Getting restful sleep is the most important thing you can do for your body’s longterm health, consistent weight maintenance or weight loss, and to lower stress levels from your daily life. Yet most of us don’t get the full 8-9 hours our bodies so desperately need. Not just because there aren’t enough hours in our days to sleep for such an extended period of time, but even if we do make the time, the sleep might just not be restful.
When I work with coaching clients, we discuss different kinds of rituals, for example rituals around preparing and eating food, rituals of self care, as well as evening rituals. When you put a baby to sleep, there is always the same routine of dinner time, play time, bath time, reading time, singing time, etc involved. This is to teach the baby to recognize this routine and understand it means going to sleep. Somehow, these beautiful rituals before going to sleep get lost while growing up. Now we just expect to eat and drink late, talk to friends, family, and colleagues around the world into the middle of the night, check emails, and still be able to fall asleep whenever we want to get our rest. Sadly, that is not how our bodies or minds work. We are often so wired up with errands and tasks that still need to be done before we hit the bed, that falling asleep becomes difficult. Needless to say, none of this is relaxing, rejuvenating or re-energizing.
Our sleep hormone melatonin
We are constantly connected to our devices: tapping away on phones for messages and emails, reading on iPads, watching TV or working on a presentation on our laptop. Too many people bring these devices into the bedroom and stare at them late into the night. However, the blue light emitted from these devices suppresses our sleeping hormone melatonin. Usually, this hormone will rise steadily about 2 hours before you go to sleep, making a regular sleep cycle so important. It will help you to fall asleep, and will then ease off throughout the night until morning, so you can wake up relaxed and ready to take on the day. You can see how starring at your devices’ screens will change this natural cycle. Try to keep all devices outside of the bedroom and once you start your evening rituals (see below), don’t check devices again. While white light from normal room lamps can have similar effects, it is not as drastic. Buy less extreme white lights for your bedroom to help put you to sleep. Best is red light to increase melatonin production before sleep time!
What role does stress play?
Another thing you have to understand about melatonin is its counter hormone cortisol. Cortisol is one of our major stress hormones, which ebbs and flows opposite to melatonin: while melatonin is high in the evenings, cortisol gets high in the morning for you to wake up and take on the day. If you are constantly stressed in your life through work, family life, and endless to do lists, cortisol never drops throughout the day and in the evening. It inhibits melatonin production in the evening, making it again harder to fall asleep. That is why all evening rituals you will see below are put in place to help bring down stress levels and ease you into peaceful sleep.
A word on melatonin drugs
Melatonin is the only hormone available over the counter in most countries. It is used as a sleep aid, especially for people who work night shifts and need to sleep during day light. Amongst travelers, melatonin is often used as a jet lag cure.
I am always extremely cautious when introducing artificial hormones into our bodies. There are no real natural food sources of melatonin, so the melatonin you buy will always be lab made. When introducing this into your body, you throw off the rest of the systems. Ideally, all hormones work together like a well oiled machine. When one hormone is more than it should be - for example through supplementing it like melatonin - other hormones will be thrown off. In this case, more melatonin means your body will also produce more cortisol to get you going in the morning. This means you are producing even more stress in your body, which has side effects like fat storage, lethargy, and cravings throughout the day.
Another thing to consider is that if your body realizes there is plenty of melatonin through supplementation, it will halt its own production, making it even harder to fall asleep naturally without the drug.
Instead of reaching for melatonin as a drug, try other ways to increase your melatonin production at night through evening rituals.
Introducing evening rituals
All evening rituals are designed to help calm down the mind and body, and help you to fall asleep more easily. Often, a combination of several rituals is needed in order to get to that point. Just telling your brain to shut up rarely does the trick. So why would that work when you are lying in bed staring at the ceiling?!
Evening rituals can take 1-2 hours to get you ready. Experiment with a few that sound good to you and see if it makes any difference at all:
have a relaxing bath
do some light stretches to ease any tension in your body, especially in lower back and hips from a long day of sitting at the desk
journal about your day
have a hot shower
use a massage ball and roll your back, feet or other sore areas over it
get creative and paint how you feel with crayons, water colors or just colored pencils
drink herbal tea that promotes relaxing like chamomile, lavender or try this relaxing herbal tea mix
read a good book (exception to devices is a kindle where you can dim the screen to low light in the room)
go for a walk around the block to clear your mind