadian rhythm and, thus, reliable patterns.
Rule 1: I wake up at the same time each day (within an hour).
Including weekends. If I’m being honest, this rule doesn’t require any discipline most days. The benefit of prioritizing sleep quality is that I now wake up feeling refreshed and alert at about the same time each day. Sometimes I’ll sleep in for about 30 minutes if I had a hard day, but then I’m itching to get up. If that sounds annoyingly awesome, it is. But it all falls apart without the other rules.
Rule 2: I get at least 10 minutes of sunlight every morning within 30 minutes of waking up.
I’m lucky that my wake-up time isn’t dictated by a schedule, so I get up when it feels natural, which is when the sun rises (a bit after sunrise now that it’s summer). Getting early morning sunlight (i.e., outside and without sunglasses within 2 hours of sunrise) does great things to set your circadian rhythm. If you have to wake up before sunrise, bright artificial lights can have a similar effect, especially if they’re high in blue light. However, if the sun is already out, artificial lights or sunlight through a window aren’t very effective. On a recent trip with a 5-hour time difference, I made a point to get outside shortly after I wanted to wake up, and it worked great to reset my circadian clock and avoid days of jet lag.
The way I like to get early sunlight is to go for a 10-20 minute walk first thing in the morning. Well, after taking care of the cats. Besides the sunlight, walking also gets me moving early in the day, but it’s gentle enough that I don’t have to fight to do it. It builds momentum that makes it easier to do things that require more discipline, like vigorous exercise. Even on days that I don’t exercise, a bit of movement in the morning helps set a positive tone for the day.
Rule 3: I don’t have caffeine within an hour (usually two) of waking up.
Caffeine helps you be alert by binding at the same receptors as (i.e., blocking) adenosine, which makes you feel sleepy. However, caffeine also makes you feel alert by increasing cortisol levels, which naturally peak around the time you wake up. Releasing cortisol is part of how your body wakes you up. Having caffeine shortly after waking up can result in too much cortisol. Your body adapts by releasing less cortisol in the morning, making it harder to wake up. Having caffeine late in the day can also make it difficult to fall asleep by blocking adenosine. People vary drastically in their sensitivity to caffeine, so you might experiment to figure out what works for you.
Rule 4: I do the same thing every night within an hour of bedtime.
In previous posts, I talked about avoiding bright lights after dark and not eating within 3 hours of bedtime. In addition to avoiding these sleep disruptors, I also do the same thing each night starting an hour before bed. This routine helps signal that it’s time to relax, mentally and physically. I’ll watch an episode of tv, feed and play with the cats, and get ready for bed. This routine explicitly does not include anything that has the potential to stress me out and raise my cortisol, such as checking my phone, checking my email, or generally being on the internet. I also wear a blanket when I watch tv to help my body temperature lower, which can help with falling asleep.
Much like viewing sunlight close to sunrise helps set the circadian rhythm, viewing sunlight close to sunset has the same effect. I’ve tried walking outside during the hour before sunset to prepare for sleep. However, I found it too effective. An hour after sunset, I would be battling to stay awake. If you find it difficult to wind down for the night, especially when traveling, this trick might help.
For more information about sleep routines, see this episode of The Huberman Lab Podcast. The Huberman Lab Podcast is a newer, but highly rated and regarded, podcast in the wellness space. The host is a scientist who has honed his skill of describing just enough of the mechanism for why something works paired with behavioral tools to achieve a goal. As a scientist, I appreciate the level of nuance provided so that I can adapt tools to my own goals.
This is post 1 of 2 about sleep. The next post is about sleep disruptions and how to make the best of bad sleep. For other topics, return to the wellness series page.