Powering Down

by Dr. Michael Breus, PhD

How do you spend the hour before bedtime? Are you popping between screens, catching up on the latest HBO Max show and scrolling social media? Is your mind racing, thinking about your to-do list at work, and the laundry list of to-dos at home (which usually includes actual laundry)? Are you physically “wired” or tense right up to the time you fall into bed?

The hour leading up to bedtime has a powerful impact on how well you sleep. This critical hour is one key place where you can take direct control over your sleep, by making intentional choices to ease yourself gently toward a more restorative night of rest.

We are biologically built to wind down at night, with daily 24-hour circadian rhythms that regulate our mental and physical activity levels. Mental alertness is biologically programmed to wind down in the evening. Our bodies are biologically hard-wired to shift into rest mode, with the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” portion of our autonomic nervous system) playing a prominent role in sleep, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and inhibiting production of stimulating hormones including adrenaline and cortisol.

But we live in a society that runs nonstop with stimulation, and we live individual lives that are demanding, overscheduled and filled with tasks and obligations that occupy our attention right up to bedtime—and often
well past the bedtime we need to get sufficient sleep.

We can’t take a car from racing at 90 mph to cruising at 10 mph in an instant. We’ve got to slow down gradually, shift incrementally into lower gears. Our bodies function in a similar way. To quiet your mind and relax your body before bedtime, it’s essential to create a transition that prepares you mentally and physically for sleep.

To all my patients, I recommend using the PowerDown Hour as an integral part of their nightly routine.

What does the PowerDown Hour look like?

There’s a lot of room to customize your PowerDown Hour to suit your individual habits and preferences. There is, however, one thing I strongly recommend for everyone’s PowerDown Hour: Make it screen-free.

Schedule all your streaming, internet surfing, emailing and social media scrolling to end before this transitional hour begins. The light exposure and mental stimulation that come from engaging with digital screens and media are counterproductive to achieving a relaxed, quiet mind and a body that is primed for rest.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating a PowerDown Hour.

Set aside 20 minutes for hygiene and grooming and taking any medications that you are supposed to take at bedtime. (You might not know, but there are optimal times of day to take most medicines.)

Next, devote 10 minutes to each of the following:

Something for your mind.

Meditation can enhance sleep quality, help ease the symptoms of insomnia and it is an excellent component of a PowerDown Hour. You can also listen to a funny, relaxing or inspiring podcast, or some music that relaxes you. This hour is a great time to read for pleasure. Avoid any required reading for work or school. And no bright reading lights, please—low- watt, non-halogen lighting is optimal for reading before bed. If you’re using an e-reader, don’t rely exclusively on the device’s dim- and red-light settings to protect your eyes from stimulating light. If you’re reading on a digital device, wear blue light blocking glasses.

Something for your body.

Exercise is deeply beneficial for sleep, but the hour before bed isn’t the right time for a vigorous workout. Gentle movement belongs in the PowerDown Hour. Research has shown that both yoga and tai chi practices can reduce sleep disruption and optimize our nightly rest.

Take a stroll around the block before lights out, do some light stretching. Including simple, light movement to your hour will reduce physical tension and help clear and quiet your mind as you prepare for bed. If you like to take a shower or bath before bed, plan to do so 90 minutes before lights out to maximize the sleep-promoting benefits.

Something for your stomach.

Lots of us (myself included) get snack attacks at night. And going to bed hungry can contribute to low blood sugar that is one cause of those dreaded 3 a.m. awakenings. You don’t have to include eating in your PowerDown Hour. But a light snack within an hour of bedtime can aid sleep. My rules for a pre-bed snack are to keep it at about 250 calories, include a balance of protein and complex carbohydrate, and to avoid the sugary snacks so many of us crave at night.

Something for your senses.

Touch and smell are potent sleep influencers. Essential oils can promote sleep by relaxing both body and mind. Spend a few minutes of your PowerDown Hour in the company of sleep-promoting scents, if you can. And employ the power of touch to relax, de-stress, and elevate your mood before bed. Partners can take turns giving each other simple massages. You can also use self-massage practices, or the touch therapy practice of reflexology, which reduces brain wave activity and increases sleepiness.

The hardest thing about the PowerDown Hour is getting started—and that’s not actually difficult at all. Like any new habit, it may take a little effort at first to integrate these rituals to evening. But you’ll surprise yourself at how quickly you come to look forward to this relaxing routine, and you can expect to see a difference in your sleep almost immediately.

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