By Hazel Bridges
Medical science has shown that every aspect of our mental and physical health is tied closely to sleep. Restful sleep can strengthen major organs and cardiopulmonary functioning, but it is especially related to brain health. The less sleep you get as you age, the faster the brain ages and shows signs of brain-ventricle enlargement, brain shrinkage and compromised cognitive functioning. Studies have shown that people who suffer from sleep problems are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. A lack of sleep can also create long-term problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and depression. Clearly, sleep is key to brain and body health the older you get. Fortunately, there are several sleep strategies that can improve the amount and quality of health you get each night and, in so doing, boost mental health.
Stick to a sleep schedule
Consistency is a good thing when it comes to sleeping. If you struggle falling asleep, going to bed and getting up at the same time accustoms your brain to a schedule that can help you get enough restful sleep each night (it’s important to know how much sleep you need based on your age - consult a doctor of sleep expert). A regular schedule creates a natural (circadian) rhythm that’s conducive to sleep. Make sure and stick to the schedule, even on weekends. Eventually, you’ll fall asleep more easily and wake up feeling better and without that foggy sensation in the mornings. Make a point of letting in the sunlight each morning, which will help you wake up and feel refreshed.
Observe a bedtime ‘process’
Sometimes, it’s necessary to start settling down as bedtime nears. Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual that helps you feel calm. Leave only soft lights on for a couple hours before bed, and play calming music that you enjoy. Turn off the TV and stay away from the computer screen during this period. If it helps, take a warm bath so your body temperature will start cooling down afterward, which helps bring on sleepiness. Some people who suffer from sleep deprivation include meditation in their pre-bedtime regimen to calm their thoughts, or take a series of deep breaths to slow their heart rate and relax.
Many people like to nap in the afternoon, believing it has lasting, long-term benefits. However, if you suffer from sleep deprivation, napping will only make it harder to settle down and get to sleep in the evening. The key is to stay as active as possible during the day so that your body begins to need rest as bedtime approaches.
Exercise every day
This can be a difficult thing for some people to do, but if sleep deprivation is a problem it’s definitely in your interest to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. You don’t have to run a marathon, just steady exercise that gets the heart rate up and works up a bit of a sweat. Walking, jogging, bicycling or swimming are activities that can often be done fairly easily and accessibly for many people. If you’re stuck at work, try walking the stairs during lunch or taking a spin around the block immediately before or after work.
Many people overlook the importance of an effective sleep environment. Sleeping in a completely dark, cool (from 67 to 72 degrees), quiet, and comfortable room is essential, and it should be maintained every night. If external noise is a problem, consider using a white noise app on your phone or tablet, and be sure to shut off all screens before bedtime.
When it comes to your mental and physical health, sleep matters. If sleep deprivation is a persistent problem for you, you may need to find a sleep strategy that works best. In many cases, sticking to a settled bedtime and bedtime routine, getting enough exercise during the day and establishing a conducive sleep environment can help overcome a lack of sleep.
Hazel Bridges is a freelance writer and a Wellness Coach for seniors.