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How To Deepen Your Sleep With Light, From The Psychiatrist Who Coined SAD


Written by

Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D.

Norman E. Rosenthal is the world-renowned psychiatrist and bestselling author who first described seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and pioneered the use of light therapy as a treatment during his twenty years at the National Institute of Mental Health.

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Our sleep series, The Wind Down, provides a minute-by-minute peek into the wind-down routines that get well-being experts ready for bed. Today, we’re relaxing with Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., a psychiatrist who first described seasonal affective disorder & pioneered light therapy.

Just as a good day begins with a good night’s sleep, the reverse is also true. Throughout the day, I try to do things that are going to be conducive to a relaxed night. This includes exercising (usually one to two hours per day), meditating (once or twice per day), avoiding coffee and caffeine after noon, and not eating for three to four hours before bedtime.

I realize, not just from my knowledge of physiology and inspection of my Oura ring results but also from the experience of sleep itself, that sleep is a multifaceted, multilayered process. I try to experience and enjoy all the stages of sleep, not just REM sleep, with its vivid dreams, and deep sleep, with its blissful unconsciousness. At times, I keep a notebook by my bedside and write down my dreams as soon as I wake up—before they have dissolved into my waking consciousness. Usually, I’ll focus on my dreams when tumultuous things are going on in my life. Then, often, my dreams act as warnings, helping to guide me into making the right decisions. Sleep, therefore, never feels like “wasted” time—it’s always an equal player in my 24-hour day. 

My best night’s sleep happens after a good, active day that leaves me tired. The biggest barrier to a solid night’s sleep is when I break the rules listed above. For example, when I drink coffee after 2 p.m. The tools I use to get a good night’s sleep are derived from things I have read, such as keeping the bedroom cool and dark like a cave, maintaining adequate air humidity with the help of humidifiers, and using a good mattress and pillows that feel comfortable

Over the years, I have come to respect sleep more and more. When I was younger, I often regarded sleep as a nuisance. I would deprive myself of sleep, fooling myself into thinking that I would get more out of my days that way. The opposite was true. My work as a psychiatrist and researcher has taught me the crucial values of sleep. Now that I am in the third act of my life, I have come to value the power of sleep and enjoy the dividends of a good night’s rest.

These days, I never resent the time I need to spend asleep. I embrace it.

Average hours I sleep a night: 6.5 to 7 hoursIdeal bedtime: 11 p.m.Ideal wake-up time: 7:30 a.m.Nightstand essentials: A glass of water sitting on a folded hanky so that I can see it in the dim light without knocking the glass over; a bedside lamp attached to a dimmer so that I can regulate the amount of light it emits; a small red flashlight in case I need to get out of bed at night (unlike white light, red light has no effect on melatonin secretion1 and is, therefore, less likely to disturb your sleepiness and circadian rhythms); a box of kleenex; a BodyClock by Lumie to help me wake up gently and improve my mood first thing in the morningFavorite place I’ve ever slept: My own bedSleep bad habit: Starting to think of negative things when lying in bed (e.g., chores that need to be done, or worries). I tell myself they can wait till the morning and “There is nothing you can do about that now.”Caffeine consumption: Two half-caff cups of coffee before noonHow I track my sleep: Oura ringThe last product or habit that changed my sleep for the better: The Oura ring; it gives me immediate feedback as to how I slept the night beforeThe first thing I do when I wake up: Turn the bedside lamp on very gradually. Look around the room and experience the joy and amazement of seeing everything around me become illuminated (The BodyClock, mentioned above is programmed to create more subtle light levels).

9:30 p.m.: Make sure that I dim the lights in the living areas and bedroom to help me begin to wind down.

9:45 p.m.: Begin habits that I associate with winding down, such as flossing teeth. I do these actions mindfully so that they become more than these necessary chores but rather deliberate cues to help wind down my active brain systems and set the tone for the night.

10 p.m.: Sample a favorite series, especially one with engaging and interesting characters, such as the Danish series Seaside Hotel, which entertained me for many evenings. I avoid late-night news with explosions, disasters, etc. I also avoid programs that feature unlikable characters, such as Succession! I finish off puzzles left over from the day, like Wordle and Spelling Bee, which engage the mind but are essentially meaningless. This is also when I’ll touch base with family and friends.

10:15 p.m.: Take medicines and check my calendar for the next day. This may seem counterintuitive, but it helps settle me down by making me feel more comfortable about the next day, particularly when my first appointment will be.

10:30 p.m.: Brush teeth, apply moisturizer (generic Jojoba oil, EyeMax® AlphaRet®), weigh myself.

10:45 p.m.: Say good night to my wife and other loved ones.

11 p.m.: Get into bed with a book or magazine and brighten the bedside lamp so that it is bright enough to enable me to read. Put on Oura ring.

11:15 p.m. Feel too sleepy to keep on reading, turn off lights.

11:30 p.m.: Try to put aside worries and allow my mind to drift to pleasant thoughts about the day, say my mantra, do a body scan, get comfortable, and let sleep come to me.

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