7 Nighttime Rituals to Help You Unwind, Relax, and Chill Out (That Don’t Involve Alcohol)

NightLast 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 insomniacslowers 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.

This is an easy one – just offer a massage to someone you’re willing to touch. They very rarely decline. You could take some lessons or find an online massage guide, but simply exploring their body while taking care to pay attention to the feel of their tissues is a good enough start.

Tell stories.

The human tongue and vocal cord aren’t only good for basic communication about mundane topics relevant to immediate survival. Humans are born storytellers. No, we don’t all have the ability to paint verbal pictures or keep a crowd of thousands enthralled, but we can relay simple narratives. We can read out loud. We can build stories with a partner by trading off, one line at a time. Even the humdrum daily “how was your day?” chat we all have with our roommates and loved ones is a form of storytelling, so that will work, too. Storytelling or reading books to your children before bed results in improved sleep duration and better cognitive development, and I’m convinced those benefits are maintained in adults who hear and tell stories at night. Whether you’re telling or hearing the story, you’re in another place – far from the daily stressors that make unwinding so difficult and so necessary.

If you don’t have any good stories handy, start by just telling someone about your day. And if you don’t have anyone to discuss your day with, keep a journal or write it down. It’s being in “storytelling mode” that probably matters, whatever the medium you use to tell it or hear it.

Prepare tea.

Historically, tea preparation is highly ceremonial. I would recommend against a 4-hour Japanese chaji if you’re trying to get to bed at a reasonable time, but you can certainly come up with your own condensed tea ceremony. Or if formality doesn’t interest you, at least pay attention to the details as you brew it: the steam’s hiss, the sizzle of the water against the pot, the initial rinsing of the tea, the first sip, the “aaaaah.” This will become a routine or a series of sensations that can help signal bedtime to your body (provided you avoid caffeinated teas, of course). And that’s not even getting into the potential psychoactive effects of various teas, many of which can induce relaxation and sleepiness while reducing anxiety and stress.

I wrote about several such teas in a series of two posts (here and here). Go check them out, order some of the teas, and give the nighttime tea ritual a shot.

Practice your breathing.

If you recall from yesterday’s Dear Mark on the acid/base balance, the primary way we expel excess acids is through the ventilation pathway. By inhaling oxygen and by exhaling carbon dioxide, we maintain homeostasis. But breathing also impacts our anxiety levels. Short rapid breaths both increase and indicate anxiety and stress, while calm, slow, deep breaths that incorporate the diaphragm – not just the chest – are soothing. They trigger the parasympathetic response that reduces stress and anxiety.

Instead of chest breathing, try breathing through your chest and belly. Focus on expanding your ribcage and settling into the breath. Relax your abs and don’t suck in your stomach. Take it slowly – this isn’t a race – and breathe deeply. Try to inhale and exhale smoothly, free of judders. As you may discover, breath practice often turns into a sort of meditation. That’s totally fine.

Move around.

For some, it’ll be a quick sprint out in the street or some Tabata intervals on the exercise bike. Others will relax by hitting a deadlift PR, calm and smooth and zen-like. It all depends on how you respond to the movement. Personally, heavy lifting gets me amped. Anything intense, actually – sprints, metabolic conditioning, Ultimate Frisbee – will energize and prevent me from sleep anytime soon. And going for a walk or hike just before bed makes my mind go. If I do that, I’ll typically stay up writing or thinking about the grand new idea I happened upon. Believe it or not, what I like to do these days before bed is a bit of yoga. What kind? Who knows. I cycle through a few random poses that Carrie’s showed me and they seem to work. I don’t think the specific pose itself is as important as just doing a few, if that makes sense. According to the research, yoga certainly reduces anxiety (more than walking) and improves quality of sleep, probably by increasing GABA levels.

Most people will unwind more effectively using “gentler” movements like stretching or yoga. But a few of you will probably benefit from more intense exercise, especially if you’re coming off a particularly grueling day and you just need to blow off some steam. Try different ones out to see what fits and stick to it once you’ve settled. Remember, it’s all about the routine.

That’s what I’ve got, folks. How about you guys? What routines, habits, or rituals do you use to unwind at night?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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45 thoughts on “7 Nighttime Rituals to Help You Unwind, Relax, and Chill Out (That Don’t Involve Alcohol)”

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  1. Great article! I definitely listening to meditation music and I my favorite night time tea is peppermint with a teaspoon of coconut oil added to it. Delicious and works like a charm!!

  2. Hands down favorite, nightly unwinding ritual is cuddling in bed with my husband. Eyelids get super heavy in 10-20 minutes then right before I fall asleep, I roll to my side of the bed. (Never could understand the cuddling/sleeping at same time.)

  3. I like the idea of a fire. My new apaetmet has a gas fireplace so il try staring at thy rather than the TV!

    Journally before bed is helpful. Gratitude journels, or just brain dumps. Nothing to series that requires problem solving. Just letting out the thoughts that may otherwise keep me up. Keep a notebook next to the bed!

      1. Love Caveman TV – now I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY wanna go camping!!!!!

  4. I am a big fan of tea by the fire for winding down! I heat my house with a wood burning stove so over the winter I can gaze into the flames every night. I can’t wait to try some of these other ideas now that summer is here–giving massages and storytelling seem like a great place to start!

  5. I enjoy a nice, warm cup of magnesium. I prefer Natural Calm’s raspberry-lemon. No matter how stressful my day, that always relaxes me before bedtime.

  6. A friend of mine actually got some rocks and built a small campfire ring in his back yard just like the kind you might see in an unofficial campsite in the Los Padres forest. He would barbecue on it and then sit by it in the evening just like being out in the woods.

    Since there’s always so much fire danger, I have gotten into the habit of NOT having a fire when we go backpacking. My friends are the same. Instead we sit around the dark campfire ring and talk. It’s very quiet. We can see the stars. We tell all our favorite backpacking adventure stories and laugh and joke. I cuddle up with my sleeping bag around me for extra warmth in the dark. We might have some hot toddies, too, that we made with our stoves. It’s really awesome to go without a fire. It’s even more primal. Sorry, I guess that’s off topic but you reminded me of our new camping nighttime ritual.

  7. The candle idea is perfect during the warmer months, or when a fire isn’t possible. I, too, have been trying to come up with ways to unwind that do not involve alcohol.

    The longer I’ve been paleo the more I have soured on beer. Maybe it’s the grains? Just doesn’t taste the same anymore. I’m partial to wine and more distilled beverages, but in general I’d like to make alcohol a rare indulgence.

    Candles are a neat idea, especially candles with aromas. This is something I intent to suggest to my wife. Thanks.

  8. I teach General Psychology where we talk about insomnia, and Drugs & Behavior where we talk extensively about how detrimental alcohol is to your health (and sleep!) I try to tell my students to steer clear of the stuff for a variety of reasons, but especially if they have sleep problems as it just destroys the natural sleep cycle.

  9. You are right there about the benefits of giving massage – I am a massage therapist, so I do that all day long. It is the most relaxing job. Not only do you have the knowledge that you are helping someone, you have the relaxing calming music, and the meditative effects too.

  10. This is so timely as I dumped out half a bottle of cab sav this morning with the same intention. I know its affecting my sleep and also my testosterone is low and that is perhaps contributing in addition to memopause. But I know I have created a routine that I now need to replace. Thanks for the tips!

  11. Great list, I think for improved sleep and relaxation the elimination of blue light is the top priority. The way it throws off our natural melatonin production might explain the rates of insomnia and day time sleepiness so many people experience.
    Trying to avoid blue light from t.v, laptops, tablets etc, 2-3 hours before sleeping can have a big impact. If you have to use a lap top great programs like f.lux help to take the blue light out of your screen and give it a more natural glow.

    1. I use the Twilight app at night and early morning.
      In experimental scientific studies it has been shown an average person reading on a tablet or smart phone for a couple of hours before bed time may find their sleep delayed by about an hour.

      The Twilight app makes your device screen adapt to the time of the day. It filters the blue spectrum on your phone or tablet after sunset and protects your eyes with a soft and pleasant red filter. The filter intensity is smoothly adjusted to the sun cycle based on your local sunset and sunrise times.

  12. Tea for me! Although in the hot summer I have it less often. I am so exhausted by the end of the day I don’t need much to “wind down” and I’m lucky if I can stay awake through the tea. In the rare case I do need winding down, reading a book always puts me to sleep.

  13. Six words:

    Constant Comment Decaf Orange Spiced Tea

    pure heaven.

    Love the fire idea, too!

  14. Taking my cue from our canine and feline friends, my nightly ritual includes lots of gentle, full-body stretching in bed. I stretch my arms and legs like cats and dogs do, then curve my back from side to side. I’ve created a short routine of it, and I rarely get to the third move without deep yawns setting in. It’s become such an ingrained habit that even when I’m stressing about something, my stretching routine takes it all away.

  15. I’ve gotten into the habit of leaving all the doors and windows open and turning off the lights at night. I light a single candle and just sit back and relax. Sometimes my roommate comes and hangs out with me to talk or sometimes I read on my ipad with the dimmest setting possible. I couldn’t ask for a more serene way to end a summer night.

  16. I am looking for better quality sleep and in addition to the above know that we need to invest in a better mattress. Any specific recommendations? Many thanks!

  17. I’m currently testing out the idea of consuming one teaspoon of honey before bed. I read about that somewhere. Tried it for the first time last night, and slept very well – so it’s at least worth a try.

  18. Before I got married I always pictured my husband and I, after the intimate stuff, in bed as I read a chapter of a book every night to us and then lying on his chest to fall asleep to the sound of his heart beating….hasn’t happened yet.

  19. Great article. Easy jog and shower followed by Active Isolated Stretching listening to mellow music on the record player sipping on tea.

  20. Well, I pray right before I go to sleep, which is done in the spirit of thankfulness for the day and protection for my loved ones.

    But before that, a drink of a nice glass of raw milk fits the bill, followed by some light stretching. Of course, relaxing music, some light roughhousing with the kiddos and the intimate stuff with the wifey does wonders too.

  21. ACV and soda water or a squeze of lemon with it….feels like a ritual drink to me. Well done Mark on stopping the booze. We did the same- you think you feel good now wait to see how you feel in a few months…you will be on fire

  22. Mine is a simple routine, but reading a book has always worked for me. Its nice to have some other ideas to think about though.
    I love camp fires and now we have a garden I have been trying to persuade hubby that we need to get out the firepit or chiminea even at home. So far he hasn’t bought in. So I need to pick up my responsibility go out and collect the twigs etc like I’ve been talking about (shame we’ve had so much rain recently) and start it going for myself. I also like the idea of substituting candles, and as we have lots to use up need to implement that idea, too.
    Thanks, as always, Mark!

  23. The fire idea is awesome, I’m making a point of sleeping outside more this year so this has been incorporated. Though I imagine it’s nicer chilling by the fire in Malibu, California than it is sitting in the drizzle of northern England. Great article Mark!

  24. Staring out at the sky and stars through the open window is relaxing already 🙂 and gently lulls me to sleep

  25. What are you doing to try to lose weight? Are you exercising? Registration calories? How many cals do you eat a day?
    My fourth baby just turned 5 months old yesterday. I lost most of my pregnancy weight in the first month, but have been stuck with 10 pounds to go (he had been in 5, but won at Christmas), which is why I started here. After losing my other pregnancies I remember gushing. I would lose a lot, then nothing, then suddenly start to lose again. After my second I weighed less than I did when I got pregnant, but others who had struggled to lose the last 5 pounds during pregnancy (plus any that had won between pregnancies). I’m waiting for the loser begins to happen here soon! Make sure you are eating enough and accounting of calories breastfeeding.

  26. Great advice, however I wish there was more help for waking at say 4 and not being able to go back to sleep no matter how much deep breathing you do!

  27. Nice info….One more useful idea… try to read a book…..
    it’s a natural sleeping medicine …hahaha

  28. Laying in bed is only a great timing when the bed seems like a great idea. For me, sometimes I don’t feel like getting in bed, but I know I should get into it. I’ve heard that a glass of warm milk, meditation, and how active you are during the day time effects your sleep!

    I know since I’ve started doing a lot more outdoor activities during the day, a nights rest has been amazing! I’m in bed and ready to sleep by 9 pm. The warm milk thing didn’t work for me, but did for my significant other. Sometimes people just think a lot more than others and that can also keep you awake. They should set a specific time that work is DONE and no longer needing to be thought about until the following day.

    Great article by the way, thanks!

  29. hi Mark,

    I wanted to know what books do you recommend/did you read about “painting verbal pictures” (aka storytelling)? As I’d love to learn the basics and then copy-cat the style of others, until I create my own…

    I understand readying stories is one way of learning the art of storytelling and the actual doing of it is also the big secret. However, I’d love to know who wrote the best books about storytelling so we can all learn from specialists 🙂

  30. Regarding the waking up early question, I have a good tip for you as I used to have the same problem when my husband got up for early shifts and I couldn’t get back to sleep. You need to develop a little ‘back to sleep’ routine. Mine goes like this – get up, don’t switch on any lights, go to the bathroom, have a cup of water, go back to bed and cover my eyes with a light item of clothing or a sleeping mask, get comfortable and stay still. I’m usually back to sleep within minutes of doing this, because it takes care of any little niggles that might stop me sleeping (needing the bathroom, thirst, light in my eyes) and the routine thing always helps with sleep, as we already know 🙂

  31. Male, 52. Used to have a nerve-wrecking job, found I needed to unwind with some Dr. Feel-Good to go to sleep. Got spooked about potential alcohol addiction. What worked for me was embroidery. When you do embroidery, the brain is too busy counting lines, picking the right color threads, and getting the knots and stitches right to keep chewing on the evil of the day. This repetitive and painstaking work quiets you down in a positive and harmless way.

  32. this is an awesome post – I especially love the “give a massage” – so true – and can strengthen the body 🙂

  33. movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades research