My cats sleep about twenty hours a day _ no kidding. I call them the Zen Masters because even when they are not sleeping, they’re often curled up or stretched out in total relaxation. I used to sleep solidly even with a high stress job and kids to raise. As I aged, however, a good night’s sleep often eluded me. In a quest for sleep, I read many, many articles about the subject and even talked to my doctor about it. Finally arriving at a good night’s sleep again took a lot of effort on my part.
I found there are no magic answers to getting to sleep at night and staying asleep all night long. It’s personal. What works for me may not work for you. According to several articles I read, as we age changes in our sleep patterns are normal. Before you can take action, it’s important to understand why you’re not sleeping well.
Here’s the starter. As we age, we produce less growth hormone, which is one of the body’s chemicals used to create deep sleep. We may become more sedentary. Less daily activity and exercise impact our ability to sleep. We may also be taking medications that interfere with our sleep patterns. Depression, loneliness, mental stress and physical pain can lead to sleeplessness. Ahhhh _ the vagaries of aging.
For me, despite sleeping through life’s normal stress in my younger years, stress played a large role in my inability to stay asleep all night. As you know from reading these pages, the transition from forty years of full-time work to retirement was a tough change for me. That stress kept me awake wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. By the time I figured out the answer to that question, my brain was in the habit of staying awake in bed. Now that became the source of my stress _ how to sleep at night.
My doctor didn’t offer up drugs to help me sleep, but did suggest maybe I woke up because I had to use the bathroom. No, that wasn’t it. However, if that’s a problem for you, limiting fluids about two hours before bedtime may help. From what I’ve read, the medical community often prescribes sleep aids short term to kickstart the habit of sleeping through the night. Apparently, whether it’s a prescription or over-the-counter, sleeping pills are not a good idea as they have side effects and don’t address the root of the problem. For example, some can be habit forming. Others may leave you groggy the next day. According to my doctor, better to get to sleep naturally.
In order to sleep, you must be relaxed. Think of the Zen Masters. In my younger days, after a stressful day, I’d sip a cup of warm milk with a sprinkle of cinnamon before going to bed. I also rubbed almond oil laced with lavender oil on the soles of my feet. So, I resurrected those forgotten rituals.
Never one to have a TV in the bedroom, at least I didn’t have to contend with that issue. However, I did sit in bed and read. Sometimes I even read on my tablet. Apparently, the backlit screen is not a good thing to look at just before bedtime because it is similar to morning light, fooling the brain into thinking it’s time to wake up. So, I broke that habit. I also moved the brightly lit clock on the night stand and bought drapes with a black out lining, putting them over the window shades. I live in the country but landscape lights and even a full moon cast light into the room. A dark room is necessary for sleep.
To get my brain back into the habit of bedroom as sleep room, if I couldn’t sleep, I got up and went to another room until I felt sleepy again. I’d hang out with the cats, who left their various sleeping places to join me.
When I started paying attention to what woke me at night, I realized I was too warm. I was roasting while Martin needed an extra blanket in winter. In order to make the bedding comfortable for both of us, we put a small throw on top of his side of the bed. That made all the difference for me. Cooler is apparently better when it comes to sleeping well.
I eliminated high action TV shows along with horror stories, murder mysteries and the like, whether on the tube or in a book. Nothing disturbing or adrenaline pumping before bedtime, just light subjects, easily tossed aside in favor of sleep.
As you’ll recall, I took up walking, walking, walking about a year ago. Even though I’ve always been active, the increased daily activity added to my ability to de-stress, relax and feel truly tired at bedtime. I also believe my change in diet, cutting back on heavy dinners, also helped me sleep better.
While a good night’s sleep rarely eludes me these days, I’m continuing the good habits I developed so it will hopefully stay this way. Identifying sleep problems takes time and effort. But, it’s worth it. As we age a good night’s sleep may be even more important to our long term health than it was when we were younger.
With a good night’s sleep, I’m feeling more like a Zen Master every day.