Like a lot of people, my anxiety creeps in at night, in the form of racing thoughts. What do I have to do tomorrow? What did I not finish today? Am I happy, really, and what’s the point of it all? My brain loves an existential spiral at night. My body, though, does not.
For an entire year, I barely slept a wink. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. I followed every sleep trick in the book: I stopped drinking caffeine after noon, I got plenty of sunlight, and I moved my body in some capacity each day. I even followed the screen-time suggestions: I turned my phone to night mode, I tried not to look at it (or the TV) before bed, and I invested in a pair of blue light glasses. Oh, and I read books, drank tea (I hate tea), and meditated, too. And yet, every night, it took me hours to fall asleep. Then, once I finally drifted off, I’d wake up again quickly—and constantly. By the time morning came, I’d wonder if I had even slept at all.
When it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, I started traveling for work—and if I thought my sleeping was bad at home, then it was absolutely abysmal while traveling. Feeling exhausted and irritable at meetings grew from a nuisance to an actual hindrance.
A New Suggestion
When I finally asked a therapist for help, she had a surprising tip I had yet to hear about: taking a quick, warm shower an hour or so before bed.
Right off the bat, I hated the idea. I have always been a morning workout person, and plan my showers around that. But at night? I’m lazy. Very lazy. Like “don’t even want to take my makeup off” lazy. My therapist insisted, though, that showering might be something that I could do in whichever place I might be sleeping to mark that it was time to go to bed. This way, I could create a bedtime routine that still worked when I traveled.
Read More: 12 Natural Ways To Kick Stress To The Curb
The thing about being a stubborn person with anxiety is that I want help and also don’t want anyone to tell me what to do. Adding a nightly shower into my routine—and listening to the advice of a trained professional—seemed like a good challenge for me to take on.
An extra shower seemed like a lot of effort, but I was desperate. I told her I’d try it.
Creating A Different Routine
For the first week, I absolutely despised this change. It felt like so much effort to shower again after I had already showered that day; to remember to shower before I was too tired to fathom it; and to have to do another thing in my off-time, when I was supposed to be able to do nothing.
But in the second week of showering before bed, I felt my stubborn claws retract. It was kind of nice to rinse away the grime of the city (I live in New York City) before climbing into clean sheets. Also, washing my face in the shower felt good. I no longer had to use makeup wipes!
I kept my nighttime showers speedy—three minutes tops—and framed them in my head as glorified nighttime face washes. In fact, these pre-bedtime showers didn’t take me any longer than washing my face normally does. They really were more like rinses. I washed my face and my body and that’s it; I didn’t wash my hair, shave, exfoliate, or do anything fancy.
By two weeks in, I had finally accepted my new routine—and was able to fall asleep easier…and sleep like a baby.
Why Warm Showers Help You Sleep
Now that I knew these warm showers worked for me, I wanted to understand why. Turns out, there are a few reasons—both psychological and physical—that warm showers help with sleep.
Warm Showers Help Your Body Cool Down
Physically, showers can help line your body up with its natural temperature cycle. “Healthy, normal sleepers have a natural tiny drop in body temperature about an hour and a half to two hours before bed, which signals the brain’s natural release of melatonin and begins to induce sleepiness,” says Shelby Harris, Psy.D., clinical associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in NYC. “People with trouble falling asleep don’t have as much of a drop in body temperature. So, a hot shower helps the body warm up, then cool off.”
This is the same idea behind having a cool bedroom for optimal sleep: “A good amount of research demonstrates that a drop in body temperature results in deeper sleep at night,” says Alex Dimitriu, M.D., founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine. “For this reason, we advise cool, dark bedrooms, light breathable sheets, and setting the thermostat to 70 degrees. For some people, a hot bath or shower before bed helps accentuate the drop in body temperature.”
They’re Also Just Plain Relaxing
According to Dimitriu, the relaxing experience of showering can also set you up for better sleep.
To ensure you’re striking both elements, make sure the shower is warm, not hot. Remember: You’re simply trying to raise your body temperature a bit, to accelerate its natural pattern of cooling back down before bed, says certified sleep science coach Susan D’Addario. While a hot shower can raise your core body temp quickly, too-hot water can trigger a stress response and ultimately backfire. (Plus, dermatologists advise against hot showers because they can dry out your skin.)
A warm bath works well, too, according to D’Addario and Dimitriu. If you’re into the bath idea, instead, add a cup of Epsom salt, which contains magnesium (a critical mineral in helping your body get to sleep) to your water, says D’Addario.
Whether you bathe or shower, anything up to 10 minutes should work. But more important than the length of the shower, is the timing of it. Make sure you hop into the water an hour or two before bed, since research has shown that it takes about this long for the body to cool back down and get to the optimal point of sleepiness.
They Help Your Brain Kick Into Sleep Mode, Too
For me, showering before bed was the missing link between post-work relaxation and bedtime. It’s become a clear, tangible marker for that transition: Taking a shower equals crossing the threshold into sleep time. This has been especially helpful during the coronavirus pandemic, during which I’ve worked in my tiny apartment, which allows me virtually no separation between my bedroom, office, and relaxation space. Showering provides as much of a distinct divide between work and not-work that I can get.
“A lot of experts are absolutely interested in having us identify our bedrooms exclusively for sleeping and sex,” says D’Addario. “So if going into the bathroom and showering makes you feel separate from [the rest of your day], that can be helpful.”
They’re Not Cure-Alls, Though
As helpful as my nighttime showers have been, there’s a reason I call them my “missing link” and not “the whole chain.” While, sure, showering can help your body temperature drop and your body relax, and provide separation between wake and sleep time, it can’t make up for a lifestyle that isn’t conducive to optimal sleep.
“Sleeping well at night starts first thing in the morning,” D’Addario reminded me. “One of the biggest obstacles to good sleep has to do with the invention of artificial light and not getting outside the way we always have as a species. Sunlight guides our brains. We want to expose ourselves to strong light as early as we can in the morning and then at different points during the day, too.” Once the sun sets, we should accordingly limit our light, too.
Plus, becoming beholden to a routine comes with its own sorts of risks, which Dimitriu calls being “routine pre-occupied.”
“The main goal is to relax and actually try not to force sleep to happen,” says Dimitriu. That means focusing on peaceful activity, which can be a shower, reading, or meditation. Concentrate on the winding down, rather than the activity itself. This allows for flexibility if you can’t shower every night or happen to miss one.
“The most important thing is that you do something to help your brain register, ‘OK, I get it, this means I’m going to go to bed really soon,’” says D’Addario. “Showering before bed is icing on the cake, but it is not the cake.”
The Bottom Line
D’Addario was right that an evening shower can’t replace getting sunlight, exercising, and minimizing screen time. But, for me, that warm shower was the thing that softened my transition into sleep time.
The shower has become the place in which I can let anxious thoughts flow in and out—instead of my bed. Instead of trying to fight them, the way I do when I want to be sleeping, I allow myself to have them. That’s the key, I think: not fighting what keeps you up at night but to allow it to happen. For me, the shower is the perfect time for that. By the time I actually get into bed, there’s nothing left to do but to sleep.