Most of us can recall a night of disturbed sleep. You’ve been tossing and turning for hours. It’s 4am and you find yourself staring at the alarm clock while your mind spins over all sorts of things that should be left in place until morning! Sleep disturbances can be so very frustrating. In our senior years this can become a reoccurring problem and while your instinct might be to chalk it up to ageing, don’t be too hasty. Healthy sleep is deeply important for our well-being and sleep deprivation will likely have a cause and can certainly be addressed.
When we sleep we are in fact entering into a cycle of different sleep stages. We will move between stages of lighter sleep, very deep sleep and REM sleep which is when we dream. Our minds will go through this cyclical process many times each night. The amount of sleep a person needs varies quite widely, with an average of around 8 hours, but if we do not get the quality of sleep that we need we can experience deteriorations in our health and mental state. We might be more forgetful, more inclined to accidents, and begin to feel unwell.
Alterations in sleep patterns can be triggered by shifts in hormones, a change of lifestyle, (for example moving from an active schedule to a more sedentary one), increased stress or psychological disorders such as depression. You may be experiencing pain or discomfort due to physical illness, the onset of dementia may trigger poor sleep, or perhaps a reaction to a medication is causing your insomnia. Beyond all of this, you might simply have fallen into bad sleep habits.
It is always a good idea to discuss difficulty sleeping with your doctor. The clearer the picture they have of your health the better they can treat you, and they might well connect your sleep disturbances with a specific cause or suggest treatments.
In the mean time here are some suggestions of how to establish good sleep habits that stand you in the best stead to get the restful sleep you need:
- If your sleep schedule is erratic, try to establish a schedule in which you rise in the morning and go to bed at night at more or less the same time. Cut back on daytime napping to see how this affects your night time restfulness.
- Try to take some gentle exercise each day. Getting moving provides great benefits to our health, maintaining bones and muscle, giving us a sense of wellness via so-called happy hormones that are released by activity and, of course in this case, helping us to sleep.
- Get outside in direct sunlight in the earlier part of the day to help e-establish your circadian rhythm. Perhaps combine this with your exercise by taking a stroll!
- Put aside electronic devices, switch off the television a little while before bed, and lower lighting. When it is time to sleep remove any light sources in the room and turn electronic clocks or gadgets away.
- Reduce sugar intake across the day and avoid eating a large meal right before bed. Make your evening meal a lighter one or plan your last meal of the day at an earlier hour.
- Avoid caffeine between lunch time and bed time. Establish a pre-bed time ritual of a soothing beverage such as hot milk, or a herbal tea. Many teas are prized for their qualities as a sleep-aid. Opt for Valerian Tea, Chamomile or Linden/Lime Flower, but enjoy your relaxing hot cuppa half an hour before bed so you won’t be woken in the night needing to pee!
- Night-caps can be cut down or preferably cut out all together. Alcohol disrupts our brains capacity to follow the natural sleep cycle and achieve the different stages of sleep required for restorative sleep. The feeling that alcohol may help us get to sleep in the first place is negated by the damage it does to our mind’s processes over the rest of the night.
- Use a breathing exercise, a relaxation exercise or soothing sound such as white noise which can work wonders as a sleep aid.
After getting into bed and closing your eyes, breathing in and then out through your nose, each breath for a count of three, can be a simple place to start.
Try imagining each section of your body becoming looser and heavier, starting with your toes and slowly working up through your legs, torso, up each arm, your neck and then to your head.
For sound aids, simply using a fan in the bedroom can be very calming, or consider buying a recording of sleep inducing sounds. There are many different apps and themes to choose from!
If after trying to establish a healthy sleep pattern you find you are still having trouble, speak with your doctor about other possible solutions. Beyond eliminating causes, there are many remedies, supplements, and therapeutic treatments available. Don’t settle for sleepless nights and the run-down feeling that goes with them. Let’s take care of our sleep so that we can give our bodies the best chance to be healthy and strong as we age, allowing us to maintain our vitality.