Sleep for many of us aged 50-plus has become elusive. Hormones. Worry. Busy minds. A snoring husband or partner.
Perhaps, you live in an area with sirens screaming all night, your room is too hot, you don’t have black out shades on your windows, packed to-do lists, your mind is spinning faster than a Mario Andretti race, or unsettling news before bedtime about the bombing of Syria and fear if you do fall asleep, you might not wake up in the morning. Regardless why, many toss and turn all night long, then get up the next morning feeling drugged and behaving like a poltergeist.
Sleep is all about renewal; it’s transformative and runs on its own cycle. Sleep well and you shed negative feelings like an old skin. Have a problem? Sleep on it. Everything will look better in the morning. Get your beauty sleep, our mothers often said to us. Lack of it, and you might develop bags under your eyes that are larger than those that fit into the overhead bin on an airplane.
At the same time, there were the negative messages we heard growing up about too much sleep. Get up lazy and get going. Be productive. Take a nap? What a waste of time. To this day, Margaret finds it impossible to nap during the day; she might miss out on something. (More about the healing aspects of napping in Part 2 of this blog,)
How disingenuous. Sleep doesn’t make you lazy, it makes you smart. With it, you might remember where you put your car keys or cell phone, something your husband, partner or child asked you to handle, a word you can’t quite pull up, or a piece of music you just learned. Sleep also helps you focus at work, make sound decisions, heal faster and get sick less often. On the other hand, poor sleep might cut your life short, make you fat, crabby, and speed up the likelihood that you’ll develop several awful diseases both physical and mental.
Treatments for insomnia? They are not unlike the floodgates of the internet forever swinging open where pills and potions, doctors and remedies proliferate.
Prescriptions for Ambien or over-the-counter Unisom, melatonin, or magnesium. Alternative healers offering acupuncture and massage. Apps, basic exercise, meditation/mindfulness. Relax. Deep breathe. Count to 10. Eat foods like turkey with tryptophan that makes you tired and helps you sleep like a baby. Buy a good mattress whether hard or soft and replace every 10 years. At least that's the conventional wisdom.
Try a sound machine or the latest "Sleepie," a 3-inch-by-6-inch rectangle box available on Kickstarter. “The device combines lights, sounds and smells to give you the best night's sleep possible,” says founder Blake Wheeler. “It connects to your phone via an app on which you may choose sleep and wake time,” he adds.
And on an on. Just sorting these out can keep you up. In fact, there are more sleep remedies than time to sleep.
Of course, we have come up with our own nighttime rituals. Margaret says that sleeplessness often quietly sneaks in and joins her in bed. But the nights of roaming the halls can and must be shrunk and not by drinking ourselves into oblivion.
Margaret, who gets migraines and attributes some of them to uneven sleep patterns, was toiling each night with her head down on the pillow and eyes wide open. Bed, which is supposed to be the place to relax, was becoming the enemy of sleep. She’d finish a day’s work and still have a bunch of to-dos flipping through her mind like information on a microfiche. She had to take control. Here is her chockablock routine:
- Only one cup of coffee early morning and no more caffeine after noon.
- Exercise every day.
- Eat healthier.
- Before bed, take a warm or hot shower.
- Sit on a chair and read.
- Make sure her bedroom is cold.
- Get into bed by 10 p.m. and watch an old movie on TCM. Never watch the news before bedtime.
- Keep a pad and pencil on her nightstand so she can jot things down. It gets it out of her head and helps clear her mind.
- The bed: Silky cotton sheets, lots of pillows, and warm comforter.
- Try to sleep in a Vitruvian position aka Leonardo da Vinci (a friend suggested this) on her back, legs splayed arms slightly outstretched as if getting into position to do a snow angel.
- If she wakes at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and can’t fall back to sleep, she takes out her iPad and in the dark and watches or listens to a few minutes of The Crown which often puts her back to sleep quickly.
A friend of Margaret’s has a slightly different bedtime prep which she shares.
- She takes a warm shower.
- If she watches TV, no news.
- One hour before bed, no screens. No TV, no iPhone.
- Read in bed.
- No talking on the phone after 9pm.
- If she’s wakes up and is unable to fall back to sleep in the middle of the night, she listens to yoga Nidra, a meditative app on her phone. Even if she doesn’t use it, she’ll set it just in case.
- She’ll save watching the news or listening to Rachel Maddow and Bill Maher podcasts for the morning.
Barbara’s sleepy time routine is simple and straightforward. She usually goes to bed about 10:30 p.m.and falls asleep watching some show on TV. She sleeps well except when her partner who has sleep apnea visits. He also is an aging male and we’ll leave out the specifics of what that means. But the bottom line is that he’s up and down and down and up and that interrupts her sleep occasionally, not all the time. But her younger daughter, a child psychologist and sleep guru, has witnessed Barbara falling asleep in front of TV shows and movies. She has advocated that her mom turn off the TV and stop looking at her phone an hour before bedtime. Barbara plans to try to start doing so to sleep even better. She also is trying to meditate each morning to get off to a good start.
All these rituals are adjustable. Remember, (that is if you’re sleeping enough to have a memory) sleep is an eight-hour opportunity to escape our regular daily lives, to dream, to be transported to another place and time without web sites, twitter feeds, other social media, work stress, cell phones and iPads. Most important, sleep well and you just might be more pleasant to be around, have more fun during the day, work more effectively and live a significantly longer life.
Part 2: We speak to The Sleep Ambassador®, Nancy H. Rothstein, MBA, who’s on a quest to raise awareness, educate and provide strategies to optimize sleep. She’ll also share tips for a good night’s Zzz's and her sleep routine. What is yours?