a science-driven guide to a good night’s sleep

a science-driven guide to a good night’s sleep

As a holistic health practitioner certified in complementary and integrative health, and Clinical Herbalism, Rachelle Robinett knows how sleep can impact everything from productivity to neuroprotection. As the founder of herbal cafe, Supernatural, she knows the plant for just about any ailment. But Robinett assures us that syncing circadian rhythms is just as much about the right routine. Here, she has a few notes to get us started.


tune into nature

If the goal is to feel tired when it’s time to fall asleep, we need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system—aka our “rest and digest” state—and minimize the “fight or flight” of the daily grind. The proof is in biology: we respond to daylight and nightlight at a cellular level.

Natural light (or absence of it) triggers the release of hormones that dictate how alert we are. The hormone cortisol is like our body’s morning cup of coffee, and a tuned-in body will release it in the morning to help wake us up. Melatonin is like our evening chill pill, which we get a shot of when our body senses that the sun is setting and the day is winding down. One study found that just a few more hours of light could shift a body clock by six hours in one week, making it essential to be sensitive to nature’s rhythms.


wake up and wind down with the sun

We can start harmonizing our body clocks by rising closer to sunrise. Check a weather app to see what time the sun comes up and set an alarm for the first couple of days. Look outside first thing in the morning for a dose of daylight, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Open window shades to let natural light into your space; or if they aren’t an option, consider a sunrise-simulating alarm clock and an early walk outside.

When we wake up with the sun, we need to rest with it, too. Impractical when office hours are long and near impossible when we have kids? Definitely. But by carving out the right time for our activities, we can aim to wind down as soon as humanly possible. Take exercise, which bumps up our heart rate, blood flow, and endorphins, making many of us feel energized rather than relaxed. If you’re one of them, try switching to a morning workout.

the proof is in biology: we respond to daylight and nightlight at a cellular level.


set the mood

Subtly coaxing the body and brain with evening ambiance is key for sleepier states. Explore ways your senses can lead you to a restful place: a candle, essential oil, or herbal tea. Lavender is known to calm, but your scent may be vanilla, patchouli, or sage. For some, deep, slow stretching is a physical way to unwind. For others, a few deep breaths may be enough. For all, take note of the setting sun and ways to bring the restful attention of the outdoors in.

Consider reducing all stimulation as the day wanes. I recommend dimming lights, turning music or television off, tidying up, and activating night-shift mode on phones and screens. Blue light from devices is similar to sunlight (without the benefits) and signals to the body that it needs to be awake—not what we want when we’re in need of REM.


plan ahead

When reshaping your schedule—sleeping more, rising earlier, or dozing sooner—take a look at the week and consider what it will take to do it. Getting to bed may mean eating an early dinner or saving Netflix for the weekend. And carving out a dedicated hour to a nightly routine may mean the difference between rushing it and peace of mind.

One of the simplest tricks is to move nighttime tasks to mornings. Quit working at 10 pm no matter what, and pick it back up the next day. The extra rest may increase productivity so much that we won’t need to work late. Over time, as the benefits of better rest sink in, new habits will become second nature.

here’s another opportunity to tune in: recognize when daytime drowsiness is burnout talking.


energize naturally

Caffeine is an obvious sleep-disruptor and quitting coffee can result in better sleep. Caffeine works by blocking sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain and increasing adrenaline production. Aside from feeling more alert during the 5-6 hours, it’s in our system, caffeine can delay the body’s natural tendencies toward evening relaxation; various studies have shown that caffeine consumption can make it harder to fall asleep, decrease total sleep time, and reduce the amount of deep sleep.

With the right support from food, water, and herbs, we can stay awake and energized without the espresso. For the record, my favorite naturally-energizing alternatives are medicinal mushrooms, rhodiola, water, fruit, and green juice. Not ready to let caffeine go completely? Reconsider that afternoon cup as a first step. Similar to taking a break from alcohol or sugar, over time eliminating stimulants will level ups and downs into mental clarity that can last all day.

Here’s another opportunity to tune in: recognize when daytime drowsiness is burnout talking. If constant stress makes us crash, then five minutes of afternoon breathwork or herbs that nourish the nervous system may be more helpful than energizers. Some of my most common tea blends use nervines like skullcap to soothe our bodies, rather than asking them to produce more energy.


eat well to sleep well

Daytime meals matter when it comes to how well we sleep. Aim to keep blood sugar balanced, take it easy on the digestive system (especially during stressful times), and avoid commonly allergenic foods. Typically, I recommend carbohydrates and fast-burning fuels earlier in the day when we need them to act and think. As the day progresses, replacing carbs with healthy fats can help slow things down and prepare us for the period of sleep when we’ll be without food. (Our brains are about 60% fat, and we need both saturated and unsaturated fat to work well and sleep well.) Adding plenty of vegetables and fiber throughout the day can help keep energy stable.

When dinner rolls around, long hours and social calendars have many of us reaching for take-out, but eating healthy doesn’t mean forgoing happy hour. I recommend carrying snacks—homemade trail-mix, fresh fruit, or roasted veggies—to have something on hand that won’t keep us up at night.


try, try again

Good sleep habits are built on repetition and take time to catch on. Some click in a few days, others take weeks or months, but the good news is that nature is on our side. Our bodies are more aware of the change in the day’s light (temperature, humidity, and otherwise) than our minds, so most of the work is removing distractions so we can listen when it’s time for bed. My advice is to pursue a single change at a time, move on to the next, and repeat. If it’s just one hour of sleep that’s standing between us and well-being, we have nothing to lose.