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Sleep Your Way to the Top

The ultimate evening routine for cutting stress, creating momentum, and cultivating happiness

Photo by Cris Saur on Unsplash

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As important as it is to start your day right, it’s equally important to end each day with intention. An evening routine not only honors the day you had, it prepares you for the tomorrow by generating massive momentum, productivity, focus, creativity, and energy — but you wouldn’t know it in a society that celebrates busyness over basic health.

The fact is that you cannot, and will not, be healthy if you are not actively optimizing your night routine. I’ve been tweaking my own for a few years, and the best version so far is below. Use it as a springboard for exploring what works for you.

1. Do a daily reflection

If you reflect on the things you did right, on your successes, that allows you to celebrate every little success. It allows you to realize how much you’ve done right, the good things you’ve done in your life.

— Leo Babauta

As my sons wash up before for bed, I spend five minutes answering the following questions:

  1. What were three amazing things that happened today?
  2. What’s one (or two) thing(s) I learned today?

The neurophysiology behind these exercises is that they get you out of your limbic system and into your neocortex. The limbic system is responsible for our emotions, among other things. It’s an older part of our brain, hardwired for survival. As such, it’s where our fearful thoughts reside.

In his book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Dr. Daniel Amen calls these thoughts ANTs, or Automatic Negative Thoughts. As you may have guessed from the name, we can’t control these thoughts. No amount of ohms or chants will get rid of them. But we can counter them. Brain exercises that selectively bias you toward positivity shift your neural activity to your neocortex — more specifically, to your left prefrontal cortex, which controls happiness and joy.

2. Reframe negative experiences

Our key to transforming anything lies in our ability to reframe it.

— Marianne Williamson

I always follow the exercise above with this question:

What’s one thing you could have handled better today?

If you had a challenging encounter with a coworker, family member, or friend, and didn’t express yourself or behave the way you wish you had, mentally re-enact the scenario in the way you’d like to have handled it.

Note that this is not an opportunity to use your best one-liner or create unnecessary drama. This exercise is designed to help prime you to act in accordance with the best version of yourself. You know, the loving, caring, intelligent, centered, strategic person you are.

When you reframe a negative experience by visualizing yourself acting as your highest self, the brain begins to create neural pathways that will be available to you when a similar scenario puts you to the test.

And it will.

Reflection and visualization prime you to get it right next time.

3. Play Tetris

Playing Tetris for 15 minutes is like meditation.

— Ezra Koenig

Yes, I know. The doctor is telling you to play a video game. The same doctor who tells you to reduce your exposure to devices and screens. But it’s not without good reason: Playing Tetris regularly has been shown to promote the growth of grey matter in the brain. In other words, adding it to your routine helps support your brain’s adaptability and flexibility — two crucial tools shown to help combat prominent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, and Parkinson’s.

There’s even a name for this link: The Tetris Effect. A study looked at MRI brain scans for two groups: those who played Tetris for 30 minutes a day, and those who did not. After three months, the participants who played Tetris had thicker grey matter than when the experiment began. As a result, playing Tetris has been shown to improve both long-term and working memory, spatial awareness, and depth perception. It also helps amplify your problem-solving abilities by regularly encouraging you to look at situations from various perspectives.

4. Make your to-do list for tomorrow, today

Brain extenders are anything that get information out of our heads and into the physical world: calendars, key hooks by the front door, notepads, ‘to do’ lists.

— Daniel Levitin

Identifying what you want to achieve tomorrow is an empowering way to end your day. When you wake up with a plan, you conserve that precious morning energy otherwise wasted on prioritizing tasks. We only have a finite amount of brain juice for decision-making each day, so any way to lighten the load for our future selves is a powerful gift.

Making a plan the night before also allows your brain to mull over tasks and problems overnight. A ninja trick I like use is directly asking my subconscious to work on a problem I’m dealing with. For reasons I’m unable to explain neurologically, making this conscious ask of my subconscious presents me with a new way of looking at the problem come morning.

5. Keep the same sleep and wake schedule (no matter what)

I wake up at about the same time every day. I sleep well and wake without an alarm clock.

— Donatella Versace

Starting and ending your day at the same time is incredibly important for long-term vitality, productivity, and focus.

We are creatures of habit, and we maintain those habits via circadian rhythms. Communication between the various clocks in our body and our master clock in the brain helps regulate our natural sleep and wake cycles.

The master clock in our brain is called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN). It’s sensitive to light, and it directs our wake and sleep cycles. It syncs itself with light that comes through the retina and regulates itself accordingly; then it coordinates with other, more peripheral body-clocks using neural or hormonal signals, core body temperature, or eating and fasting cues.

You can begin to see how late-night computer/device use, snacking, and large dinners throw off our internal clocks. Have you heard the phrase “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper”? Research suggests this may be the best way to optimize and sync our circadian rhythms.

Let’s walk through a common North American evening with our internal clocks in mind. Outside, the sky begins to darken. We should be preparing for rest. Instead, this is when our largest consumption of energy — dinner — takes place. And just like that, we’re already out of sync.

After dinner, maybe we watch TV (or browse social media on our devices), increasing the amount of light and stimulation reaching our central clock in the brain. This exposure inhibits the natural release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Or perhaps we skip the screens, instead pouring ourselves a glass of wine or indulging in a late-night snack. This creates circadian dissonance between the brain (which sees it’s dark outside) and the body (which is now full of energy to burn).

So when you eat late at night, the peripheral clocks in your liver, gut, and fat cells wake up — Hey! There’s new energy here! Time to rev things up and put this to good use! — while your brain is like: Whoa, there. It’s dark outside; time for bed.

More information on fasting and our internal circadian clocks here. Image credit: YassineMrabet via Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the best ways to sync your central and peripheral clocks is to stop eating after 7 p.m. Allowing the stomach several hours to empty (which is to say, while you are upright) will correct for mixed messages between your brain and body. Or, as a more general rule of thumb, stop eating 3-4 hours before bedtime to allow your stomach to empty itself completely before your nightly fast.

6. Oxygen levels dip in the evening

There’s a great metaphor that one of my doctors uses: If a fish is swimming in a dirty tank and it gets sick, do you take it to the vet and amputate the fin? No, you clean the water. So, I cleaned up my system. By eating organic raw greens, nuts and healthy fats, I am flooding my body with enzymes, vitamins and oxygen.

— Kris Carr

What to do without your usual post-dinner routines? A healthy replacement is to take a light, brisk walk. This will aid in digestion and, more importantly, help oxidize your body in preparation for a restful night’s sleep.

In a healthy individual, oxygen saturation rates should be 98%-100% during the day. If this is not the case, we can expect other vital markers, like heart rate, to be impacted over time. When your cells don’t get adequate oxygen, your heart has to work harder to pick up the slack. The adaptive response to less oxygen in the body is an elevated heart rate.

Tachycardia is one of the earliest signs of cardiovascular stress, and eventually, this can and will impact blood pressure. If your heart rate is chronically elevated because of poor oxygenation, the blood vessels — and their resistance to stretch — will negatively be impacted over time, as well.

So, one of the easiest ways to keep your heart healthy (and not overworked) is to make sure you are well-oxygenated. This is especially important as evening approaches, because our oxygen saturation normally drops by 4–5% after dark. Assuming you are at 98% during the day, you can be as low as 93% come evening. (Those with oxygenation levels of less than 98% during the day will also have proportionately less oxygen at night.)

Again, this is concerning because as oxygen saturation goes down, heart rate increases. The heart works harder, and, over time, this can lead to hypoxia — a pathological decrease in oxygen to the body. In the brain, it can lead to cognitive impairment, cognitive decline, and even stroke.

You always want your brain to have adequate amounts of oxygen. What you do during the day allows you to get through the night. In otherwise healthy individuals, here are a few more easy ways to improve oxygenation overnight:

  • Quit smoking if you haven’t already. This is a physical crime against your body
  • Brisk walks daily for 30 minutes (bonus points for walks in the evening after dinner)
  • Daily, focused breath work
  • Don’t sleep on your back with a pillow flexing your head forward, obstructing your airway and destroying your cervical curve
  • Add plants like snake plants or aloe vera to your bedroom — these plants typically absorb carbon dioxide overnight and release oxygen into the bedroom air.

7. Protect your bedroom

My bedroom is my sanctuary. It’s like a refuge, and it’s where I do a fair amount of designing — at least conceptually.

— Vera Wang

You should protect your sleeping space the way you protect other valuables in your life. A few suggestions:

  • Dim the lights in the evening and reduce your exposure to devices in the hours preceding bedtime
  • Reduce the temperature (somewhere between 60–65°F / 15–18°C is ideal)
  • Sleep with breathable clothing — or better yet, buck naked
  • Charge your phone in your kitchen (or anywhere that’s not your bedroom)
  • Remove all electronics from your bedroom (including the TV on the wall)

8. Boatloads of sex and orgasms

‘Sex’ is as important as eating or drinking and we ought to allow the one appetite to be satisfied with as little restraint or false modesty as the other.

— Marquis de Sade

The neurological and physiological benefits of sex are too important to ignore. All of our vital markers improve: cardiac output decreases, heart rate and blood pressure drop, breathing rate slows. It even aids in digestion. Not to mention the increased likelihood of intimacy, bonding, and connection with your partner. Your serotonin and dopamine levels are guaranteed to skyrocket. So take it from a doctor: there’s no better way to start your sleep than with an orgasm.

Dr. Stephanie Estima

Written by

Founder of The Keto Clean Program— www.drstephanieestima.com . Mother. Biohacker. Special interest in brain optimization, functional neurology and weight loss.

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