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To Sleep Perchance to Dream

24

I love my bed! I know some people feel that time spent asleep is wasteful and claim they can manage perfectly well on just 4 hours sleep a night but I have always felt that sleeping is one of the most pleasurable things that we do and that it makes my waking life worth living. And now my love of sleep has been totally vindicated in a new book by Matthew Walker called 'Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams'. The book has quite a lot to say about sleep and ageing so I thought I'd pick out the most relevant parts of it to share with you. Hopefully it won't alarm you too much because throughout the book, Walker stresses the vital importance of good quality sleep for our physical and mental health - to quote him "Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day - Mother Nature's best efforts yet at contra-death." Fortunately he gives lots of advice on how to improve the quality of the sleep we are having, which I know is a concern for lots of us as we age.

Why We Sleep: This was a mystery for a very long time. In evolutionary terms, sleep is a very bad idea because asleep we are clearly much more vulnerable to attack from predators and yet our need to be unconscious for around a third of the time in a 24 hour period has not changed over thousands of years. Walker makes the very strong case that sleep is essential for our survival because of what happens to our bodies and minds in terms of essential repair. Shakespeare summed it up brilliantly when he wrote in Macbeth:

"Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast."

The Circadian Rhythm - Lark or Owl?

Our circadian rhythm is the twenty-four hour body clock which governs (among many other things) wakefulness, levels of alertness and how and why we become sleepy and ready for our beds. It's taken me 69 years to discover that my circadian rhythm is not only normal, but shared by 30% of the population! I am an 'Owl' which means that my body is very alert and wakeful until around 11.30 pm. I rarely go to bed before that time and then I read for half an hour, and sleep like a log from midnight until (preferably) at least 8 am. I tend to wake very slowly and feel groggy and thick headed until about 11.00 am. All my life, 'Larks' - the 40% of the population who snap awake at 6.00 am and are asleep by 10pm - have judged me as 'lazy' because I find it so hard to get going in the mornings. Having read a perfect description of my circadian rhythm in Walker's book I feel so relieved - there is nothing wrong with me! I am not lazy and, when I can go to bed and get up at a time that is best for my body, I sleep really soundly and feel full of beans from around 11am until midnight.

Melatonin and Adenosine.

It's our circadian rhythm which prepares us for bed with the release of the hormone melatonin. This is released as night approaches to regulate the timing of when sleep occurs, but it has no effect on the generation of sleep itself. Melatonin, contrary to popular belief, doesn't act as a sleeping pill, but as a starter gun for the the period of drowsiness to be triggered. From a high peak at midnight, melatonin levels gradually diminish to attain their lowest levels by midday. The second force that will determine when you feel sleepy is a chemical in the brain called adenosine. This gradually builds up with every waking minute until, at its peak, it creates such strong sleep pressure that slumber becomes an irresistible urge. Both melatonin and adenosine are affected by ageing.

Sleep and Ageing

Some people think we need less sleep the older we get. However the fact that we tend to sleep less well doesn't mean that we don't need the restorative benefits of a good night's sleep. Walker goes so far as to suggest that many of the health problems of ageing are both caused and greatly exacerbated by poor quality sleep. There are three main causes of this as we get older:

1. The first is that from our forties both the intensity and length of time we spend in the vital NREM (Non Rapid Eye Movement) period of sleep diminishes. The NREM phase is essential for memory and learning.

2. Our sleeping patterns become fragmented. Weaker bladders mean that we wake to go to the loo more frequently than we did when younger.

3. Our circadian timing changes as we age. Melatonin tends to be released earlier in the evening leading to a great desire to be in bed at an earlier time. Going out in the evening becomes a challenge, to stay awake for long enough to enjoy the film, theatre or restaurant outing. Falling asleep in the chair in front of the TV clears away the sleep pressure of adenosine, meaning that at bedtime there is not enough left to get you to sleep or to stay asleep for very long.

How to Get a Better Night's Sleep

Walker has a couple of age-related pieces of advice (1 and 2) and some general guidance for all adults (3-8):

1. Regular exercise will help you to sleep better. However, Walker suggests that you wear sunglasses for morning exercise but take them off for afternoon exercise as a way to combat the early to bed, early to rise sleep pattern with lessened exposure to bright light in the first half of the day. He also suggests that it's best not to exercise two to three hours before bedtime.

2. You may wish to consult your doctor about prescribing melatonin to be taken in the evening to combat the lower levels of melatonin that older bodies tend to release.

3. Get up and go to bed at the same time every day, including weekends to create regular habits around sleeping time and waking time. If you do none of the other things advised here, at least do this!

4. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants which affect sleep. Best not to drink coffee (or tea or cola-type drinks) after mid-afternoon as their effects can last up to 8 hours. For smokers the stimulating effect of nicotine means that you sleep more lightly and may wake earlier than you'd like because of nicotine withdrawal.

5. Avoid alcohol and large meals before bedtime as both will interfere with the quality of rest. Heavy use of alcohol robs you of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, keeping your sleep light.

6. Don't nap after 3 pm. Naps may help you to make up for lost sleep, but will make it harder to fall asleep at night.

7. Check with your doctor that medications you may be prescribed for heart or blood pressure problems or asthma are not delaying or disrupting your sleep. Some over the counter remedies for coughs, colds or allergies, including herbal remedies might also affect the quality of your sleep. It might be possible to take such medication earlier in the day.

8. Keep your bedroom for sleeping only and make sure the room is very dark and cool - no warmer than 18º. Also avoid using electronic tablets like iPads in the bedroom and up to two hours before bedtime as studies show that because of their blue LED light, they block the rise in melatonin by 23%.

9. Take a hot bath and relax for at least a half an hour before bed to allow yourself to unwind.

10. Don't lie in bed awake. If you are feeling anxious get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy and then go back to bed.

I do hope you have found this blog helpful and not worrying. I can thoroughly recommend the book, however it does stress just how important sleep is to our well- being - which might cause you to lose sleep! I found it very helpful because it gave the perfect explanation for my terrible grogginess first thing. Now I know this is down to my Owl circadian rhythm, I can completely relax about it. Do share your experiences and anything that you have found works for you to get a better night's sleep by leaving a comment below.

 

So, what do you think ?

24 Comments

  • Sharon Brattle October 28, 2017 at 14:15

    This was very interesting Tricia, and so interesting to read everyone else's experiences with sleep problems. I too use Avon pillow spray, which smells lovely and very relaxing, as well as This Works sleep products, especially when travelling. I find the most difficult thing is turning my mind off, as when I lie down everything starts whirling around. I usually get up and make a cup of Ovaltine, and read to distract my mind. I try meditation, but find it difficult to keep concentrated, and find my thoughts wandering off again & again! If anyone walks past my house in the early hours, they might be shocked to see me practising Yoga on the lounge floor!! What a thought!!

  • Valerie Bell October 26, 2017 at 16:36

    That is so interesting, Tricia, I am an Owl too and have often felt guilty for feeling so groggy in the mornings. Now understand and will try not to nap in the afternoon. But I often have very wakeful nights and then it is so difficult. Really notice the difference when it is a good night. Must try to be a little more active, know I should. Will try harder now. Thank you.

  • Heather Dawon October 24, 2017 at 20:37

    Inthis wonderful sounding article not one mention of the curse that wakes thousands of women including myself....hot flushes. Since I came off hrt a year I have not had a decent night's sleep and I have tried most of the alternatives.

  • Christie Hawkes October 22, 2017 at 22:52

    I've always been one that needed a full eight hours of sleep to function well, though admittedly I usually get closer to seven. I know it's important to keep regular sleep hours even on the weekends, but I find it difficult to do. I love sleeping in until the sun is up, but on work days I am forced to rise before 5 a.m. One thing I will commit to is cutting off the caffeine earlier in the afternoon. It's a start! Thanks for the useful information.

    ~Christie

  • Patricia October 22, 2017 at 19:27

    Sleep is a very anxiety provoking subject for me. When I read articles that say you MUST have 8 hours, MUST do this or that ,I become VERY anxious . I also worry that if I have less than the prescribed 8 hours my under eye bags will become more pronounced. So..... I have decided that I am going to ignore all this horrible prescriptive stuff. I am a healthy individual with my own bodily rhythms.

    • triciacusden October 22, 2017 at 20:55

      Hi Patricia - I do realise the dangers of a doom-laden blog about the vital role that sleep plays! I hoped to err on the side of helpful hints rather than 'shoulds' 'oughts' and 'musts' - which, like you I also dislike. I sometimes sleep less well and refuse to worry about it - because I know that will be counter-productive. So I get up, eat a banana if I am hungry, and read for a while and then go back to bed in the hope of catching some more shut eye before I have to get up. Triciax

  • Margaret Wilson October 22, 2017 at 18:28

    I couldn't agree more that good sleep is so important. Sleep by This Works is a spray you can buy that helps you to get to sleep - my husband says it really helps him and I must say it smells wonderful. We initially bought it on-line after finding it on the bedside unit of a hotel in Birmingham but noticed recently that large M&S stores are stocking it.

  • Gina October 22, 2017 at 17:19

    Fascinating article as always! Yes, sleep is very important and as I do two jobs I am very pleased my second job in the evening is physical as being physically tired, as opposed to mentally tired, is better for sleep. By the way Tricia, I watched your appearance on the Tonight - Work Til You Drop program; you looked stunning!

    • triciacusden October 22, 2017 at 18:41

      Thank you Gina - you are very kind. It was an interesting programme to do as I strongly believe that organisations need to think about their older staff differently - and hopefully I was able to show the positive side of being an older working woman. Triciax

  • Christine October 22, 2017 at 16:39

    I have always needed more sleep than most people i know. When i started having hot flushes 16 years ago my sleep really suffered and my energy levels where at an all time low. I would be in meltdown all day and then wake soaked in sweat every night. For anyone who has a similar problem please check out the deluxe pillows at Woolroom.com. No more pillow flipping for the cool side, we how have pillows, duvet and the topper and because its all natural wool it breathes so much better than anything else. Its made a huge difference.

  • Frances Bernstein October 22, 2017 at 14:06

    I found this article most helpful and thank you for it!!!

  • Barbara October 22, 2017 at 13:14

    I took an online CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) course called Sleepio. It is excellent and good value at £50. I came across it via Boots (the chemist). I sleep better now and understand the reasons why I do not sleep.

  • Angela Coudert October 22, 2017 at 12:50

    A really great article! I am an owl, and love my bed, but didn't realise that being groggy until 11 am was a characteristic. It is helpful for me to focus on melantonin, and not looking at an iPad before bedtime. Thank you Tricia!

  • WANDA SKINNER October 22, 2017 at 12:13

    A calming herbal tea containing camomile, and a camomile and lavender spray such as Avon Pillow Mist helps me. Little rituals such as these and deep meditative breathing

    wanda (ex owl, now lark since I was in my fifties - now 68)

  • Ruth October 22, 2017 at 12:03

    So agree with this article and thank you for summarising the main points. Have been meaning to buy this book for a while so will definitely do so now on your recommendation.

  • June McGill October 22, 2017 at 11:27

    Sadly I can't put much of this into action. So many times I've read articles on how to get a better "night's" sleep. For many of us in shift work, to actually sleep at night would be a luxury! As airline cabin crew I find I'm often up for 24 hours in order to adjust to the country I'm in, only to fall asleep and be wide awake 3 hours later, before having to work another 10 hours on a flight home that same day. Many longhaul flights are now rostered as "bullets" (meaning one local night in resort). I kissed goodbye to meaningful sleep many years ago! Even shorthaul trips are rostered 24/7. I'm sure all shift workers will identify with this, but especially those of us who end up in a strange hotel bed in another country after eating unfamiliar food!

  • Fenella Ford October 22, 2017 at 10:49

    Thanks for this interesting blog Tricia - this is something that I have thought about and discussed with friends quite recently - so it is very apposite! What I'm wondering is - can we change from being an owl when young, to being a lark when older? I think I have done this. In my young life I was definitely a night owl - I loved the long evenings to do things and was rarely in bed before midnight - sometime 1.00 or 1.30 - I wouldn't find it hard to stay up and be alert. I would probably get up about 7.45 - 8.15 and then really hurry to get to work on time! From age 25 - 39 I spent 14 years as an enclosed nun (gulp! I know I have a very unusual life story!!) There the lights out time was 10.00pm and we got up at about 5.15. I got used to this and since then - the past 20 years in fact, I have stayed with going to bed on the early side - 10.45 lights out would probably be my ideal now. I used to get up for work 6.10 - 6.20 and never felt I was getting enough sleep, but since I have retired, just over a year ago (bliss!) I go to bed around the same time - perhaps lights out after reading up to 11.15, but wake up at different times. I think the light affects me - in the summer I wake much earlier and usually go down and make a cup of tea and either do something on the computer or read in that quiet time. Thanks for listening :) x

    • triciacusden October 22, 2017 at 11:24

      Hi Fenella - I think many 'Larks' would say that 10.45 pm is really late to go to bed - it might feel early to you but it would feel late to a true Lark. There is a group of people (around 30%) who are not definitely Owl or Lark - to complicate things further. Have you thought about black-out curtains for summer use or even an eye mask? I once spent midsummer in the Arctic Circle where there is 24 hours of daylight in summer, and we stayed up dancing until about 2 a.m in the sunshine without feeling at all tired. Our room had shutters on the window to create darkness so that our bodies would accept that it was now time to sleep. An odd experience but one which brought home how much we respond to light and dark for waking and sleeping. Triciax

  • Maralyn October 22, 2017 at 10:45

    This was helpful. Some good ideas, especially the temperature if the bedroom. I am frequently too hot

    • triciacusden October 22, 2017 at 10:49

      Hi Maralyn - according to the book, if we get too hot in our sleep we put our feet and hands outside the covers in an attempt to cool down! I've always loved a really cold bedroom - maybe because my first experience of life was as a baby born on Christmas day 1947 during one of the coldest winters on record (and no central heating!) Triciax

  • Annette Downie October 22, 2017 at 10:27

    I am definitely an owl! I also have that groggy feeling in the morning, which did bother me, nowI know I am almost normal!!

  • Gerry October 22, 2017 at 10:04

    Another great blog Tricia. I so look forward to my Sunday morning in bed with a coffee and a gentle reminder from you of something I should be doing or thinking about! Strange that this blog should follow the best night sleep I have had for ages. I have also learnt from reading about sleep patterns the importance of going to sleep and waking at the same time each evening and morning. No surprise to find that I am a Lark but like you relief to know that that’s ok. I’m fed up of Owl friends who think me strange because I don’t watch programs that start at 9pm! Thank goodness for Catch Up TV. The one other thing that I find particularly helpful is the use of a pillow spray. Boot Botanics do a great lavender pillow spray. If nothing else it smells wonderful but am sure that the act of putting down my book, spraying my pillow and switching off the light are all triggers that help.

  • Margo October 22, 2017 at 09:56

    Tricia
    I got up very early this morning to have a bowl of Rice Krispies in the vain hope of soothing myself back to sleep. While I was in the kitchen I thought I would have a look at your blog to see your piece today. Well my goodness yet again you have hit the nail on the head as sleep is a huge issue for me. Unlike you I am a lark. This is largely of necessity as our alarm clock goes off at 6 am
    My difficulty is not getting to sleep but staying that way This is partly due to the usual toilet trips but also family concerns which seem to run completely out of control in the middle of the night
    I will go onto Amazon this morning to get the book to see if I can improve the sleep issues
    In the meantime I am away to put on my LLF face and everyone will tell me how well I look as the tiredness is completely disguised!
    Keep up you blogs they are my favourite weekly read
    On another point I know you have done pieces in the past on weight loss and healthy eating but an update sometime would be great. To carb or not to carb is an issue for me at the moment
    Warm regards
    Margo

  • Linda Mitchell October 22, 2017 at 09:50

    I too love my bed!! I am a lark and rarely stay up after 10pm. I no longer worry at all about getting enough sleep (I used to). Each nights sleep is often different for me. I am fortunate that I am still active enough to go about my daily life and enjoy every minute. I am 68. Sunday morning wouldn't be the same without your wonderful words, thank you!!

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