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How to “Turn Off” Your Brain So You Can Sleep

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

✎ Written by: Denisa Cerna ✓ Fact-checked by: Kaija Sander, Ph.D.


Here’s a tossing and turning statistic for you: Over 14% of US adults have trouble falling asleep, and some have even reported that they experience sleep disturbances every single night. What’s more, about a quarter of people do not meet the recommendation of getting seven hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, no matter how many sheep they count to catch those z’s.

The reason why this happens can range from bedtime worry and stress to factors grounded in your circadian rhythms (the changes that happen in your body following a 24h-cycle, such as your sleep-wake cycle). Your circadian rhythms are sensitive to light and temperature, which means that when you go to sleep and how you go about doing so matters.

Whatever your source of sleep troubles, there are some effective ways of changing up your bedtime routine and making sure your body and mind are ready for a good night’s sleep.

Together, we’ll have a look at how to:

Optimize Your Mind for Sleep: 3 Tools

One of the primary reasons you may struggle with falling asleep is due to heightened levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Your cortisol levels should be in sync with your circadian rhythm, peaking in the morning (rousing you from sleep) and reaching their lowest around midnight.


However, many people suffering from insomnia have been shown to experience high cortisol levels at sleep onset, leading to anxiety at night and sleep difficulties.


The following activities could help you decrease your cortisol levels in the evening and “turn off” your brain so you can sleep (figuratively, of course - your brain never completely stops).

1. Do Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness – paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental, curious, and kind way – is a highly effective tool for clearing your mind of clutter and relaxing at night.

Moreover, is it good to meditate before sleep? Yes, when practicing mindfulness and meditation, you are lowering your cortisol levels, activating your body’s relaxation response (as opposed to the stress response), decreasing rumination, and improving emotional self-regulation. This may not only help you fall asleep but can also boost your sleep quality overall.

While there are various kinds of meditation (e.g., vipassana, yoga meditation, visualization), mindfulness meditation has been used in clinical trials to help fight insomnia and promote sleep quality.

To do a simple mindfulness meditation before bed:

  1. Find a comfortable seating or lying position. Close your eyes.

  2. Begin focusing on your breath. Each time your mind pulls you in the direction of a specific thought or emotion, observe it without judgment, let it pass, and return to your breath.

  3. As you breathe, become aware of your body – your heartbeat, the weight of your feet against the ground, or various sensations on your skin.

  4. Practice for at least five minutes.

Please remember: It is completely normal to get repeatedly lost in thought. Meditation is difficult. Don’t be too harsh on yourself. The key lies in a kind and non-judgemental acceptance of your passing thoughts and returning to your breath.

2. Build a Clever Workout Routine

According to one study, four months of aerobic exercise can improve the overall sleep quality of older adults suffering from insomnia. It is important to note, however, that a one-time session may not do much for your sleep since significant improvements will likely appear as a result of regular long-term exercise.

And while exercise can help you fall asleep, there are two factors to take into consideration: timing and intensity.

For example, a recent study on high-intensity training (HIIT) shows this type of exercise does boost sleep quality, however, moderate to high-intensity exercise is also known to increase cortisol levels.

Furthermore, moderate to high-intensity exercise raises your core body temperature, signaling to your body that it’s time to wake up rather than go to sleep. If you engage in strenuous physical activity too late in the day, you may therefore experience difficulties falling asleep.

Low-intensity exercise, on the other hand, actually reduces cortisol. Yoga is an excellent example of this.

Keeping this information in mind, try to build your workout routine strategically by:

  1. Engaging in moderate to high-intensity exercise (running, cycling) in the morning or in the afternoon, OR

  2. Incorporating low-intensity exercise (yoga, tai chi, slow walking) into your bedtime routine to help calm your body and mind

3. Create a Bedtime Routine

It probably comes as no surprise that bedtime routines promote children’s sleep quality – the practice helps them ease into a sleepy mindset, bond with their caretakers, and learn the importance of self-care.

However, adults benefit from a night routine just as well. Having a good bedtime routine can:

  • Reduce stress, since it will force you to make fewer decisions before bed and allow you to settle into a comfortable rhythm (e.g., knowing instinctively that journaling comes after brushing your teeth)

  • Help keep your circadian rhythm in check because you go to sleep at the same time every day

  • Make you associate specific actions with sleep, thereby helping you relax before going to bed. For example, incorporating a warm bath into your routine will mentally prepare you for sleep because you’ll become accustomed to doing it every night

A great way to build your night routine is by turning these relaxing activities into a nightly habit. Habits form when you repeatedly perform the same activities until they require little to no thought, instinctively becoming part of your behavior. The longer you do this, the more automatic and unconscious these behaviors become.

A great way to form a new habit is by habit stacking. To do habit stacking effectively, identify a habit you already have (such as washing the dishes after dinner) and stack a new habit from your bedtime routine on top of it. Then keep stacking. For example, your routine could look something like this:

  • Wash the dishes

  • Play relaxing music

  • Journal

  • Have a warm bath/shower

  • Meditate

  • Go to sleep

Before you know it, you’ll be moving through your routine automatically, allowing your mind to relax as you go.

Optimize Your Environment for Sleep: 3 Tools

Your circadian rhythm is sensitive to light and temperature because these two factors indicate whether it’s day or night (it is brighter and warmer during the day and darker and cooler during the night).

In order to fall asleep easily, your environment should be in sync with your body’s biological clock.

Here’s how you can effectively optimize your environment to promote healthier sleep.

1. Electronics Go in the Drawer

When your environment gets dark, your body begins to produce melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. Light exposure can block melatonin production and cause difficulties falling asleep, particularly two hours before bedtime when your circadian clock is most sensitive to light.

The short-wavelength blue light that is emitted from phones, TVs, laptops, and tablets affects you in a similar way the sun or electrical lightning would. In fact, studies show it can reduce melatonin secretion and worsen your sleep quality. What’s more, this type of blue light can also increase cortisol.

A good way to ease yourself into sleep is to stop using all electronics at least an hour before bed. Instead of scrolling or watching TV, try grabbing a book or a Kindle. Reading in the evening has been proven to help you sleep better.

Make sure to use warm lighting in your home and dim the lights as your bedtime approaches as well. Here is a helpful checklist to keep in mind.

2. Lower the Thermostat Temperature

As your body prepares for sleep, your core temperature lowers, which coincides with the secretion of melatonin. The next morning, your body begins to warm up naturally in anticipation of wakefulness.

Your environment should ideally mimic this process to help you fall asleep and remain asleep. Director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, Alon Avidan, MD, MPH, has said, “If someone told me that they slept in a temperature between 70 to 75 (21 to 24 ºC), I’d say that’s a range that promotes insomnia. That’s toasty.”

He recommends your thermostat temperature be somewhere between 60 and 65 ºF (16 to 18 ºC).

3. Listen to Relaxing Music

Soothing music can help fight insomnia and boost sleep quality. In fact, one study has found that apart from falling asleep quicker, you may also experience:

  • Longer sleep duration

  • Better sleep efficiency

  • Less sleep disturbance

This may be because relaxing music can have a calming effect on your body and mind. It decreases cortisol and helps you tune into a relaxed mindset.

Why? Listening to music at around 60 beats per minute gives rise to alpha brainwaves, patterns of electrical activity occurring in the brain that cause you to feel calm and relaxed. To induce delta brainwaves (the slowest brain waves associated with deep and dreamless sleep), you should listen to soothing music for at least 45 minutes.

As for the best song to help you fall asleep, researchers believeWeightless” by Marconi is the absolute winner. So why not give it a try?

Conclusion

If you find it difficult to fall asleep, remember that you’re not alone in this. Shift work, jet lag, electronics, noise disturbances, anxiety, and depression are among the many causes that give rise to insomnia and sleep problems in the 21st century.

For quick solutions, try out mindfulness meditation, listening to soothing music, adjusting your thermostat temperature, and dimming the lights. To improve your sleep in the long run, you can also establish a regular exercise schedule, create your own bedtime routine, and say goodbye to electronics before bedtime.

If you still can’t fall asleep, or if your symptoms are accompanied by frequent mood swings, low energy, anxiety, or feelings of emotional exhaustion, consider talking to a mental health professional. Your doctor will help you find the right treatment based on your individual circumstances.

Sleep is one of the most important bodily functions, and your brain health and well-being largely depend on its quality. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

Myndlift provides a personalized expert-guided brain training program that can help you achieve your goals towards reaching optimal mental wellbeing. Check if you’re eligible to kick start your journey with us for better brain health from here.


 

About the author:

Denisa Cerna is a non-fiction and fiction writer who's passionate about psychology, mental health, and personal development. She's always on a quest to develop a better insight into the workings of the human mind, be it via reading psychology books or combing through research papers.


About the reviewer:

Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.


 

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