Five easy ways to wind down before bed
Tired of feeling tired? Perfect your bedtime routine with these tried-and-tested tips from the makers of Radio 3’s new, immersive late-night show, Night Tracks.
1. Make sure you’re actually tired
It sounds obvious, but it’s much easier to sleep at night if you’re ready for bed. However, night owls in particular often find it hard to doze off at what others consider a “normal” bedtime. If this sounds like you, try to expose yourself to as much natural light as possible during the day – starting as soon as you wake. Scientists have shown that this can help night owls to train their internal body clocks (AKA circadian rhythms) to be ready for sleep earlier.
Getting enough exercise during the day is important, too; but avoid exercising during the four hours before bed, as the resulting adrenaline may keep you awake. And unless you’re a toddler, try to avoid daytime naps. These can help if you’re particularly short on sleep, but in general, sleeping during the day – especially after 4pm – can make you less likely to drop off at night.
2. Pay attention to what you eat and drink
The journey to good sleep starts long before bedtime – around six hours beforehand, in fact, when you should enjoy your very last caffeinated beverage of the day. Caffeine can stay in your system for up to nine hours, so if you’re serious about getting a good night’s sleep, consider cutting out tea, coffee and fizzy drinks after 12 noon.
Most people find it hard to sleep on an empty stomach, but going to bed full to busting can have similarly poor outcomes for sleep. If you can, have dinner around four hours before bedtime, avoiding anything heavy (which could prevent you from sleeping) or sugary (which could make you wake in the night).
And resist that nightcap. Alcohol may help you fall asleep more quickly, but it’s bad news for the quality of your sleep, with REM sleep (vital for learning and memory) the worst affected. It’s also a diuretic, meaning you’re more likely to wake in the night needing the toilet if you booze before bed. Avoid.
3. Perform a relaxing bedtime ritual
An enjoyable bedtime routine can relax you both mentally and physically. With repetition, your body and brain will come to recognise its steps as a sign that it’s time to sleep. Your ritual could involve taking a warm bath or shower, meditating, talking to your partner or family, writing a diary, reading a book or listening to music with the lights turned low.
So what kind of music is best for sleep? In 2015 the composer Max Richter set out to answer that question by writing an eight-hour piece designed to accompany a good night's kip. He consulted a neuroscientist about sleep phases and how the senses operate within them, and learned about the types of sonic backgrounds that are appropriate for each stage of the sleep cycle.
The resulting piece, "Sleep" (which premiered on BBC Radio 3) makes extensive use of repetitive sonic patterns and low frequencies, both of which are thought to induce the deep, "slow wave" sleep vital for consolidating short-term memories and for structuring information within the brain.
Whatever sort of music you choose, it's crucial that it should be relaxing. If you feel that listening to death metal helps you to relax, then by all means incorporate a listening session into your bedtime ritual.
Alternatively, BBC Radio 3’s new evening schedule is a great way to sonically wind down during the week. From 11pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Night Tracks provides an adventurous, immersive soundtrack tailored for late-night listening, with an eclectic playlist that encompasses everything from classical to contemporary.
Then on Thursdays at 11pm, Night Tracks: The Archive Remix offers an uninterrupted half-hour journey through sounds from the BBC music archives, before Elizabeth Alker presents Unclassified, a weekly exploration of music by composers who stray beyond the boundaries of contemporary classical, electronica and ambient music. Perfect for powering down during the week.
4. Practise good sleep hygiene
This doesn’t mean showering or brushing your teeth before bed (although those aren’t bad ideas either). Good sleep hygiene involves creating an ideal context for sleep. As well as maintaining a regular sleep schedule and avoiding stimulants and alcohol, pay attention to your sleep environment.
Our bedrooms should be a place for sleeping and very little else. Most people sleep best in a room that’s dark, uncluttered, cool and free of devices and distractions. No matter where you are, try to go screen-free at least an hour before bedtime. As well as keeping you awake and alert, most TVs and smartphones give out electronic blue light that can keep your brain wakeful for longer.
If you're listening to radio, music or podcasts on a device, use a sleep timer (like the BBC Sounds one) to make sure it stops playing when it's time to drift off.
5. Prioritise your sleep
Margaret Thatcher may have been able to get by on four hours of sleep a night, but you almost certainly can’t. Even if you feel alert after just a few hours’ kip, the cumulative effect of too little sleep can take a toll on your physical health as well as your mental health and acuity. Consistently sleeping for fewer than five hours a night can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke and even reduce life expectancy.
Ensure you get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night by sticking to a regular sleep schedule. That means going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day – yes, even at weekends!