We’ve all been there.
You tuck yourself into bed earlier than usual, feeling a bit smug with yourself and your adult choice to prioritise a healthy sleep cycle, not to mention excited at the prospect of getting a long, restful night’s sleep.
But suddenly it’s 3am and you’re still tossing and turning. When did sleeping get so difficult? Maybe you’ve even started counting how many hours of sleep you’ll get if you manage to fall asleep right this instant. You squeeze your eyes shut harder, already anticipating the shrill ring of the alarm clock that will inevitably interrupt the 4-hours-at-best shuteye you eventually get through sheer exhaustion.
The reason why your body (frustratingly) won’t just go along with your spontaneous early night is because, in all likelihood, your circadian rhythm is out of whack. If you’ve never heard that phrase before, circadian simply refers to the 24-hour timing system that pervades all kingdoms of life, and optimises behaviour and physiology in humans. Your circadian rhythm is what helps to make sure the body’s processes are optimised at various points during a 24-hour period.
The key to getting a good night’s sleep is to align our sleep and wakefulness with day and night. Luckily, there are lots of things we can do to send cues to our body to let it know when it’s time to rest vs. when it’s time to wake up, in order to create a stable cycle of restorative sleep.
Eating and drinking
Let’s start with the basics: if you want to sleep well, don’t drink caffeine before bed. No, it’s not a myth - studies have found that caffeine intake 6 hours before bedtime has significant disruptive effects on sleep, supporting sleep hygiene recommendations to refrain from substantial caffeine use for a minimum of 6 hours before bedtime.
Swap your favourite afternoon cup of joe for a less stimulating beverage, like our MAGIC Raw Hot Chocolate, which contains reishi mushroom and ashwagandha, to lower cortisol levels, promote relaxation and improve your sleep cycle.
If you find yourself lagging late afternoon and reaching for the coffee, check out these energy boosting caffeine alternatives!
Okay, no caffeine. But how about a nightcap to help you drift off quicker?
Sadly, a glass of wine before bed isn’t exactly the epitome of good sleep hygiene either. It might make you feel sleepy, but studies show that it reduces melatonin production, disrupting your circadian rhythm. Alcohol also stops you reaching the crucial ‘REM’ stage, essential for a satisfying night’s sleep, early in the night, meaning your body must catch-up later in the night. Sleep disruption from alcohol can therefore contribute to next-day fatigue, irritability and difficulty concentrating, so make sure you allow 3 to 4 hours between drinking and bedtime.
To optimise your sleep cycle, you should probably also try and cut out the late night snacks. Studies have found that food intake late at night is correlated with negative effects on sleep quality - however, it’s not just when you eat, but also what. Essential amino acid tryptophan is known for its ability to help people fall asleep, so if you’re finding it difficult to drift off, try munching on some plant-based sources of tryptophan, such as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or soybeans (fun fact: one study found that the odds of sleep quality were 2.5x more likely with soybean intake!)
Exercise has loads of great health benefits, including better sleep. On the simplest level, exercise tires you out, increasing sleep onset and improving quality of sleep. For example, the 2013 Sleep in America poll found that 76-83% of respondents who engaged in light, moderate, or vigorous exercise reported good sleep quality, compared to 56% of those who did not exercise.
However, as physical activity speeds up your metabolism, elevates body temperature, and stimulates hormones such as cortisol, exercising too close to bed can interfere with sleep. So while exercise in the day is certainly conducive to a good night’s sleep, make sure you’re not doing anything too vigorous before bedtime. If you do feel like moving before bed, low-impact yoga or stretching can help promote sleep instead.
The light/dark cycle of the sun has a powerful effect on the circadian clock, which uses light and dark to predict what you’re going to do in the future, when to prepare you for activity, and when to prepare for sleep - which is why a one-off early night often results in tossing and turning.
To optimise your sleep cycle, seek out natural light early in the morning, maximise bright light exposure during the day, and keep your room dim during the evenings. The availability of artificial light as a result of all our technological screens is responsible for increasing insomnia, as it changes the natural light environment.
You know what’s coming next… Limit artificial light before bed, dim your lights before you sleep, and put down your electronic devices in the lead up to bedtime. Sorry, I don’t make the rules!
You’ve been so good during the weekdays, you’ve finally reset your biological clock, and now you’re ready for a delicious weekend lie-in...
Turning off that alarm to snooze until noon might seem like it’s helping you catch up on sleep, but all that lie-in is doing is throwing your circadian rhythm off all over again, setting you up for an even more restless week.
Sleeping and waking up at the same time every day is the best way to optimise your sleep. If you’re going to bed at a decent time and getting enough sleep each night, your body should adapt to wake you up at a regular hour anyway, feeling adequately rested. If you need to catch up on sleep after a late night, have a short nap early in the afternoon, and limit it to around 20 minutes.
As helpful as tips about biological clocks and circadian rhythms are, they’re no use if you can’t get your mind to shut off! Everyone is different, so find time for things that you personally find relaxing as part of your wind-down routine.
Whether it’s something traditionally mindful, like deep breathing, meditation or yoga stretches, something creative like drawing, writing or even sewing, or something gently brain-engaging like reading a book or completing a crossword puzzle - if it helps you switch off, do it!
Establishing an actual nighttime routine is the most important part of fixing your circadian rhythm. Set the mood with your relaxing routine, make sure your bed is comfortable, the room is dark - and most of all, make sure you’re actually looking forward to sleeping.
Some suggestions for your wind-down routine: taking a warm bath/shower, meditation apps or audiobooks, finding a comforting scent or sleep spray for your pillow, making lists, knitting!
‘Circadian rhythm and sleep disruption: causes, metabolic consequences, and countermeasures’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5142605/
‘What is circadian rhythm?’ https://www.sleepfoundation.org/circadian-rhythm
‘Caffeine effects on sleep taken 0, 3 or 6 hours before going to bed’ https://jcsm.aasm.org/doi/10.5664/jcsm.3170
‘Impact of nicotine and other stimulants on sleep in young adults’ https://journals.lww.com/journaladdictionmedicine/Abstract/2019/06000/Impact_of_Nicotine_and_Other_Stimulants_on_Sleep.8.aspx
‘Evening alcohol suppresses salivary melatonin in young adults’ doi.org/10.1080/07420520701420675
‘Association between food intake and sleep pattern in healthy individuals’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3227713/
‘Influence of dietary intake on sleeping patterns of medical students’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6476615/
‘Tryptophan and sleep in young adults’ https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1469-8986.1972.tb03218.x
‘2013 sleep in America poll’ https://www.sleepfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/RPT336-Summary-of-Findings-02-20-2013.pdf?x16972
‘Effects of light on circadian rhythm’ https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/emres/longhourstraining/light.html
‘Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and mood’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6751071/‘Social jetlag: misalignment of biological and social time’ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16687322/