‘Now I lay me down to sleep…’ If only it were so easy, Part I

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: 

  1. Only one cup of coffee early morning and no more caffeine after noon.
  2. Exercise every day.
  3. Eat healthier.
  4. Before bed, take a warm or hot shower.
  5. Sit on a chair and read.
  6. Make sure her bedroom is cold.
  7. Get into bed by 10 p.m. and watch an old movie on TCM. Never watch the news before bedtime.
  8. 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.
  9. The bed: Silky cotton sheets, lots of pillows, and warm comforter.
  10. 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.  
  11. 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. 

  1. She takes a warm shower.
  2. If she watches TV, no news.
  3. One hour before bed, no screens. No TV, no iPhone.
  4. Read in bed.
  5. No talking on the phone after 9pm.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?



  • Anonymous

    Meg and Barbara,
    I just read your blog. Interesting and informative as ever. I’ve been an insomniac most of my life. Didn’t require much sleep as a baby, according to my mom.

    Once I had children, I didn’t sleep well literally for decades: you’re up in the night with infants; then there are the jam-packed and early school days, when you spend nights lying awake worrying that you haven’t done everything right for them; then your children are teenagers out in cars at night and you can’t sleep for worrying. Or you’re angry when they break a curfew, there’s family drama, and, again, you can’t sleep.Then they’re away—at college, grad school, first jobs. You worry about them out alone in big, unsafe cities, especially daughters.

    Then along comes that terrible thief in the night, menopause. The worst insomnia of all. Pure torture. The night crawls by as you lie awake, unable to sleep.
    I tried every kind of pill. I’m so high strung that Ambien stimulated me. I already exercised and took warm baths. My husband snored and thrashed. More torture. I’m a chronic and obsessive worrier, always reviewing the past, rehearsing for the future. And a compulsive list-maker.

    Only when I began to practice Vedic ( Hindu) Meditation at one of my daughter’s insistence (Vedic Meditation is the same as Transcendental Meditation, but it’s not
    Buddhist " mindfulness" meditation; they are two very different meditation techniques) 7 years ago did I finally learn to sleep naturally. No insomnia. I black out instantly when I hit the pillow. Completely restorative deep uninterrupted sleep.

    When I meditate for 20 minutes in the afternoon, sometimes I black out for that period as well, and it’s supposed to be equivalent to 3 hrs of sleep.

    No one told me this would happen. I was amazed. It’s life-changing. Basically, I’ve just learned to damp down my over-active nervous system through years of a 20 minute daily late afternoon meditation. It’s a healthful habit, like brushing one’s teeth.

    BTW, I have zero interest in Eastern religion, “spirituality,” or the accoutrements of meditation. Meditation is emphatically not a religious experience for me. I like the religion I have, Judaism. I’m not a “JewBu” , as we say in Cali, a Jewish Buddhist. I ignore the religious component of meditation. It’s optional. It’s for me strictly a stress-reducing technique.

    I now " review and rehearse" far less and exist much more fully in the present moment. I feel like a different, better, healthier, more-evolved version of myself. I often feel a deep quiet happiness I never knew existed. Research at Harvard etc has shown that meditation actually physically alters your brain, reducing the size of the amygdala ,
    where the fight or flight response and emotions reside.

    Sorry to proselytize, but it’s just such a simple, brilliant solution. Meditation should be taught in our schools. The mental health of our nation would greatly improve.

  • SAvitri

    Very good ideas. Do practice some of them

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