Can someone please tell me why the younger we are the more sleep we need but don’t want, and the older we get the more we want it but can’t seem to get it? What a mind trip. When we are young we need sleep for recovery, growth, and mental development. As we age we need a bit less sleep but can’t seem to get enough. When I was a kid, a nap was a punishment or at least seemed like it. I didn’t want to miss anything (enter FOMO). Now, if I could negotiate naptime into my employment package I totally would.
The best quote I have ever heard about sleep was from Arnold Schwartzenegger. If you don’t know his story, he accomplished pretty much everything in life he set out to do. When talking about time utilization and the ability to maximize effort he said, and if I may paraphrase, “you need this much time to do this and that, which leaves you 6 hours for sleep. If you need 7 or 8 hours then just sleep faster.” For some reason, I believe he could probably pull that off. But for most of us, it’s not just about how much we sleep but the quality of our sleep.
As humans, sleep is when the body recovers. It’s like a reset button on the brain and body. When we are younger it is when we develop and grow, but as we age sleep is just as important. I found this out in graduate school. I found that if I held a highlighter in my hand when I was struggling to stay awake during a profound lecture, I would end up dropping it when I fell asleep. This would wake me up and just that momentary reset seemed to be enough to get me through the rest of the lecture if not the day. Not that this happened more than once, don’t tell Dr. Gorniak.
For many reasons sleep is important, but for just as many reasons we don’t get enough. To get quality sleep, much like anything in life we want to succeed in, we need to prepare. Try to go to sleep at the same time every night. For most of us, this will be a bit difficult on the weekends but during the week I am sure we can make a concerted effort. The body responds well to patterns, consistency, and schedules. You will notice that your body will start to prepare itself for this time at night and you will get to sleep quicker with less tossing and turning. Black-out curtains will help to keep the room dark and allow our body’s circadian rhythm (internal clock) to function properly. Melatonin, a hormone released in the body to help calm us down and get us ready for sleep, is produced when it is dark and decreases in production when your body is exposed to light. Also try keeping the bedroom cool, between 65 and 74 degrees. No one likes to sweat while they are trying to sleep. Start to get ready for bed about an hour before you go to sleep. Put the electronics down and turn the TV off. Remember that the bed should be used for sleep and sex. This is a perfect time to cuddle and catch up with your significant other.
If you like, use this time to get ready for the next day by getting your clothes picked out or preparing whatever you like for breakfast and have it ready to go. Do some meditation and or light stretching for relaxation. Don’t over do it, as we are not trying to increase heart rate and blood flow. Set this time aside for you. Make time to read, just don’t make it about work or something that’s going to increase stress levels.
Fasting before bed, three hours if possible decreases insulin circulation in your system and can help clean up the brain and its connections. Excessive insulin in the body is becoming more of a focal point in the study of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. It is said that increased levels of insulin for prolonged periods may have a contributing factor in the accumulation of Amyloid plaques in the brain. This is one of the primary reasons brain cells don’t communicate in patients with the disease.
Avoid the nightcap right before bed or at least an hour before you go to sleep. Alcohol is tricky. You may feel like it helps you go to sleep but it can deter your body from getting that deep, restful sleep that you are looking for.
A lack of sleep decreases willpower and increases moodiness. It will diminish your ability to perform at peak levels the next day. If we are trying to follow a meal plan it can derail us by decreasing proper decision-making ability.
If you are having trouble sleeping because your mind is racing, then try to distract your mind with some easy meditation. Count your breaths. Breathing in is one and out is two. Count to ten then start over. Think about the breath going in your nose to your lungs. This simple exercise will distract your mind from whatever it is you can’t stop thinking about and won’t let you fall asleep. Your mind will stray but just bring your attention back to your breathing. You will get better at this and will soon find yourself waking up not remembering how many sheep you counted. And don’t worry, that number will decrease as you get better at this exercise.
Whatever it is, try to slow down before you put your head on the pillow. For most of us, it is tough going 0-60 in the morning just jumping out of bed and running to the car to take on the world. A morning routine helps us with that (we will talk about that another time.) But an evening routine will allow us to go from 60 to 0 and get quality, refreshing sleep that will help us not just feel, but BE refreshed and energetic, ready to take on whatever challenges the world has for us the next day.