Turn off all screens AT LEAST an hour before bed.
Of all four tips to get a better night’s sleep, this is the most challenging for me. Yet often the hardest habits to break yield the greatest results. There is clear evidence that A) not only are screens (computers, tvs, smartphones, tablets) disruptive to our biological sleep patterns, but B) they stimulate brain activity, which interferes with our ability to notice when we’re actually tired (see How to Sleep Better Part Two).
When we get busy on the computer in the evening, we don’t experience the winding down after sunset which we WOULD feel in a natural environment. In The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova writes that after a week long camping trip…“Not only did the time outside, in the absence of artificial light and alarm clocks, make it easier for people to fall asleep, it made it easier for them to wake up”.
According to Ayurveda, the healing science of yoga, there are three windows of time during each 12 hour period on the clock. The time from 6pm-10pm is governed by Kapha, comprised of water and earth elements which have slow, grounded and heavy qualities. During this time we naturally begin to relax when we’re in alignment with the natural rhythms of the sun. Ideally during this time we are neither digesting the heaviest meal of the day nor getting busy on a project.
With too much mental stimulation in the evening, the brain gets “fired up.” This makes perfect sense from the perspective of the elements governing different times of day. Pitta time begins at around 10pm, and ends at 2am, and is governed by the fire element. With sharp, penetrating and hot qualities, during pitta time deeper digestion takes place, and the best time for quality sleep which leads to optimal health. That second wind experienced around 10pm while we are still awake occurs approximately at the transition into pitta time, when fire element is dominant. With knowledge of this Ayurvedic concept, the phrase “burning the midnight oil” takes on a more potent meaning.
If you're going to sleep much later than 10pm, just begin to get to bed a little earlier, so MORE of your sleep occurs during the 10pm-2am window. Students report that even when they sleep exactly the same amount, going to sleep earlier and getting up earlier changes everything, from arising more easily in the morning to having more energy all day long. If you normally sleep midnight until 7:30am, begin going to sleep at 11:45pm for a few days or weeks, and then move it back towards 11:30pm, then 11:15pm MOST OF THE TIME. It’s ALWAYS easier to go to sleep earlier than wake up earlier. Progress, not perfection is how to change habits. Clients report feeling so much better they want to continue with the earlier bedtime.
When reflecting on my sleep habits during college and a few years afterwards, although I often went out after 10pm, I’d generally feel tired at 9:00pm. Even if I was at home and not going out, I thought it was too early to go to sleep! When I began to get dressed and ready to head out, it was the start of pitta time, and I'd be wide awake. The same thing happens if we’re answering email, watching a movie or searching online, even or especially, on a tablet in bed.
In addition, once in bed, make the room as DARK as possible, covering up any lights, especially those from a clock. For those of you with kids, read this interesting post by a mother of five who doesn’t use night lights, because they are shown to interfere with deep sleep.
The importance of sleep cannot be over emphasized, and it's not a popular topic in our busy culture. There's a sense of pride for those who say they only need 5 or 6 hours sleep. But for the vast majority of people, knowing what it feels like to get a good night sleep, we realize how poorly we feel and function after insufficient sleep. We're far less productive, and everything takes longer. Even if we eat well, and incorporate movement and mindfulness practices, it’s simply not possible to experience optimal health without an adequate amount of sleep. “Sleep is every bit as important for optimal health as healthy food, pure water, and exercise... increasing research is showing that your body’s sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm, plays a central role in multiple body processes” writes Dr. Joseph Mercola.