Along with the physical changes that occur as we get older, changes to our sleep patterns are a normal part of the aging process. As people age they tend to have a harder time falling asleep and more trouble staying asleep.
It is a common misconception that sleep needs decline with age. In fact, research indicates that our sleep needs remain constant throughout adulthood.
The term “sleep hygiene”doesn’t refer to freshly washed pyjamas! It‘s a term for the habits that foster a good night’s sleep. You can dramatically improve your sleep quality by making a few minor adjustments to lifestyle and attitude.
Listen to your body clock
The body’s alternating sleep-wake cycle is controlled by an internal ‘clock’ within the brain. Most bodily processes (such as temperature and brain states) are synchronised to this 24-hour physiological clock. Getting a good sleep means working with your body clock, not against it.
• Get up at the same time every day. This routine will help to ‘reset’ your body clock and you’ll find yourself getting sleepy at about the same time every night.
• Enjoy the early morning sunshine. Exposure to light during early waking hours helps to set your body clock.
• Don’t take afternoon naps.
• Respond to tiredness by going to bed when your body tells you it’s ready. Don’t nod off in front of the TV!
• Conversely don’t go to bed if you don’t feel tired. You will only reinforce bad habits such as lying awake.
Improve your sleeping environment
• Good sleep is more likely if your bedroom feels restful and comfortable.
• Update your mattress if it’s failing to provide the support you need.
• Make sure the room is at the right temperature and dark enough.
• If external noises are an issue, buy a pair of earplugs.
• Use your bedroom only for sleeping and intimacy, not for laptop use or television.
Avoid drugs in the evening
X Cigarettes! Nicotine is a stimulant. The side effects, including accelerated heart rate and increased blood pressure, are likely to keep you awake for longer.
X Alcohol! Alcohol is a depressant drug, slowing the nervous system. Alcohol disturbs the rhythm of sleep patterns, and may necessitate nocturnal trips to toilet. With or without a hangover you won’t feel refreshed in the morning.
X Sleeping pills! The drawbacks include daytime sleepiness, failure to address the causes of sleeping problems, and after a period of using sleeping pills, falling asleep without them tends to be even harder. Sleeping tablets should only be used as a temporary measure and under strict medical advice.
Relax your mind and body
Insomnia is often caused by worrying or a “busy head”.
• Well before bedtime write down any issues to discourage rumination. Once you retire, remind yourself that you’ve already done your worrying for the day.
• Try not to engage in mentally or physically stimulating activities close to bedtime. Use the last hour or so before sleep to relax your mind and body.
• Try a meditation CD. You will be led through a sequence whereby you relax every part of your body, from your toes to your head. Or just sit quietly thinking of a restful scene, while concentrating on the rhythmic rise and fall of your breathing.
• Avoid caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee, or hot chocolate) close to bedtime. A warm drink of milk contains a sleep-enhancing amino acid.
• Take a warm bath.
• Turn your alarm clock to the wall so you don’t dwell on the time.
If all this fails…
If you can’t fall asleep within a reasonable amount of time, get out of bed and do something else for half an hour such as reading a book. If your best efforts fail to improve your sleep, consider professional help. Speak to your GP for information and referral.