October 18, 2013

SLEEP: How to Do It Better

This is the second in a continuing weekly series about sleep.

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I’ve described my battle with insomnia, a problem that nearly drove me to the brink during my summer from hell a few years ago. For the time being, anyway, I’m enjoying a reprieve, aware more than ever that a good night’s sleep lies at the heart of my general well-being.

There are lots of reasons why I’m sleeping better these days. One of them  -- I’m convinced – is my daily "joy of quiet" meditation.

Studies show that half of all older adults have trouble sleeping. Luckily for us, doctors and sleep experts offer loads of advice. I want to share some of those tips from three different sources today.

AARP’s fall Strive for Healthy Living pamphlet gets right down to basics:
  • Exercise regularly. About 30 minutes of moderate motion  most days of the week boosts your mood along with the quality and quantity of sleep.
  • Ban electronics from your bedroom.  TVs and computers can distract you from sleep. Backlit tablet devices emit light that lowers levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. (This particular problem was the subject of last weeks' post.)
  • Nap smartly. Try not to snooze between 3 p.m. and bedtime.
  • Use light therapy. Thirty minutes of natural sunlight during the day may help to properly sync your internal clock. As evening approaches, dim overhead lights.

That same AARP bulletin also included several dietary suggestions for a good night’s sleep:
  • SKIP: big meals at night.
  • CHOOSE: light bites close to bedtime.
  • SKIP: chocolate (it contains caffeine).
  • CHOOSE: kiwis (they’re rich in serotonin, which promotes REM sleep).
  • SKIP: the nightcap.
  • CHOOSE: tart cherry juice (it contains melatonin, the sleep hormone).

The lead story in the Tufts University October 2013 Health & Nutrition Letter – “A Good Night’s Sleep Boosts Your Healthy Diet and Lifestyle” – included these recommendations:
  • Finish eating at least two to three hours before your regular bedtime.
  • Eat a healthful, balanced diet with a minimum of refined sugars, which are stimulating.
  • Avoid nicotine.
  • Avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate) close to bedtime.
  • Avoid alcohol close to bedtime, which can lead to disrupted sleep later in the night.
  • Maintain a regular bedtime and wake time schedule, including weekends.
  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet, and not too cool or too warm, with a comfortable mattress and pillows.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex. (Reading in bed to relax is OK.)
  • Exercise regularly, but complete your workout at least a few hours before bedtime.

The Wellness Letter from the University of California / Berkeley ran a special fall issue that featured the “ABCs of Sleep.”  Here are its suggestions:
  • Limit alcohol.
  • Avoid or cut down on caffeine.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Eliminate noise.
  • Make your bedroom sleep-friendly.
  • Set a regular time to go to bed and get up.
  • Don’t eat a large meal two to three hours before bedtime.
  • Drink less liquid after dinner.
  • If you nap, keep it to 30 minutes maximum.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Relax and try to retreat from your problems before going to bed.
  • Limit your use of devices with an LED backlit screen close to bedtime.
  • Use your bed only for sleep and sex.
  • If you can’t sleep, get out of bed.
  • Be aware of how your bed partner’s problems affect your sleep.
  • If you’re losing sleep because of worry, stress, or grief, try to find ways to mitigate this effect.

If you’ve tried just about everything (as I once thought I had) and problems persist, there are options, including medication and sleep clinic assessments. We’ll cover those “remedies” -- and other issues about sleeping -- in the weeks ahead.

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