Sleep hacks for busy bees: How to shut your brain off and achieve deeper sleep
Are you a self-proclaimed busy bee? If so, this one’s for you. I consistently find that high achievers like you and me need to pay extra attention to the tendency we have for busyness to seep into all of the moments of our day, including what are meant to be the restful ones.
To perform at a high level, we have to prioritize restorative activities and sleep alongside the inevitable go-go-go state of the day. These restorative activities help for our cells to regenerate and for our brains to rest and rewire.
I, myself, have been struggling with shutting my brain off recently, so I’ve been more cognizant of my nighttime routine. I also find that at this time of year with the holidays looming, we have even more stress and worry that infiltrates our lives and threatens the quality of our sleep. If this is ringing true for you, read on for my suggestions on shutting down your brain in preparation for a restful night’s sleep.
About an hour before bed, create a wind down routine that works best for you, using the following key strategies:
1. Avoid negative stimuli
This includes watching the news, reading intense books (think suspense, horror, edge-of-your-seat stuff), working on anything challenging, arguing with a loved one, etc.
If you absolutely have to do the above at night, then just ensure that you follow it up with the rest of this list of wind down activities, so that your brain is primed for relaxation as opposed to sitting in that intense/negative/hyperstimulated mind state before bed.
This is especially important for the empaths out there who have a tendency to hold on to negative emotions more strongly than the average person.
2. Switch to dim lighting
Melatonin, our sleep hormone, is very sensitive to light. In order for melatonin to rise normally and allow us to sleep well, we need to create a progressively darker environment as the night goes on. This mimics what our natural state would be exposed to without artificial lighting. In our modern world, the bright lights we are exposed to throughout the day and night can wreak havoc on our body’s ability to create melatonin at night and sustain a normal circadian rhythm. Try to offset this by dimming the lights throughout the evening and sleeping in a dark room at night.
3. Change into comfortable clothes for sleep
Our bodies naturally warm up overnight, so the best sleepwear choices are those that keep you cool. The optimal way to sleep is actually in your birthday suit! However if you’re a person that prefers the comfort of pajamas, then opt for light cotton or another natural fabric that breathes well and prevents you from overheating.
The act of changing into your pajamas an hour or so before bed rather than just before getting into bed is to reinforce a set of routine stimuli that signals to your brain that it’s going to be bedtime soon (and it better start winding down).
4. Turn on a guided meditation or relaxing instrumental music
This is one of my favourite suggestions to patients because it has impact beyond sleep itself. The research for the effects of a mindfulness practice, which includes meditation, supersedes relaxation and can impact anxiety, depression, stress, digestion, mental function, and even autoimmune disease. If you haven’t already, download one of the following apps and begin reaping the benefits that a meditation practice can have on your overall health. It is one of the most efficient ways to quiet your inner voice (which inevitably gets loud at night when you’re trying to sleep) and prime your mind for sleep.
My favourite apps are Insight Timer, Calm, Headspace and 10% Happier. Do you have a favourite that I missed? If so, please share it with me!
5. Sip on a sedating tea blend
As a naturopathic doctor, I should love tea, right? I actually don’t (Eek. Please don’t report me). I’m a coffee lover and I do like a good green tea, but all the other herbal blends I use only for their therapeutic effects. If you catch me drinking a loose leaf tea, it’s probably because I’m trying to support my mood, digestion, stress, hormones, or …sleep. There are so many safe and effective herbs out there to help you fall and stay asleep.
My favourites are chamomile, lavender, lemon balm and hops. If you don’t mind a smelly tea, try valerian (I can’t stomach it, but you might be able to). As always, check with your ND before dosing on these teas, especially if you’re on other medications - there is always a potential for interactions, even with seemingly innocent teas.
6. Program your phone to wind down
Most smartphones now come with the very cool ability to turn off blue light, or you can simply download an app to do this for you. The blue light emanating from your phone is a melatonin killer. It actually signals the opposing hormone, cortisol, instead (and this little bugger keeps you awake - totally counterproductive).
You can also program your phone to turn off notifications after a certain time in the evening, and hold off on sending you these until the morning. Take advantage of this feature - it will save your sanity. Plus who wants to be reading an email from their boss after 9pm anyway?!
7. Reduce the volume on your TV or turn it off altogether
This can be a hard one for people who love watching certain shows as part of their wind down routine. I get it, I’m totally a sucker for a good rom com (romantic comedy), Raptor’s game, or Christmas movie this time of year. But hear me out.
My general rule of thumb is if the show you’re watching falls under “negative stimuli” (see sleep strategy #1), then it has to be turned off 1 hour before bed. Feel free to watch it up until that point, but not in this sacred hour of pre-sleep wind-down.
If it doesn’t fall under the “negative” category, then sure, watch away, but turn down the volume and ideally also dim down the TV lighting. If you’re a very sensitive sleeper I’d suggest getting rid of this routine, but for people who generally fall asleep well, go ahead and enjoy with your cup of sedating tea.
8. Take your bedtime supplements
Just like the herbal tea options, there are several supplements that can support both falling and staying asleep. I will name a few common supplements, but know that it’s important to see a naturopathic doctor or other provider who’s competent in safe prescribing, so that you are taking a product that makes the most sense for your individual physiology and that is targeted to the particular cause for your sleep dysfunction.
Melatonin, magnesium, lavender, kava, 5HTP, GABA, glycine, and bioidentical hormone correction (progesterone, estrogen, and thyroid) can all be helpful for sleep when dosed correctly and with purpose.
If your body is becoming resistant to sleep despite a great nighttime routine, it may be time for a deeper assessment and stronger supplements or medications. Many of my patients worry about the addictive quality of oral therapies, which is a fair concern considering that many medications do have that potential. Know that several natural and conventional strategies are available that can support sleep without causing dependence. My approach is always to have patients on a minimum effective protocol, which means that we only use stronger supplements or medications when necessary and after we’ve exhausted other options. As well, my goal is to reset your sleep rhythm to optimize normal functioning and then wean off stronger treatments when the body works as it should. This way, you’re ideally not on the more potent treatments long term and we minimize any dependence that can occur.
Do you have a nighttime routine that differs from my suggestions? I’d love to hear about what works best for you to get into a relaxed and restorative state after a day of high achieving and performing. Connect with me on