A consistent wind-down routine every day can help you fall asleep more quickly and reliably. Try any or all of the following relaxing behaviors for a restful night.
Take a hot bath
Your temperature naturally dips at night, starting two hours before sleep and bottoming out at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m., according to a 1997 study conducted by New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. When you soak in a hot tub, your temperature rises—and the rapid cool-down period immediately afterward relaxes you.
Two hours before bed, soak in the tub for 20 or 30 minutes, recommends Joyce Walsleben, PhD, associate professor at New York University School of Medicine. “If you raise your temperature a degree or two with a bath, the steeper drop at bedtime is more likely to put you in a deep sleep,” she says. A shower is less effective but can work, as well.
Install a dimmer switch
Late in the evening, your body releases the chemical melatonin, which makes you sleepy—but only if it receives the right cues from your environment. “Melatonin is your hormone of darkness—it won’t flow with the lights on,” says Walsleben. “You want to transition to dark as early as 9 or 10 o’clock.” Sitting in a dimly lit room before getting ready for bed can put you in the right mindset for sleep.
Lay out your clothes
You can help your body recognize that bedtime is imminent by setting routines and repeating them every night. “We suggest that people establish regular nightly routines before they get into bed, to help their brain shift into sleep mode,” says Gary Zammit, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Institute in New York City. “Laying out your pajamas, brushing your hair or your teeth—these habits can be very sleep-conducive.”
Shun p.m. stimulants
Skipping your normal cup of joe—even as early as lunchtime—should help you fall asleep quicker, since caffeine is a stimulant. “I don’t like people having caffeine after noontime if they have poor sleep, because it can hang out in the system for a long time,” says Walsleben.
Even decaf drinkers should beware: A 2007 Consumer Reports study found that “decaffeinated” coffees sold at several chain restaurants varied widely, containing up to 32 milligrams of caffeine per cup—about the same amount in 12 ounces of cola. For most people, this much caffeine won’t keep you up, but if you’re particularly sensitive, two or three cups might.
Nicotine is also a stimulant; smoking to relax before bed can actually do the opposite, revving up your heart rate and keeping your brain alert, says Walsleben.
Shut down electronics
You may find it relaxing to catch up on correspondence with friends just before turning in for the night, but the practice may be increasing the amount of time you toss and turn. Lit screens are stimulating says Walsleben (that includes televisions too), so it’s best to avoid them. “Before your targeted bedtime, begin slowing down your brain by doing something calming, like reading in a comfy chair—somewhere other than bed,” she says. “Stop watching TV and checking email.”
Wear socks to bed
If cold feet keeping you awake—especially during the winter—warm them up with a soft pair of socks. The extra layer under the covers can help improve circulation in your extremities, which can help you fall asleep more quickly, according to Phyllis Zee, MD, PhD, professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Limit evening food and drinks
A large meal or spicy snack too close to bedtime can leave your digestive system working overtime while the rest of your body lies awake. And alcohol with dinner—or as a nightcap—may make you drowsy, but it will disrupt your sleep patterns later in the night and keep you from getting the deep, restorative REM sleep you need to feel refreshed.
If you drink a lot of any liquid before bed, for that matter, you may be up throughout the night using the bathroom. “Most adults middle-age and older have to get up at night for this reason,” says William C. Dement, MD, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and author of The Promise of Sleep, “but restricting fluids before bed can help.” (A side note: If you do get up often, install a dim red bulb in your bathroom; it’s less stimulating than bright white light and won’t disrupt the flow of melatonin in your brain.)