Between work, family obligations and your personal life, chances are you think about the quality of your sleep only when your head hits the pillow -- or when you wake up exhausted the next morning. But that's a mistake -- your body has a natural clock, called a circadian rhythm, that needs to be taken care when you're awake, not just when you climb into bed.
"Look at sleep as a whole process throughout your day," said Holly Stokes, a relaxation expert based in Utah. "The more you take care of your whole system, the more that creates balance with your circadian rhythm." Plan ahead with smart relaxation and dietary choices throughout the day, and you'll be rewarded with a deep, refreshing sleep at night.
6 to 8 Hours Before Bed: Your Midafternoon Slump
It's natural to face a little energy slump in midafternoon. But don't be tempted to turn to full-caff coffee or tea to up your energy. You'll want to cut out caffeine at this point in the day or it might interfere with sleep, said Janel Funk, a registered dietitian based in Boston.
Even if you're convinced your late-day caffeine fix isn't getting in the way of sleep, try cutting it out earlier. "Some clients tell me they can drink coffee until 10 p.m. and fall right to sleep," said Funk. "My response is: Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Similar to alcohol, it can affect our deep sleep and our quality of sleep."
Instead, sip on naturally caffeine-free herbal tea, or switch to decaf tea or coffee.
4 to 6 Hours Before Bed: As You're Leaving Work
Feeling like you're on-call 24/7 keeps your brain from relaxing, which makes it harder to sleep. "Let go of work before you walk in the door," Stokes said. "That lowers stress and reduces the mind's tendency to replay work issues."
Develop a consistent routine at the end of your workday, such as writing out your next day's to-do list. Then take five minutes to refocus and relax, she said. Sit quietly in your office or car and visualize walking into your home, focusing on the positive feelings of seeing your loved ones and relaxing after your workday. Breathe deeply and picture white, relaxing light filling your body and cleansing you until you've diffused your work-related stress.
Pair your relaxation with at least 10 minutes of physical activity -- walking, yoga or stretching -- to dissipate stress. And avoid checking your work email at home.
2 to 4 Hours Before Bed: At the Dinner Table
Capping your day with healthy meals can help you fall asleep, Funk said. She recommends dinners rich in high-quality carbohydrates and protein -- such as grilled fish and quinoa or barley and chicken breast, served with your favorite veggies -- for healthy slumber. Protein-rich foods contain tryptophan, an amino acid with sleep-inducing effects, and healthy carbs help you process tryptophan properly.
Munch on cherries and walnuts -- two natural sources of melatonin, a hormone that naturally regulates your body's sleep cycle. Funk recommends pork served with a fresh cherry glaze, a snack-size cherry smoothie or 1 ounce of walnuts.
How much food you'll need at night varies from person to person, but you should practice moderation for a good night's sleep. "Eat until you're satisfied, not stuffed," she said. "Overeating increases the production of stomach acid. That can cause problems, like heartburn, that interfere with deep sleep."
1 Hour Before Bed: Unwinding for the Night
Tidy up any mess in your bedroom as you wind down for the day. "All too often, people clutter up their room with electronics, TVs, and piles of laundry," Stokes said. "But keeping your bedroom clear of clutter cues your brain to relax."
Keep electronics, such as your phone or laptop in the living room, and avoid electronics for at least an hour before bedtime. Blue light, like the type emitted from TVs, laptops, tablets and smartphones, signals the brain to feel more alert, she said. Limiting your light cues your brain to relax and prepare for sleep.
As You Hit the Pillow
Take five to 10 minutes before bed to reflect on any concerns or stresses of the day, Stokes said. Write down any pressing issues or last-minute tasks for tomorrow, and take note of any thoughts that lead your brain to relax or cause you stress. Over time, this exercise helps you tap into effective sleep cues that you can use to fall into a deep sleep.
As you climb into bed, focus on the process your brain goes through as you fall asleep. "Imagine turning off the lights in the rooms of your mind," recommended Stokes. This helps you relax as your brain winds down, so you can fall into a deep sleep.
If the Hours Pass By
If it's "one of those nights" and deep sleep isn't happening, don't fight it. "The brain remembers our situation and creates cues based on our history," Stokes said, so a pattern of clock-watching and stressing in bed actually makes it harder to sleep in the future. Break the cycle by going to another room to read, writing down any thoughts or concerns, or listening to relaxing music or ocean sounds until you feel drowsy. When you return to bed, repeat your relaxation exercises to slip into slumber.
Over time, your brain learns to associate going to bed with relaxation, she said, so sleep will come more easily.
Sleeping Through Depression
If you're suffering from depression or anxiety, lack of sleep creates a vicious cycle. People with depression may find it more difficult to get to sleep or may wake up during the night, and that chronic lack of sleep can worsen depression symptoms.
Meditation exercise in the evening can help with depression-related sleep problems, said Andrew Westwood, MD, sleep specialist at ColumbiaDoctors Midtown in New York. Westwood also emphasizes the importance of a structured sleep schedule if you have depression. "Having a routine and following that routine seven days a week is really important." Practice relaxation techniques daily, and stick to the same sleep and wake times to develop good sleeping habits.
If you're struggling with difficulty sleeping despite behavioral changes, consult your physician or make an appointment at a sleep clinic for guidance.