We hear a whole lot about morning routines that help facilitate a more productive day—whether it be exercising, drinking a full glass of water, meditating, or having a healthy breakfast. But in order to set yourself up for a good start to the day, you have to invest in the end of the day, too.
Below, we break down the nuts and bolts of why evening bedtime routines are so important for better sleep and overall well-being, along with specific activities to try (and avoid).
The science behind why evening wind-down routines are important
Excitement or stress prior to bedtime causes an increase in the body’s sympathetic nervous system activation. When this occurs, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that circulate blood to vital organs and muscles.
Your heart rate increases, your breath quickens, your muscles tense, beads of sweat form...sound familiar? It’s your “fight or flight” response, which evolved as a survival mechanism to enable people (we’re talkin’ hunter gatherers-era) to quickly react to life-threatening situations.
When this occurs before bedtime, it can run interference with sleep onset (the ability to fall asleep) and sleep maintenance (the ability to stay asleep) by interfering with melatonin and disrupting our sleep-wake cycle. That’s why a wind-down nighttime routine with less stimulating activities is so important for quality, restful sleep.
When should you begin your wind-down routine?
There’s no hard and fast rule here since it depends on your lifestyle and the amount of free time you reasonably have in the evening. If possible, we recommend starting at least one hour prior to bedtime—but remember, a short wind-down routine is far better than no routine at all.
6 science-backed activities to incorporate in your evening routine
Far too often, we’re told by a Google search or our healthcare provider to do things like meditate without actually getting a step-by-step blueprint of HOW to do this. Plus, if you’ve ever tried it, you’ll attest to the fact that meditation is far, far easier said than done—and it’s not for everyone.
Below, we list specific, doable activities to try incorporating into your nightly routine to begin cultivating healthy habits.
1. Closure of the day exercise
Although we are generally less distracted at nighttime, the mind may start to kick around thoughts from the day that were not addressed. That’s why we recommend a “closure of the day” exercise, which will signal that you have already thought about these things.
Here’s how: reflect on your day, make a to-do list for the following day, and address any thoughts that come up by journaling. This practice of setting aside time at the end of a long day will help you essentially “close up shop” and prevent any free-floating thoughts from arising at bedtime or in the middle of the night.
2. Engage in a relaxing activity like folding laundry
It sounds simple, but the repetitive act of folding laundry—which doesn’t require much thought or sky-high energy levels but can’t be done while you’re scrolling through Instagram—is a great way to calm down after the workday. Our head sleep science advisor, Allison Siebern, PhD, CBSM, often recommends this tactic to her patients.
3. Another relaxing activity to try? Doing dishes.
"I sometimes wait to do my dishes and wipe down my kitchen until right before bedtime," explains Lauren Hoogs, one of Proper's expert sleep coaches. "It feels like I'm completing something and staying away from electronics."
4. Engage in light exercise or mind-body movement such as yoga, qigong, or tai chi
Engaging in movement allows you to wind down at the conclusion of the day, but you want to prioritize low-intensity exercise because when you get your heart pumping, it increases core body temperature at a time when it should be dropping in preparation for sleep onset.
Not sure where to start? Try Glo, an online platform with 3,000 on-demand yoga videos across 12 different styles (vinyasa, hatha, yin, kundalini, and restorative).
5. Listen to a sleep podcast
From white noise to bedtime sleep stories, ASMR to guided mindfulness meditations, these podcasts will help you unplug, de-stress, relax, and fall asleep.
6. Brew a cup of chamomile tea
It’s rich in flavonoids, a group of natural plant chemicals (aka phytonutrients) that, in addition to contributing to the vivid hues of fruits and vegetables, also contribute to its sleep-promoting effects. Clinical trials suggest that it functions as a central nervous system relaxer (similar to valerian). Chamomile extract has been shown to improve sleep quality and may be effective and safe for supporting general anxiety.
Our go-to here at Proper is Art of Tea's Egyptian Chamomile blend, which is packaged in an eco-friendly biodegradable sachet. It has a light floral smell with a subtle hint of sweetness—perfect to ease you into a good night's sleep.
Additional tips to optimize your evening routine
Dim the bright lights + blue lights 1-2 hours prior to bedtime
The light receptors in the eyes are linked to the time-keeper in the brain that regulates when we sleep and when we are awake. Bright and blue light from things like watching Netflix, scrolling through social media, or late-night shopping on Amazon confuses this signal and may keep us awake when we’re exposed to it within an hour or two of bedtime.
Don’t hang out in/on your bed before you go to sleep
The bed should be used for sleep and sex only, so if you’re hanging out during your wind-down routine, try and do it elsewhere. If this is impossible due to limited space or mobility, have a daytime look for the bed that you swap out at night (e.g., different pillows, sitting up rather than laying down, etc).
Here’s the science behind why: if the bed becomes associated in our minds with activities besides sleep, it is confusing for the brain to ALSO associate the bed with sleep. The goal? Bed = sleep, not bed = active mind and not sleeping.
Cut the caffeine
Caffeine—which can be found in tea, coffee, soda, energy drinks, and dark chocolate—has a half-life of 5-6 hours, or longer for people taking different types of medication. Sensitivities to caffeine vary, but because it’s a stimulant, it may cause difficulties in the onset of sleep if it’s still in your body’s system come bedtime. That’s why, as a general rule of thumb, we recommend limiting caffeine intake to before 2pm; however, if you are sensitive to the effects of caffeine and/or typically go to bed around 10pm, you wouldn’t want to consume it after 12-1pm in the afternoon.
Not-so-fun fact: there’s usually small amounts of caffeine in decaf coffee (yes, decaf!). That’s why we recommend Swiss Water, which uses a patented, chemical-free process to gently remove 100% of the caffeine while preserving the coffee’s original characteristics.
...and the alcohol
Yes, alcohol can be relaxing. But it may have adverse sleep effects if consumed too close to bedtime (within 3-4 hours), including fragmented and non-refreshing sleep, increased snoring, delayed onset of REM sleep (the dream stage), and more frequent bathroom breaks.
As an alternative, try Seedlip, the world’s first distilled, non-alcoholic spirit based on original remedies published in 1651 in The Art of Distillation. The sugar-free spirits are made with carefully sourced herbs, spices, peels, and barks such as blood orange, lemongrass, ginger, oak, mandarin, cardamom, and more.
...and the large meals
Although everyone is different, the best practice from a sleep hygiene standpoint is to refrain from eating a large meal within three hours of bedtime. If you’re hungry within that window, try reducing the quantity to a small bedtime snack and steering clear of carbohydrate-heavy, high-fat, fried, and/or spicy foods, which engage the digestive system to work on processing the meal. Foods with a high glycemic index should be avoided as well since they spike your blood sugar.
Interested in learning more about your circadian rhythm? We've got a full run-down of exactly how it affects your sleep-wake cycle whether you're a night owl (delayed sleep phase circadian types), morning lark, or somewhere in between.