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Yesterday, I returned home from a seven-day trip to Ireland. It was an absolutely wonderful get-away to a mystically beautiful country with some of the warmest and friendliest people I've met. The ancient land whispers to you and I’m honored to have been embraced by her beauty. I had the time of my life, but I am so very glad to be back home in my own house, surrounded by my children and the peace of a loving home. After a week of me time I’m filled with gratitude and ready to resume my own daily rhythms once again.
Travel always takes its toll. That's why travel and travail share the same root word! For me, the differences in time zones always disrupts my already fragile sleep patterns. The first few days into any overseas trip are rough. Then, just when I start to get some balance back, it's time to head home and repeat the process all over again. It always reminds me of how important sleep is to our overall physical, mental, and spiritual health.
Even without jet lag, your body’s circadian rhythms change during your lifetime, and with those changes come differences in sleep patterns. When you’re young, sleep is something you don’t give a lot of thought too...it’s just something that happens when you have the extra time.
Way back when, you used to stay up late, get up early, and still feel as refreshed as if you’d had a full eight-or-nine hours of good sleep. Nowadays, though, things seem to be a bit different. Maybe it’s harder to fall asleep or more difficult to stay asleep for a long period of time during the night, or maybe you feel as if you just can’t get through the day without napping.
These changes are normal as you reach your 40s, 50s, and 60s, but they can be frustrating and even alarming if you’re not sure what’s going on. There is a lot you can do to make sure that you’re maximizing your sleep time to keep you healthier physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Here are six secrets to sleep success that’ll have you feeling more rested and ready to handle your days with ease.
1. Your Sleep Patterns Change with Age
The first step to better sleep is to stop expecting things to be the same as they were in your 20s and 30s. Many people, as they age, find that they require less sleep. Some have more sleep interruptions, and that's completely normal. So you may find yourself needing to stay in bed for a longer duration to actually accumulate the amount of truly restful sleep you need during the night.
You may find yourself naturally gravitating towards going to bed earlier, and waking up earlier. This, too, is a natural effect of aging on sleep habits, so it’s nothing to be concerned about. Attempting to battle this change in sleep pattern can result in even less restful sleep, so if your schedule can accommodate it, let your body sleep when it wants to sleep.
2. Develop Healthier Sleep Habits
I’m sure you all know that exercise will help you sleep better – it likely has your entire life. What you might not know is that studies show that men and women over 50 show marked improvement in restful sleep if they engage in aerobic exercise for 30-45 minutes, four times a week. Just don't exercise right before bed or it'll have the opposite effect, and could keep you awake!
Low impact aerobic exercises like walking, swimming, or riding a bicycle are recommended to protect your joints, and even activities such as dancing around the house, and deep housecleaning qualify as exercise. If your heart rate is elevated, and your breathing comes a bit quicker, you’re in the right zone!
Sunlight is important to sleep cycle regulation, so try to get outside each and every day. If you can combine getting your daily sunlight with exercise, all the better! If you tend to feel a negative mood shift during dark winter months, invest in a SAD lamp, and use it religiously. This will help both your mood and your sleep.
Avoid bright screens within 1-2 hours of your bedtime. The blue light emitted by your phone, tablet, computer, or TV is unbelievably disruptive. Minimize the impact by using devices with smaller screens, turning the brightness down, or using light-altering software. Many devices now have a "night light" setting that eliminates the blue light. Use that setting if you must, but it's much healthier to simply put the devices down at night.
Say no to late-night television. Many programs are stimulating rather than relaxing. Instead, try listening to music, audio meditations, or audio books.
Your bedroom environment isn’t something you give much thought to, but you should. In order to facilitate the best sleep, your bedroom should be dark, cool, and quiet when it’s time for bed. Your mattress should provide the proper amount of support for your spine, and your pillow should fit your tendency to sleep on your back, front, or side.
Finally, keep a nightly routine that doesn’t often change. Your subconscious will recognize this routine, and will be ready for sleep when the time comes.
3. Be Aware of Underlying Issues Effecting Your Sleep
Our health is one of the main factors in how much restful sleep we get. If we are unhealthy or sick in any way, physically or mentally, our sleep will suffer. So be very aware of health issues that may be affecting your sleep such as a recent emotional trauma and/or high stress levels. Things like the medications we take can also have an effect on our sleep – both our ability to get to sleep and stay asleep. Make sure you talk with your doctor about side effects of all medications you take, so that if a problem does arise, you’ll know where it originates.
If you suffer from depression or anxiety, this can also greatly affect your sleep quality. Restless Legs Syndrome is common for those who suffer from anxiety, though scientists aren’t sure if RLS is caused by anxiety, or if it is the other way around. Relaxation techniques, as we’ll discuss in the next section, can help ease your stress and anxiety, fall asleep more easily, and get more restful sleep.
4. Utilize Stress-Reduction and Relaxation Techniques
One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to learn to break the habit of worrying about things we cannot control. Creating your own suffering (the Buddhist concept of dukkha) is something that so many of us do, albeit unknowingly. The key here is that once you recognize that you are participating in useless worry, you can begin not doing it, and eliminate this negative habit forever.
The use of other relaxation techniques, especially just before bedtime, will also help reduce stress. Meditation, guided muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, and even coloring in a coloring book are all practices that help focus and quiet your mind, bring you into the now, slow your breathing, and ready you for a smooth transition into sleep.
5. Improve Your Diet, Increase Your Exercise
Though we’ve touched on the importance of aerobic exercise in the improvement of sleep, that’s certainly not the only type of exercise that is beneficial to us as we approach our 50s, 60s, and beyond!
Strength training (or weight-bearing exercise) is important to battle the effects that aging naturally has on our bodies. Performing simple calisthenic exercises such as pushups, crunches, and leg lifts are an effective way to work strength training into your everyday life.
Flexibility and balance naturally wane as we get older, and you can combat that by getting involved in tai chi, yoga, martial arts, or Pilates. These exercises will lengthen your muscles, increase your flexibility, and allow you to maintain your balance to lessen the chances of falling and injuring yourself.
And of course, any exercise during your day will help your energy, sleep, and overall emotional happiness as well!
Where sleep is concerned, it’s more about what to avoid in your diet than it is about what to include. Caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine are the main culprits, and the less of them you include in your life, the better off you’ll sleep (and feel). Many people are sensitive to the effects of sugar in their bloodstream, so if this sounds like you, consuming less sugary sweets and simple carbohydrates will do you a world of good, both asleep and awake.
6. Talk to Your Doctor
Finally, if you feel as if you’re doing everything right, and restful sleep is still a pipe dream, consult your doctor. Sleep studies are available to help diagnose medical sleep issues, and the road to restful, restorative sleep could be just a phone call away.
It's important that we take care of ourselves in order to be the best we can possibly be. An important part of that self-care is balance. When your sleep rhythms are out of whack, your body is unable to bring you back to where you need to be each morning - fresh, energized and alive. That imbalance prevents you from being who you're truly meant to be.
These six secrets to sleep success are so important when it comes to being authentically you! I use them every day to ensure that I'm getting the very best sleep I can. I know that when I do, I'm ready to face the day, vibrant and alive, in balance and in sync with my very best self.