*Dr. Ken Zweig contributed to Shelby Deering’s realsimple.com article, published on July 20, 2023.
Here are the smartest ways to wind down in the hours before bedtime.
For a lot of us, our nightly routine looks a lot like this: eating a way-too-late dinner, collapsing in front of the TV with smartphone in hand, scrolling and texting for an hour or two, then tossing and turning for another terrible night of sleep. Ugh.
Low-quality sleep has become a larger issue than ever in this country, and it has a lot to do with how we approach sleep—with what we’re doing before we turn off the lights and hit the sheets. As 2023 findings from Reviews.org have reported, 60 percent of Americans sleep with their phones close at hand at night. One report from Sleep Cycle found that the average American turns for bed in at precisely 11:39 p.m., which, if you’re getting up at 6 a.m. for work, does not add up to the optimal seven to nine hours of sleep most health professionals and institutions recommend for adults.
This is why healthy sleeping habits, proper sleep hygiene, and consistency of these habits are all so important. “By nature, we’re creatures of habit—our bodies like routine,” says Ken Zweig, MD, internist at Northern Virginia Family Practice Associates and an expert in sleep disorders. “If you maintain healthy and consistent bedtime habits, your body will reward you with good sleep.”
Amer Khan, MD, board-certified neurologist, sleep specialist, and founder of Sehatu Sleep Clinic in Roseville, California, explains that sleep requires the mind and body to be in a calm state that is completely opposite to active, wakeful activities.
“In order to transition to this state of sleep, which is when the body and mind perform nightly maintenance work, one needs some dedicated time to allow a slowing down of physical and mental activity,” he says.
But what exactly are the healthiest, most calming, and most sleep-promoting pre-bedtime habits to help you sleep better once you do get in bed? How do sleep experts (and current scientific research) suggest we spend our time in the hours leading up to sleep time? Sleep specialists share their top-recommended behaviors and activities to do—and to avoid—before bed in order to help you fall asleep, stay asleep, and actually experience restful sleep.
1. Have dinner well before bedtime.
Late-night dinners and pre-bed snacking happens all the time—and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. But when wolfing down a super-late dinner or indulging in midnight treats becomes a regular (or nightly) occurrence, it actually isn’t the best for sleep quality, for many reasons. Dr. Khan says that heartburn, stomach reflux, and high blood sugar levels—all things that can negatively impact sleep—can be prevented by having dinner earlier in the evening, at least two or three hours before bedtime to give your system enough time to get the digestive process going.
2. Switch to decaf.
Maybe you often down a second or third cup of coffee late in the day to power through, or drink a cup at night to burn the midnight oil. Since stimulants like caffeine inherently wake your body up, it makes sense to choose a stopping point for having them earlier in the day, so that you can enjoy a better night’s sleep. (P.S. caffeine can stay in your system for up to 12 hours!)
“Stop consuming stimulants, including caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, several hours before your intended bedtime,” Dr. Khan recommends.
3. Avoid super-late, high-intensity workouts.
For many of us, exercising after work is the only option, but if you’re able to exercise before work, over your lunch hour, or right when you get home, this might be ideal if you’re on the hunt for ways to improve your sleep.
“Exercise in the early evenings several hours before bedtime,” Dr. Khan says. “[Exercise] helps release a lot of mental and physical stress and improves metabolism. However, strenuous exercise should be avoided close to bedtime because it activates both body and mind, affecting sleep onset.”
4. Set an alarm—for bedtime.
You’re likely accustomed to setting your alarm for the morning, but have you thought about setting one for when it’s time to go to bed? Dr. Zweig recommends setting an alarm for when it’s time to go to bed—maybe even a little before so you have a signal to start your nighttime wind-down routine.
“Most of us have an alarm that tells us it’s time to wake, but our body also wants to be consistent about sleep,” Dr. Zweig says. “Set an alarm each night to nudge you to bed, rather than staying up to watch one more show.”
5. Don’t go to bed earlier if you need to wake up earlier.
Yes, you read that right. When we anticipate an especially early morning, many of us go to bed early to try to grab some extra shuteye, but this is actually counterproductive. According to Dr. Khan, going to bed early can lead to frequent awakenings during the night, which worsens sleep quality. Instead, simply go to bed at your regular time, resulting in better-quality sleep.
6. Write a to-do list.
Say goodbye to those middle-of-the-night Post It notes! “Write a to-do list before bed,” Dr. Zweig says. He admits that this doesn’t sound like the best idea, since that list might be stressful and overwhelming, but it’s actually a wise habit—it can put your mind at ease before hitting the pillow.
“When you write it down, it helps you feel confident that you won’t forget something and be more prepared for the next day,” he continues. “You can go to bed more easily knowing the list will still be waiting for you in the morning, rather than worrying you might forget an important item.”
7. Lower your thermostat.
Dr. Zweig says that repeated studies show that we sleep better in cool environments. That’s why it’s smart to set your thermostat between 65 and 67 before bed, as Dr. Zweig recommends. “Our body temperature drops when we sleep,” he says. “A cooler bedroom helps facilitate this release of heat.”
8. Avoid screens.
You may have heard what’s quickly becoming an age-old adage, but it’s still true: avoid all electronics for at least one to two hours before bed. This includes the TV, computer, tablet, and smartphone. They all “emit blue light,” Dr. Zweig says, which “interferes with your body’s internal clock.“
“Shutting devices down well before bed allow your body and mind to prepare for sleep,” he adds. In our always-plugged-in society, this can be a tough ask, but your body will thank you for it come bedtime.
9. Engage in relaxing activities.
You know those nights when you take a warm bath and then head to bed, you tend to sleep more peacefully? Well, there’s something to that. Generally, experts agree that relaxation-promoting habits like a calming, warming bath before bed can help you sleep better. Actually, taking a bath has more than just calming effects: Research has found that taking a warm bath one to two hours before going to bed promotes faster sleep onset because as your body cools down after the bath, this temperature drop helps encourage natural sleep.
Dr. Khan says that relaxing pre-sleep activities can include listening to calm music, taking a hot shower or bath, and drinking warm liquids such as non-caffeinated tea.
“For the mind to switch into sleep mode, it requires a state of calmness,” he explains. “Warm liquids and foods, a [satisfied] stomach, and a cozy feeling of warmth promote sleep onset, while cooler temperatures [in your sleep environment] help maintain better sleep.”
Dr. Zweig says that any relaxation method, from meditation to reading a fiction book, helps the body and mind relax and transition from fully awake to resting, and eventually sleep.
“We need to transition slowly to sleep,” he notes. “Most of us know that it’s very difficult to even consider sleep when we’re in a state of excitement. Your mind and body need time to adjust from a state of heightened intensity to relaxation.”
10. Do some stretches.
“Do some stretches before getting in bed,” Dr. Khan suggests. “Joint stretching is associated with a sense of stress release and relaxation and promotes better sleep. Yin Yoga, a form of yoga that involves several minutes of staying in the same pose while gently stretching joints and ligaments, is one such activity that is beneficial.”