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A good night’s sleep actually starts in the morning.

Sleep is built upon our circadian rhythm, the 24-hour cycle that corresponds to the timing of sunrise and sunset. The human body functions best when it is entrained with this timing, which requires consistent daily habits.

I encourage patients of all ages to maintain regular bedtimes, and to develop routines that support better sleep — in the morning as well as before bed. The brain’s pineal gland, also known as the body’s timekeeper, rewards these routines. It releases melatonin when night falls; this hormone governs the timing of sleep onset as well as sleep depth and quality.

The pineal gland also regulates the rhythms of the endocrine system, metabolism, and detoxification. One example is how our stress hormones, such as cortisol, are released in varying amounts throughout the day. These fluctuations help determine our degree of focus, energy, and productivity.

Because routines are so helpful for sleep, and sleep is the linchpin of mental health, following a regular schedule can also improve our moods. Still, sleep is not our only source of support. Most people who have occasional anxiety are actually reacting to stress.

Keeping good, consistent, even slightly dull routines spares us from having to think so much about everything we do. This relieves some pressure on our minds.

The bedrock of a sleep-supportive daily routine is a consistent bedtime and wake-up time that you can maintain with relative ease. Aim for seven to nine hours each night — and consider following these tips, too.

Morning Routines for Better Sleep

  • Wake up on time. Rise at the same time every day — or close to it. This is crucial to setting your circadian rhythm. Use an alarm if you must, but if you can, awaken with the light, either the natural sunrise or a dawn simulator. Sleeping in, even for an extra hour, can push back the timing of your melatonin release that night.
  • Make your bed. Studies show that making your bed each morning improves the chances of a good night’s sleep by nearly 20 percent.
  • Get outside for some sun. Humans evolved to be attuned to light and dark cycles, so try to bathe yourself in bright light every morning, preferably within an hour or two of waking. This helps regulate your melatonin cycle, improving your chances of feeling sleepy at the right time of night. If you can’t get sun first thing in the morning, or if it rises too late (as in the winter), use a bright-light device with plenty of blue-spectrum light.
  • Eat breakfast. It aligns with nature, and our cortisol levels, to eat most of our calories early in the day. Make breakfast and lunch your biggest meals. If you’re a caffeine drinker, sip your coffee or tea in the morning. Caffeine is basically a plant version of adrenaline. (For more on caffeine, see “How Does Caffeine Really Affect Your Health“.)
  • Exercise early. Work out in the morning, when energy levels are naturally at their highest. If you can’t fit in exercise early, afternoon is fine, but try to finish three hours before bed. This will suppress stress hormones and keep your body cool at bedtime. (Morning is often the best time for strenuous mental work, as well.)
  • Take a breathing break. Spend a few moments focusing on your breath. Awareness of breathing can coax your autonomic nervous system to “stand down” and turn off your stress response. This is a great way to start your day.

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Evening Routines for Better Sleep

  • Stop work and turn off devices. Finish work-related tasks and switch off electronics, including your phone, at least one hour before bed, preferably two. This allows your mind to wind down and protects your eyes from the stimulating effects of blue light that digital devices emit. Blue light mimics morning sun and triggers wakefulness.
  • Stay away from the bedroom. When you avoid spending time in the bedroom during the hour before bed, it helps create a stronger association between that room and sleep. Try to maintain that room as a sanctuary reserved only for sleep and sex. Keep it simple, uncluttered, and free from anything work-related, as well as televisions and other electronics.
  • Dim the lights. During the final hours of the day, keep the lights as low as possible. You might even use candles. Darkness before bed can do amazing things for your natural sleepiness.
  • Practice at least one soothing activity. Read a book, do some journaling or coloring, listen to quiet music, or spend time in prayer or meditation. Take warm baths or showers at least one hour before bed so that your body is in the cooling-down phase at bedtime.
  • Be on time, but flexible. Go to bed when you’re sleepy — but not before. It’s OK if that occasionally means you’re retiring a bit later than usual. You want to associate bedtime with sleeping, not lying there restlessly trying to get to sleep.

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This article originally appeared as “Fresh Start” in the September 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Henry
Henry Emmons, MD

Henry Emmons, MD is an integrative psychiatrist and the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp. He is the cofounder of NaturalMentalHealth.com.

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