Loss of a Partner Can Lead to Loss of Sleep: Expert Offers Tips on how to Take Charge of Your Sleep-Part II

In a flash, we crossed the threshold from married life to becoming suddenly single at age 50+.  A divorce. A death. But loss of a partner meant a loss of many things—including sleep. No longer was there a warm body in bed beside us. We were scared and anxious at night. In addition, our minds were muddled with all the changes and issues facing us as we tried to figure out how to restart our lives. Sleep became irregular. We were exhausted. And bedtime became another source of anxiety—could we ever close our eyes and drift off peacefully? 

Sound familiar? 

Sleep is precious. It’s time to clear our minds and heads. You are harming your brain when you’re a victim of chronic sleep deprivation. Fortunately, there are solutions to lull you back to a good night’s sleep, according to Nancy H. Rothstein, MBA, The Sleep Ambassador® Director, CIRCADIAN® Corporate Sleep Programs.  www.thesleepambassador.com, Rothstein wakes us up to the fact that we can get control of our sleep. She says, “My goal is to empower any person to sleep well and to live well.” 

Here’s how she suggests we do so: 

Many people today have trouble sleeping. Is it insomnia and how do you define insomnia? If you can’t regularly sustain sleep, you might have bona fide insomnia. The real question should be: Do you have insomnia or lousy sleep habits? Insomnia means difficulty falling or staying asleep even when the person has an opportunity to sleep. The symptoms are: fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, and poor performance. Is your difficulty sleeping chronic--two or three times a week for more than three months? Do you wake up tired after being in bed for 7-9 hours? You might need to see a sleep specialist. Or is your sleep problem a current issue that’s related to something specific such as anxiety or stress at work, divorce, death of a spouse, move to a new home, night time shift work, new meds that can lead to a long-term sleep problem, or a medical condition?    

Are there different types of sleep disorders?  There are insomniacs, hyper insomniacs, sleep breathing disorders, circadian rhythm disorders, sleep walking, sleep movement disorders, restless legs syndrome, and many more. Do you get up and don’t know you got up? This is sleepwalking, but it happens mostly in kids. If someone hears you snoring or gasping for air, or you wake yourself up snoring, you may have obstructive sleep apnea and need to be diagnosed by a sleep physician. Less recognized symptoms of sleep apnea, for example, can be frequent urination without lots to drink before bedtime. And if you’re breathing through your mouth, this can cause dry mouth and can make you awaken thirsty, as well as being the wrong way to breathe. I don’t care what your yoga instructor told you, when you’re sleeping, you want to breathe in and out through your nose 24/7. 

However, you may not have a sleep disorder, but rather what Rothstein calls disordered sleep, which means your sleep is out of order because you have poor sleep habits such as staying up too late; doing an all nighter; drinking alcohol, eating the wrong foods right before going to sleep, and looking at screens in bed too close to bedtime. 

Should people who have trouble falling or staying asleep, stay in bed? If  you have trouble falling asleep or going back to sleep and it’s lasting for more than 20 to 30 minutes, get out of bed. Do something mindless, boring and quiet. Read a book in dim light, empty the dishwasher, fold laundry, and do not look at the clock. If you do, you’ll start counting and become anxious. If you’re up before 3 a.m., you’ll think I only have three or four more hours of sleep. After 3 a.m., you’ll be obsessing that you’ll never be able to get up for work. This will get your brain working and you don’t want your brain to work. You want it to rest. 

How late can someone drink coffee?  If you have trouble falling asleep, then stop drinking coffee by noon. Caffeine can stay in your body for up to 12 hours. 

What about naps? Will they impact sleep at night?  Experts say no napping after 4 p.m., especially if you have trouble falling asleep and avoid napping if you have bona fide insomnia. But if you’re not sleeping well and you’re exhausted, take a 15-minute power nap. If you have your own office at work, close the door and set your alarm for 15 minutes. If you work in a cubicle, go to your car and take a power nap. Some companies have sleep pods, but they are a disservice to the workforce without offering concurrent sleep education. The bottom line is that if your eyes are closing, your brain is telling you something: “I wouldn’t be shutting down if I didn’t need to.” Our biology is beautiful, and our behavior is screwing up our sleep! 

Can you make up for lost sleep? The difference between the amount of sleep we need and the amount we get is called sleep debt, as in a sleep deficit. If it is chronic, you can no more make up for it in a weekend than you can lose the weight you’ve gained over time with a few days of good eating habits. It takes time for your biological clock to adapt to a new pattern of adequate sleep and consistent sleep/wake times. 

How does food impact sleep? When you eat and what you eat can hinder your sleep. If you’ve eaten a big meal for a late dinner and then shortly after lay down to go to sleep, your digestive system will say: Time out! It’s hard for the body to do its digestive work. So, if you eat late, stay up a little later after you eat or eat a lighter meal. Watch your intake of salty foods. It will make you drink too much which means frequent trips to the bathroom during the night. Note: If you’re on any kind of meds before bed, drink enough water with the pills and sit upright for at least 15 minutes before lying down. 

Don’t go to bed hungry. Eat a light, sleep-friendly snack. Take a banana, warm it up, put agave on it and add a sprinkle of cinnamon, or eat a piece of toast with cheese on it or peanut butter, a little yogurt, some warm milk, avocado, chopped fruit, a little cottage cheese, chamomile tea, or a few almonds. These foods are not sugary and are easy to digest.  Avoid heavy and spicy foods that are hard on your digestive system, especially at bedtime. 

Will a glass of wine or alcohol help you sleep or make it worse? Alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, but it plays havoc with your sleep cycles. And then you wake up unrefreshed. 

How can someone avoid becoming dependent on sleep medications? What are the side effects? Before making any changes with prescription medications or supplements for sleep, be sure to speak with your physician. Many try melatonin or other over the counter drugs marketed for sleep. Facts: We all produce melatonin naturally and your sleep behaviors, such as looking at screens in the hour before bedtime, might be impacting the release of this hormone which regulates our sleep/wake cycle.

Prescription drugs have side effects—grogginess for instance, and they can be addictive. While they may help you fall asleep, they can also impact the quality of natural sleep. However, if you’re in the middle of a divorce, you’re miserable, feel like a zombie, can’t sleep at night and a doctor says take this or that, go ahead. Take it to transition and hopefully on a temporary basis. Make sure you’re awake enough in the morning to drive the kids and that the effect of the meds is not being carried into your day. But recognize that good sleep is possible naturally!   

When is the best time to exercise to sleep well? Do not exercise within three hours of your bedtime. Exercise raises body temperature. It’s stimulating. The best time to exercise is the morning or any time during the afternoon. An exception is if you’re taking a yoga class at night that’s targeted to help you relax; go for it.

Are there cognitive exercises you recommend? Does counting sheep work? Imagery techniques work because they’re boring and lull the brain to sleep. Count sheep. Count backwards. It’s methodical and it takes you out of your head to whatever you’re focusing on. 

Are there things I can do to my bedroom to make sleeping easier? What is the right room temperature, for example? You want your room to be cool, dark and quiet. If you don’t have black out curtains, wear a mask. Cover any bright digital blue, green or white lights from assorted electronics. Have good quality bed linens. Sagging mattress? If you’re awakening with aches and pains, consider getting a new one and the best you can afford. Make sure it’s returnable. The right mattress is one that fits your body alignment, offers support and pressure point release. The same applies to your pillows. If you can’t afford a new mattress, get a good topper. 

Can you share a list of best nightly practices to lead to good night’s sleep? Try these tips for one or two weeks to see if you experience better sleep.  

  1. Set an alarm on an old-fashioned clock that has hands for one hour before going to bed to give you a signal that it’s time to prepare for sleep.
  2. Now it’s “you” time. Take a warm shower. It’s soothing and relaxing to your body. Close your eyes and just be grateful for the flow of the water over your body. Other mindless activities: Load the dishwasher. If you talk on the phone, use a landline if you have one.  
  3. Turn off all technology one hour before bed and prepare for sleep in peace. Looking at screens tells your body to stop releasing melatonin and to stay alert. Dim the lights and read something light with a printed book, not on your screens. If being alone is uncomfortable and too quiet, don’t leave the TV on all night because your brain has to process the noise and the light. Instead, use a white noise machine if you need some company.
  4. Again, set your alarm on an old-fashioned clock to wake you up in the morning. Cover the clock or turn it away from you because you want to free yourself from time, especially if you wake up in the middle of the night.
  5. If agitated or a lot is going on in your head, focus on your breathing. Combine body awareness and breathing to get you out of your head. Rid yourself of anger and frustration and go to gratitude. If you’re in a state of gratitude, you cannot be angry.If you’ve had a bad day, do what Deepak Chopra calls recapitulation just before falling asleep. It’s the act of reviewing your day from start to finish and revising it as you would have wanted it to unfold. Or you can visualize what you’d love to see in your life. The goal is to program your subconscious with positive thoughts so you can drift into sleep in peace.
  6. Get a white noise machine and avoid apps. White noise promotes relaxation prior to sleep by providing a constant soothing sound for the brain to settle on. The Marpac DOHM uses natural air like a fan. Forget apps because there’s a tendancy to look at the phone to read any text messages or emails. Recharge your devices in another room. If you must keep your phone nearby to look at it during the night because of an emergency, put on glasses that block blue light.

At what point should someone see a sleep specialist? If you have good sleep habits and you are waking up not feeling well rested, see a sleep expert who may give you a sleep test. If you know you snore, gasp for air, or consistently wake up tired, seek diagnosis and treatment. Check the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) to find a sleep specialist in your area. http://www.sleepeducation.org/ is a resource of AASM. Also be aware that sleep issues can also be linked to other medical conditions.                       

About Nancy H. Rothstein, MBA: nancy@thesleepambassador.com

As The Sleep Ambassador® and Director of CIRCADIAN® Corporate Sleep Programs, Rothstein engages in media appearances and consults and lectures to Fortune 500 corporations and other organizations, awakening leadership to the ROI of a good night’s sleep for their workforce and providing sleep education/training initiatives for employees at all levels. She also lectures on sleep to the medical and dental communities to foster understanding and to encourage action to integrate relevant sleep information/resources into their practice.

She serves as a member of the NIH’s Sleep Disorders Research Advisory Board, the Board of the Foundation for Airway Health, the Advisory Board of the Academy of Orofacial Myofunctional Therapy, and as a member of the Steering Committee of Myapnea.org, as well as working with other organizations that foster sleep health. Rothstein is the author of My Daddy Snores; published by Scholastic, it has sold more than 400,000 copies. She has a B.A. from The University of Pennsylvania and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago. Here are links to articles about her and by her:  http://www.futureofpersonalhealth.com/prevention-and-treatment/why-sleep-is-worth-the-time-investment  and  https://www.tomorrowsleep.com/magazine/most-influential-people-sleep


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