One of the basic building blocks for a happier and healthier life is the ability to enjoy a good night's sleep. As anyone who struggles to sleep will tell you, everything seems ten times worse when you are tired and deprived of sleep.
Lack of sleep on a regular basis can have serious effects on our mental and physical health. As well as making us feel moody, anxious or overly-emotional, it can also increase our propensity for obesity, heart disease and even diabetes.
It an old adage that "there's nothing like a good night's sleep", and there is plenty of medical evidence to suggest that the benefits of quality sleep are many and varied. But what if you just can't sleep? Many people complain of going to bed feeling tired, but as soon as their head hits the pillow they are wide awake. And the more you worry about it, or 'try' to get to sleep, the more elusive it becomes.
In severe cases of diagnosed insomnia, it may be that medication is needed, but many 'sleeping pills' can have unwanted side-effects. In less pronounced cases, herbal 'sleep remedies' available without prescription might help. But there are also a number of relatively simple lifestyle changes which could make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep longer, awaking refreshed and ready to face the world.
They are certainly worth a try to see if they work for you before resorting to any kind of sedative. Here are ten tips which could help you achieve a restful night's sleep:
Exercise – it's common sense, backed up by medical science, that some form of exercise during the day will help you sleep better at night. Even mild exercise boosts the effect of natural sleep hormones, and can be particularly effective in post menopausal women. But don't exercise too close to bedtime, as it releases stimulants which could keep you awake. A regular morning workout is far better.
Environment – is your bedroom conducive to a good night's sleep? Ideally it should be dark, pleasantly cool and quiet. Simple changes like blackout blinds or earplugs designed for sleeping in could make a big difference to your quality of sleep.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol – caffeine is a known stimulant and too much too close to bedtime will keep you awake. Many people assume an alcoholic drink before bed will help them drift off, but alcohol is also a stimulant and while you might feel a little drowsy, it will inhibit deep sleep. It is a good idea to set yourself a 'stimulant cut-off point', such as no coffee after 6pm. Experiment to find what works well for you.
Reserve bed for sleep – it's a symptom of modern life that may people take their mobile phones, laptops and tablets to bed with them, or watch late night TV from bed. All these activities will stimulate your brain and make it harder to get off to sleep. The blue light emitted by many electronic devices has also been shown to stimulate the subconscious mind. Your bed should be reserved for sleep... and perhaps just one other activity!
Try some music – playing some soothing and relaxing music shortly before bedtime can lull you off to sleep and even relieve insomnia. Classical music is best, as songs with lyrics can stimulate your brain. Using the same piece of music every night works well as your brain is trained to recognise it as a prelude to sleep.
Have a bedtime snack – if you're hungry in the night your brain will be sent messages telling you to get up and eat something. Having a light snack before bed could help, but not too much. Something high in fibre and low in fat and sugar is best, maybe combined with a warm milky drink.
Start a bedtime ritual – we've all done it with young children and recognise its worth in getting them off to sleep, so why wouldn't it work for grown-ups too. Rituals help signal the body and mind that the time for sleep is approaching, so that your systems gradually switch to 'sleep mode'. Experiment to find a ritual that works for you, and then stick to it. The more you do it, the more effective it becomes.
Try to de-stress – it's easier said than done, but if you can set aside the cares of the day and give yourself time to wind down before bed it will make it easier to get to sleep and avoid the kind of 'anxiety dreams' that keep you tossing and turning all night. Everyone is different but if you can develop your own mechanism for switching off, it can be a huge help. Some people visualise locking away all their worries in a drawer or safe and hanging up the key, others imagine they have a 'shut down' button like the one on their computer and mentally push that button at bedtime. Whatever works for you.
Check out you bed – when did you last give your bed and bedding an 'MoT'? Whether it's a worn and lumpy mattress, saggy pillows, a creaky bed frame or a duvet that leaves you too hot or too cold, any of these things might be preventing deep and restful sleep. Spend some time thinking about what wakes you up in the night, and whether changing any of the above might help. Investing a little in your bed and bedding could be repaid many times over in quality sleep.
Check out yourself – it could be that some function of your own body is waking you. Whether it's snoring, sleep apnea (which interrupts normal breathing), restless leg syndrome, muscle cramps or something as simple as indigestion, there are a whole range of medical conditions which can be classed as 'sleep disrupters'. Most can be easily treated, but it's always a good idea to consult your doctor if you think a condition is disrupting your sleep.
Whatever you do, don't accept lack of sleep or poor quality sleep as just something you have to put up with. Although many people find it harder to sleep well as they get older, it doesn't have to be an inevitable part of ageing. Many older people have found ways to ensure they enjoy the best sleep of their lives, and doing so can even help you live longer.