11 Ideas for Sleep Routines to Improve Nighttime Rest

Featured image for article on sleep routines with essential oil and lavender in the background

Insomnia is miserable. Frequently, the harder you try to will yourself to sleep, the harder it is to rest and the more awake you feel. Thankfully, creating a simple pre-bedtime sleep routine can help you get the sleep you need.

The good news is that you don't need to create a complicated sleep schedule to enhance your sleep. The idea is to subconsciously prepare your mind for sleep, so you only need to incorporate one or two of the following ideas. 

The following eleven suggestions are recommended ways to help you relax and enhance your sleep quality.

1. Calm Yourself with Essential Oils

Certain essential oils promote calmness or relaxation, which may help you achieve a better night’s sleep. 

Researchers aren’t entirely sure how they work, but some theories exist. Experts believe when an essential oil is inhaled, the molecules attach themselves to the olfactory bulb in the nasal passages. They then transmit signals to the brain responsible for behavioral and emotional responses.

Once the brain receives these signals, neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins are released that induce an associated effect. Serotonin promotes a feeling of calmness and may also increase melatonin production. Endorphins have a soothing effect. 

The most commonly used essential oils for relaxation are lavender, chamomile, ylang-ylang, peppermint, bergamot, cedarwood, marjoram, eucalyptus, and sandalwood. You can diffuse them, put a few drops on your pillow and bedding, or mix them with a carrier oil (almond, coconut, jojoba) for topical application. 

Image of a bottle of essential oils next to candles

2. Quiet Your Mind with Meditation

Regular meditation can improve your sleep quality too. Practicing meditation and mindfulness teaches people to relax their bodies and mind, helping them achieve more restful sleep. Studies also show that meditation reduces cortisol levels, the hormone associated with stress, and increases natural melatonin levels.

Through deep breathing and visualization, meditation teaches you to observe and accept your thoughts. Without dwelling on the thoughts and emotions, you can let them go and quiet a jumbled brain without judging yourself or your feelings. 

There are numerous ways to meditate, and it may take you some trial and error to figure out what works. To get started, look for free guided meditation exercises or tutorials online. 

Image of a young woman sitting in her bed meditating.

3. Put Your Thoughts Down on Paper

One of the biggest roadblocks to falling asleep is quieting a busy or overactive mind. The longer you lay there trying to settle your thoughts, the more they swirl, and sleep slips further away. Journaling is a tried and true method that helps sort out your thoughts and calm your mind, helping to speed up sleep onset.

Before bed, sit down and journal about your day for a few minutes, reflecting on what you are grateful for. 

If you don’t want to journal specifically, start by writing down the things occupying your thoughts. For most people, this is a to-do list for the next day. Jotting these ideas down eases the state of your brain. Instead of trying to remember these critical tasks, your mind can rest, and you’ll find yourself falling asleep quicker.

4. Ease the Stress of the Day with Stretching

Taking five or ten minutes to unwind with some stretching at the end of the day is essential for improving blood flow and relieving muscle tension. Both of these promote muscle recovery and enhanced sleep quality. Research shows that stretching can improve chronic insomnia similarly to moderately-intense resistance exercises.

A screenshot of an article of the effects of stretching on sleep

Using the following stretches, focus on the areas of your body that feel the most stressed. The more you can relax your body before going to sleep, the more restorative and refreshing the rest. 

  • Cat-Cow
  • Child’s Pose
  • Figure 4-Stretch
  • Standing Quad Stretch
  • Neck Stretch
  • Supine Spinal Twist
  • Butterfly

5. Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

Progressive muscle relaxation—PMR—is a technique dating back to the 1930s where you briefly tighten a group of muscles, relax, and move to a neighboring set. This simple strategy is a tried-and-true remedy for easing insomnia and other sleeping difficulties. 

PMR is also called deep muscle relaxation, or Jacobson’s relaxation, as Dr. Edmund Jacobson developed it to help reduce anxiety in his patients. Working through fourteen different muscle groups, the technique focuses on tightening and relaxing muscles in sequence to remove tension. 

This therapy is the most scientifically supported relaxation exercise. It has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety and stress and foster relaxation in only fifteen minutes, helping you to fall asleep.

Screenshot of an article about relaxation's effects on sleep

6. Drink a Cup of Chamomile Tea

Non-caffeinated herbal teas, especially ones with chamomile, are another gentle way to calm the mind and induce sleepiness. 

Chamomile tea works as a mild sedative because of its chemical properties. Extracts from the plant contain apigenin, which induces tiredness when it binds to the brain’s GABA receptors. These receptors are the same ones that commonly bind to molecules in anti-anxiety drugs that have a calming effect. Hence, when apigenin binds to them, you experience a sedated, relaxing effect.

Once you fall asleep, chamomile can also help improve your sleep quality so you feel rested and refreshed. 

An image of a kettle of chamomile tea in a glass pot sitting on top of a wood table.

7. Indulge in a Warm Shower or Bath

Throughout the day, your body goes through different metabolic changes that correlate with your sleep-wake cycle. Some of the most notable changes are a rise in melatonin production and a drop in your core body temperature late in the day to help transition and prepare you for bed. As these changes happen, you’ll find yourself getting sleepy.

Scientists have discovered they can trigger a similar sleepy state by mimicking a nighttime drop in body temperature through a warm shower or bath. About an hour before you are headed to bed, take a warm bath or shower, keeping the temperature moderate but not overly hot.

The water causes your body to heat up initially, but then once you get out, it cools down quickly when the water evaporates. In turn, it mimics the sensation that makes you feel relaxed and tired.

8. Treat Yourself to a Foot Soak

If you’d rather not take a warm bath or shower, how about a relaxing foot soak instead? The practice of foot bathing is common in many cultures, including Japanese and Chinese therapeutic traditions. Like bathing, soaking your feet can help lower your core body temperature and promote restful sleep.

Why, then, does soaking your feet help with sleep?

Warming the extremities like this causes peripheral blood vessels to dilate. Body heat then dissipates from your core and moves to your feet. When your core temperature is lower and your distal temperature (hands and feet) is higher, you experience reduced sleep latency and improved sleep quality.

Aim for a temperature of 104°F (40°C) to reap the maximum benefits and soak for twenty minutes. Add a few drops of your favorite relaxing essential oil to the water to improve your sleep even more.

A screenshot of an article about foot soak's effects on sleep

9. Fill the Background with White Noise

White noise is commonly used in nurseries or bedrooms to help babies and young children sleep, covering noise from neighboring rooms or rambunctious siblings. But sleeping with white noise in the background can help everyone sleep better.

White noise contains all frequencies across the audible sound spectrum in equal amounts. Because of this, people often liken it to static found between radio stations. Research has shown white noise lowers anxiety levels and helps people fall asleep quicker and stay asleep better through the night.

10. Turn on Some Calming Music 

Music is another helpful way to improve nighttime rest; it helps you feel relaxed and at ease. 

To get the best benefits of music, it’s best to set the volume low and choose slow melodies with no words. Ideally, you want to play the same songs nightly (remember, the human body craves routine).

An easy way to enjoy music before bed is to create a calming playlist you can listen to every night on your phone or through a home assistant like Alexa or Google Home.

An image of someone pressing a button on an alexa music device

11. Bring the Binaural Beats

Listening to binaural beats is another way to get better sleep. Binaural beats are an illusion or trick your brain creates when it simultaneously hears two slightly different tones. The different tones align with brain waves to produce a beat with a different frequency, unlike either original tone. 

The frequency of the binaural beat is the difference between the two tones in hertz (Hz). They can be created at different frequencies that correspond to various brainwave activities.

So far, preliminary research suggests binaural beats help improve sleep. A study using them at a frequency of 3 Hz induced delta wave patterns in the brain, lengthening stage three deep sleep.

Some experts speculate binaural beats have more to do with how they affect a person’s mood versus the induction of brain wave patterns. They may bring on mental relaxation that allows listeners to drift into a mental state, like when meditating. 

However they work, they’re effective.

Why Are Sleep Routines Important?

At their most basic function, bedtime routines establish habits that help our brains to recognize when it’s time to sleep. When you continuously repeat the same activities in the same order nightly, over time, your brain sees this routine as a precursor to bed. Your mind and body will naturally relax, you can clear your mind of troubling thoughts, and you’ll find yourself falling asleep peacefully. 

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