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7 Ways to Unwind at Night (That Don't Involve Alcohol)

Put the nightcap away -- these seven rituals will put you in a relaxed state of mind before you go to sleep
 
 
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Last week, I shared my evolving relationship with alcohol. I'm off it, basically. A big change has been at night; a glass or two of wine with Carrie used to be my nighttime ritual. It would help me unwind from a stressful day, relax and reconnect with my wife, and get me ready for bed. So when I decided to give up alcohol -- or at least make it an occasional rather than regular indulgence -- I knew I had to figure out another way to unwind before bed. I haven't really settled on anything yet. I've only explored some of the research on nighttime unwinding and thought I'd share my findings with you.

I'm not going to include routine, everyday advice like "read a book" or "have sex" or "listen to calming music," despite their effectiveness. You already know about them so it would just be redundant (but do them nonetheless!).

Even though I just discussed the importance of breaking up a routine before it becomes a rut, routines are excellent tools for establishing habits and ingraining positive conditioning. If you do the same thing before bed to unwind and prepare for sleep, your body will associate that thing with unwinding and sleepiness. That's not a rut. That's a win.

Let's get to the rituals.

Sit around a fire.

The best part of camping is always the campfire at the end of the night. You're there under the stars, usually with loved ones, close friends, and just enough soft light to see their faces. You pass around stories and laughs until that comfortable silence settles in. And you just stare into the flames. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans (and even the ancestral hominids that also controlled fire) capped off the night by staring into the very same fire you have today. As time has gone on, the radio, the TV, smartphones, tablets, and laptops have replaced fire as the glowing source of energy we stare into at night, but wild unadulterated fire still works best. Plus, firelight is naturally low in circadian-disrupting blue light.

Use the fireplace, build a fire pit out back, light a bunch of candles - just make it a point to look at fire.

Smell something nice.

However fraught with controversy and potentially confounded by placebo effects, aromatherapy has been used for thousands of years to reduce stress and promote relaxation. And modern clinical evidence suggests that the scent of certain essential oils can reduce stress. Take lavender, which increases parasympathetic activity and improves sleep in insomniacs, lowers nighttime blood pressure and improves self-reported sleep in hospital patients, and reduces anxiety and improves sleep in intensive care patients. Even if it is placebo, does it really matter? The whole point of a bedtime ritual is to plug into the power of placebo to "trick" your body into getting ready for sleep.

Lavender looks to be the essential oil with the most efficacy. Something like this works well.

Give a massage.

Receiving a massage is a fantastic stress-reliever, and it would be ideal if everyone, everywhere, received nightly massages. I'd imagine c-reactive protein levels would drop and sleep quality would universally improve. It could be the single most revolutionary health measure ever taken. Unfortunately, getting a massage means paying for one or convincing your significant other or friend to give you one. Some of you may be lucky enough to be in a position where that's possible, but most are not. But what if you gave a massage to someone at night? What if you offered it up on a regular basis? No one's going to turn you down, and research suggests that people who give massages receive multiple benefits. For one, you'll feel less anxious. Two, a good massage artist (even an eager amateur) treats their work like a meditation; you must be mindful of what you're doing as you're doing it and pay close attention to the interplay between your hands and their skin, fascia, and musculature. Three, giving a massage to someone makes that person far more likely to return the favor.

 
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