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Wind-Down Time: The Key to Healthy, Natural Sleep

From the moment you wake up, you’re going a mile-a-minute. Wind-down time before bed allows your brain and body to slow down so you can get the sleep you need.
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Woman sitting by fireplace winding down by writing in her journal

Have you ever gotten in bed after a long day only to find yourself tossing and turning, continuing to ruminate about recent events and to stress about tomorrow’s to-do list, instead of actually sleeping? It’s a very common problem in our culture, which encourages an “always on” mentality. Unfortunately, we can’t always be “on,” and missing out on needed sleep will make it all the more difficult for you to wake up and get that to-do list done the next day.

Good sleep hygiene is essential to get the most out of the time you spend in bed. A crucial component of this is wind-down time, which can mitigate late-night anxiety. A good wind-down routine encompasses more than a bedtime routine: It begins a couple of hours before bedtime and can include a variety of activities designed to help you destress and prepare for sleep. 

Read on to learn when to plan your wind-down time, the basic components of a good wind down routine, some sample wind-down activities, and how the RISE app can help.

When Should Your Wind-Down Time Begin?

RISE app screenshot showing how to personalize your evening wind-down routing
The RISE app tells you when to begin your evening wind down and suggests appropriate activities.

Ideally, your wind-down time should begin 1-2 hours before you plan to fall asleep. (Your planned sleep time should take into account your unique sleep need.) 

Your wind-down time will include your wind-down routine activities and your bedtime. Make sure your bedtime is not the same time you plan to fall asleep. Since your sleep efficiency is likely less than 100%, you’ll need at least a 30-minute buffer between your bedtime and your sleep time to account for the time it takes you to fall asleep.

As you plan your ideal sleep schedule (which includes a sufficient wind-down), you’ll want to factor in your circadian rhythm and sleep debt.

Circadian Rhythm

Circadian rhythm, also known as the body’s internal clock, determines your daily energy schedule. We all have energy peaks and dips throughout the day, but when exactly these occur will be different for everyone. It depends on your genetics (namely, your chronotype) as well as your recent activities (chief among them, your recent sleep-wake times, and the recent timing of light exposure, exercise, and food intake). 

In the evening, you will experience your second energy peak, and a few hours later, your Melatonin Window begins. This is the time of day when your body produces peak levels of melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone, which makes it the best time to go to sleep. Your wind-down routine should take place after your evening peak but before your Melatonin Window to help you transition into relaxation and prepare yourself to sleep.

Before you begin your wind-down routine, you’ll have the most success if you use your evening energy peak to take care of anything stressful, such as any remaining work you still have to get done. Taking full advantage of your evening energy peak will help you transition more naturally into your wind-down routine. It’s an opportunity to head off any stress that might otherwise interfere with your sleep.

The RISE app determines your unique circadian rhythm and will tell you exactly when all your energy peaks and dips, including your Melatonin Window, are set to happen on any given day. Additionally, it provides recommendations for appropriate activities for each of these peaks and dips. It also tells you when to begin your wind-down time.

Sleep Debt

The other process in the two-process model of sleep is sleep debt, or the amount of sleep you’ve missed (compared to how much you needed) over the past two weeks. In order to know how much sleep debt you have, you first need to know your individual sleep need, a genetically determined trait like height or eye color. Most adults need about 8 hours and 10 minutes of sleep each night (give or take 44 minutes), but about 13.5% of adults need 9 hours or more.

Any time you don’t meet your individual sleep need for the night, you accrue sleep debt. Thankfully, a well-timed, consistent wind-down routine is a strong defense against sleep debt. Taking the time to decelerate your mind and body at the end of the day will reduce sleep latency (the time it takes you to fall asleep) as well as sleep fragmentation (the number of times you wake up throughout the night). In other words, it will keep you from tossing and turning at night — allowing you to meet your sleep need more easily.

The RISE app determines your individual sleep need and tells you how much sleep debt you have every day, and it also recommends ways to catch up on sleep debt.

The Elements of a Proper Wind-Down Time

RISE app screenshot of brain dump which allows you to write down thoughts
The RISE app has a brain dump feature, allowing you to write down any thoughts you'd like to get out of your head that might prevent you from getting the sleep you need.

A good wind-down routine has many benefits. It’s a crucial time to transition your body from the stresses of daily life to a healthy, natural night of sleep. Benefits of a wind-down include: 

  • Helping you relax and destress, like a natural sleep medicine
  • Providing the drop in core body temperature needed for sleep
  • Acting as a crucial bulwark against bright indoor light that inhibits sleep

Ultimately, all of these benefits help to maximize your sleep efficiency so you can get the most out of your time in bed, keeping your sleep debt low and daily energy levels high.

Additionally, a proper wind-down routine has other scientifically proven advantages independent from its sleep-boosting benefits. For example, it’s shown to help you disconnect from work, which can head off burnout.

Now that we know about the benefits of a good wind-down routine, let’s talk about what a good wind-down routine looks like. A variety of factors need to be considered in order to make sure your wind-down time is sleep-promoting.

Stick to a Consistent Sleep Schedule

As much as possible, try to make sure your wind-down routine, bedtime, and wake time all happen at roughly the same time each day and are aligned with your circadian rhythm. When you go to sleep and wake up at different times from night to night, you may experience social jet lag, which will deplete your energy levels even if you’re getting enough sleep. Sticking to a consistent schedule will allow you to get the most out of your wind-down routine and subsequent sleep.

Dim the Lights

Bright light serves as a natural cue to your body that it’s time to wake up. This is great in the morning when it’s time to arise, but in the evening, it delays melatonin production, which in turn delays your Melatonin Window. As such, you’ll want to limit light exposure as much as possible during your wind-down routine. Dim (or turn off) the lights as much as you can, and make sure any lights you leave on are warm colors, such as orange.

Blue light is of particular concern, as it interferes with melatonin production more than any other color light. Nearly all electronic devices emit blue light. There are several ways to combat this. You can avoid screen time during your wind-down routine and put your smartphone on its “do not disturb” setting so you aren’t tempted to look at notifications either. If you don’t want to avoid devices and screens all together, you can switch your devices to "sleep mode" or “night mode,” which will limit blue light. We also recommend you wear blue-light blocking glasses.

If you do choose to use electronic devices at night, consider what sort of activities you're doing. Scrolling through social media is generally not conducive to feelings of relaxation, even if you're wearing your blue-light blocking glasses. Consider listening to a relaxing podcast or playlist instead of doing anything more engaging.

Prepare Your Bedroom for Sleep

As a general rule, you’ll want to keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet while sleeping. In addition to limiting light exposure before bed, it’s also a good idea to lower the temperature of your room to somewhere between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. This will help prime your body for sleep, since your body temperature naturally drops at night.

Engage in Relaxing Activities

Above all, your wind-down routine is a time for you to slow down, mentally decelerate, let go of any stress or anxiety, and relax. Not only will this help you sleep, but it is beneficial for your mental health as well. There are many activities that can help you relax, so it’s important to consider what will work best for you. Try any of the following activities for your wind-down routine or anything else you find relaxing.

Whichever of the below activities you choose for your wind-down routine, there is no need to stress about doing it perfectly! It’s OK to experiment and try new things, and it’s also OK if it takes you a little while to figure out the best routine for you. Remember, stress and anxiety are the enemy of sleep, so don’t create additional stress for yourself as you start experimenting with various relaxation techniques.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

The basic goal of progressive muscle relaxation is to tense a group of muscles as you inhale, then relax those muscles as you exhale. Those who have a tendency toward muscle spasms may want to avoid this technique, but otherwise, this can be a great way to help each muscle group relax fully. Progressive muscle relaxation has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve sleep in patients with COVID-19.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, helps to trigger the body’s relaxation response. This can create a virtuous cycle, as deep breathing relaxes you, and those feelings of relaxation will also naturally deepen your breathing. 

That said, many of us do not know how to breathe deeply. Try sitting in a chair and leaning forward all the way until your chest touches your legs (or as close as you can get it), and you will naturally start taking diaphragmatic breaths. Lying on your back will also cause your body to take diaphragmatic breaths.

Relaxation Sounds

Relaxing sounds and music can promote feelings of calm. In fact, relaxing music has been shown to improve sleep efficiency in patients with PTSD. Choose music or sounds with a slow rhythm, anything that has a calming effect on you.

Mindfulness Exercises and Meditation

A growing body of evidence suggests mindfulness meditation can improve sleep. That said, as with everything else, meditation is not for everyone. If you don’t like the idea of sitting in silence with your eyes closed, you can try recorded guided meditations. You also do not necessarily need to be sitting still in order to practice mindfulness exercises.

The RISE app has a “Meditate” reminder that can be added to your wind-down routine.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching such as yoga can help to gently release tension at the end of the day and prepare you for sleep. It is also possible to combine yoga with mindfulness exercises, and to practice mindfulness while stretching dynamically.

The RISE app has a “Stretch or Yoga” activity in the app that can be added to your routine.

Warm Bath or Shower

Warm water will counterintuitively help your body lower its core temperature once you are out of the bath or shower, which will further prime you for sleep.

Journal Writing

Writing your thoughts down in a journal is a great way to get them out of your mind. This can be especially helpful when dealing with stress. Take a few minutes to write down everything you are stressed about, and you may find you don’t feel as stressed once you’ve gotten it all out. Writing down the next day’s to-do list will also help you stop ruminating about the future. Once it’s written down, you don’t have to worry about remembering it.

The RISE app has a “brain dump” feature, allowing you to write down anything you’d like to stop thinking about for the duration of the evening and night.

Read or Watch Something Relaxing

Many people find reading something familiar and/or watching reruns of a favorite show to be very relaxing. Choose content that won’t get you riled up. Anything lighthearted will work fine. Make sure you are watching TV responsibly at night (including combating the blue light emitted from your laptop or TV).

Use the RISE App to Plan Your Wind-Down Time

RISE app screenshot showing your energy peak and dip times
The RISE app shows your unique energy schedule every day, including peaks and dips as well as appropriate activities.

As we mentioned earlier, one of the most important components of your wind-down routine is figuring out when to schedule it (and subsequently when to get into bed so that you’re getting a full night of sleep). The RISE app can help with this. It tracks your Energy Schedule every day, letting you know when energy peaks and dips are set to begin. It alerts you at the beginning of your Melatonin Window, and it also lets you know the best time to begin winding down.

Additionally, the RISE app can help you plan and remember to do your wind-down routine. Go to the “Energy” tab and add the “Evening Routine” habit to your Energy Schedule. The app will offer suggested activities, which you can select and then refine over time. Use this feature to help you figure out a daily wind-down routine that works best for you.

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Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.
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