BoomerBody’s Tips for a Better Night’s Sleep
by Maarten Van Nus
According to the U.S. National Sleep Council, we should spend about 1/3 of our life sleeping – that’s 25 years of a 75-year life!
But, in reality, how many of us manage that? Eight hours is a third of our day, yet many of us barely manage to relax a fraction of that, let alone actually sleeping a full 8 hours.
“I manage just fine on the sleep I get,” you may say.
Or, “I want to sleep more but I can’t, so I just keep going along. It doesn’t seem to hurt me other than being tired all the time.”
It’s often easier to make excuses about why we aren’t getting enough sleep than just grabbing the bull (or sheep) by the horns and figuring ou
t why we aren’t sleeping and then changing our habits so we can sleep more.
However, remember to keep in mind just how important good sleep is to our body. It is during sleep that our body repairs itself by regenerating cells, flushing to
xins out of our systems, and resetting brain neurons for the coming day.
Our bodies are incredible self-repairing, regenerating machines but — if we don’t allow them the chance to rest during sleep — we run the risk of not only mental grogginess, emotional crankiness, and physical fatigue but also are more likely to gain weight and shorten our lives.
Lack of Sleep = Weight-Gain
Some may believe, when it comes to sleep, that consistently “running on empty” may burn extra calories because it means working in a diminished physical and mental state (that is, you feel exhausted, so you must be burning more energy than when well-rested) but, in fact, a lack of restful sleep can cause weight-gain.
When fatigued due to a lack of quality sleep, our body doesn’t understand that it is fatigued because of insufficient sleep; all our body understands is that it isn’t working at its optimum level, which is it programmed to read as a lack of fuel, not sleep.
This programming comes from our evolutionary path and is the usual case for animals: If an animal is not working at its optimum level it is usually because it has not eaten for a long time, not because it hasn’t slept.
In this state, rather than forcing us to sleep, which would solve the problem without food, our body elevates the level of a hormone called Ghrelin , which sends messages to our brain indicating that we are hungry.
In response to the Ghrelin, our brain decreases the levels of both Leptin and Serotonin in our body. Leptin and Serotonin are hormones that, respectively, signal the brain to suppress our appetite and make us feel good. Thus, to rebalance the levels of Leptin and Serotonin (the happy hormone) in our body, our brain gives us the go ahead to eat until we feel happy again. However, it is sleep, not food, that we need.
In Breakfast: Is It Really the Most Important Meal Of the Day? we explain that a decrease in Serotonin levels causes our body to crave sugary carbohydrates that are quickly absorbed into our system to address our hunger signals and restore the declining Serotonin levels.
In other words, we crave foods containing simple sugars with high glycemic indexes, which gets us reaching for chocolate bars, candy, sweet drinks, and other foods that are laden with sugar and – very often – high levels of fat, as well.
At this point, our body is essentially getting a double whammy that it really doesn’t need:
- We need sleep, but don’t get it; and,
- If we aren’t able to resist the cravings for sweet, quickly-absorbed carbohydrates that kick-in to try to compensate for our fatigue, we reach out for one, two, or more of hundreds of unhealthy, highly processed foods that – in the end – will not solve the lack of energy anyway because only sleep can help!
Over time, as we continue to feel fatigued, we end up gaining weight – which in turn makes us more lethargic and tired – and a vicious cycle is established and continues.
Lack of Sleep = Pre-Mature Aging
Many of us do not understand just how critical proper sleep is to longevity and good health. Failing to get enough sleep is a major contributor to pre-mature aging, including bone and circulatory syndromes and illnesses — even death.
Collagen & Cortisol
Collagen is the most abundant protein in our body. It provides structure and strength in our bones, muscles, tendons, and skin; in essence, it is what holds our body together. Sounds pretty important, doesn’t it?
As already described, when we haven’t slept enough, our body enters a state of emergency, which is also known as a stressed situation. During stressed situations, we release the hormone Cortisol. Cortisol has a nasty habit of altering and weakening the structure of Collagen within our bodies.
If a lack of sleep remains consistent, a constantly elevated level of Cortisol exists in our body and our collagen is constantly being broken down.
The area that shows this breakdown most dramatically is our skin. As the Collagen breaks down or if our Collagen levels fall (we produce much less Collagen as we age), our skin begins to thin, sag, wrinkle, and lose its natural luster. Thus, “Getting Your Beauty Sleep” is not an empty idiom.
In addition to our skin, cortisol takes a toll on other collagen-rich parts of our body. Collagen breakdown also results in weaker bones and blood vessels. This is part of the reason that as we age, those of us who don’t eat, exercise, and rest properly are more likely to suffer from brittle bones that break easily and suffer more strokes, cerebral hemorrhages, and heart attacks than those who take care of themselves properly.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH or GH)
Related to the Cortisol and Collagen issues that arise in the absence of sleep, the production of human growth hormone (HGH), which already naturally decreases as we age, also slows down with a lack of sleep.
Along with its main purpose, to help us grow as children and adolescents, HGH maintains muscle mass, assists with fat and sugar metabolism, and helps regulate body fluids and composition throughout our lives.
HGH is produced in large amounts when we are young but it’s production is finite and the levels naturally fall as we mature and grow older.
As Boomers, we need to do everything we can to protect the HGH production we have. Research has found that HGH production is negatively affected by going to sleep at different times each night, particularly going to bed several hours later than is reasonable.
Getting a Better Sleep
Sadly, another evolutionary outcome of a state of emergency is the instinct to stay awake (if animals sleep during a state of emergency, they may end up being eaten, miss a chance at food for which they are starving, or die due to environmental dangers (flashfloods, rock or soil slides due to storms or earthquakes, smoke inhalation during fires, etc.).
Like our animal relatives, we Boomers tend to stay awake during a state of emergency – even if we are exhausted – regardless of whether or not the emergency is a result of physical, environmental, psychological, or emotional stress.
Tips for Getting a Solid Boomer Sleep
Because sleep is as important as good nutrition and regular exercise, we suggest you do everything you can to improve your opportunity to have a great sleep each time your go to rest by addressing the following factors:
Create a Sleep Environment
Create a sleep environment that is conducive to great sleep:
- Purchase a mattress that is the right firmness for you. You may have been able to sleep on anything, anywhere when you were a kid but now, something that cushions your body comfortably is worth the cost. Where couples have vastly different needs, a mattress with different firmness on each side may be necessary.
- Ensure your pillow (or pillows) are both the right firmness and correct height to ensure your neck and back are well supported and remain as straight as possible during rest. Again, for couples, this may mean buying different pillows for each person or more for one person than the other.
- Keep the room as dark as possible once you are ready to sleep. A dark room is more conducive to sleep. If light is a problem, wear a sleep mask.
- Keep the environment as quiet as possible. If noise is unavoidable, try soft earplugs, which conform to the shape of your ear canal for comfort, to deaden the sound.
- Keep work materials out of the bedroom. The bedroom is for sleep and sex only (not necessarily in that order!); keep the stressors of work outside the bedroom. Even your briefcase should be outside the room.
- Keep electronics out of the bedroom. Some people find this one really tough: No computers, TV, tablets, cell phones, video games, hand-held devices, nothing that may interrupt your sleep with buzzes, vibration, or bongs and nothing that may distract you if you should happen to wake up during the night. Electronics and sleep are not compatible. The one exception to this rule may be music devices but, these days, recorded music is often attached to a phone, which is one of the absolute worst items to have in your bedroom if you want to sleep.
- Be sure the temperature is right for you. For couples, this can be an issue if one person wants it very warm and the other wants it cool. The thing to remember is that someone who is cold can always warm-up with more layers (be it clothes or blankets) but someone who is hot in bed cannot get cooler. Period. If you room is too warm at particular times of the year, consider a quiet air-conditioner (mobile units for various room sizes are widely available now) or a fan to make sure you are cool enough to sleep. See the sidebars for more suggestions about staying cool or hot in the bedroom.
Eat for Sleep
- Breakfast like a King, lunch like a Prince (or Princess), and sup like a Pauper.
- Replace caffeine after lunch; drink water instead. Caffeine can remain in your system longer than you realize. Stay hydrated with water instead of having coffee, tea, or soda in the afternoon or – better yet – drink only water whenever you have a beverage throughout the day and night.
- Avoid eating close to your bedtime. Heading to bed with a full stomach will disturb your sleep because, instead of resting and rejuvenating, your digestive system will be working hard for many hours, which disrupts sleep.
- If you find yourself so hungry before bed that you must eat, try having a small snack of foods that are full of Tryptophan, which is the sleeping amino acid. Nuts, figs, dates, and warm milk are foods high in Tryptophan. These foods will also help release melatonin and serotonin both of which help promote sleep and quiet the brain.
Prepare For Sleep During The Day
- Get some exercise everyday. Exercise helps relieve stress so sleep comes more easily. Whenever possible, exercise at least 2 hours before laying down to sleep.
- Laugh as much as possible. Try to have a good belly laugh everyday that you can.
- Prior to letting your head hit the pillow, clear it! Stop thinking about anything you’ve had bumping around your brain all day.
- Stop thinking about stressful issues. If you go to bed thinking about stressful issues, such as what you didn’t do today or things you have to do tomorrow, your mind will not rest and your body will not sleep.
- Write in a journal before going to bed. Thinking about stressful issues keeps you on a seemingly never-ending loop of self-talk, or as many call it, a case of “monkey mind.” A great way to quiet your monkey mind is to journal before bed and also make a to-do list for the next day. By writing these things down you make peace with them and your mind quiets down so you can sleep.
- Go to your happy place. As you close your eyes, think of a happy time or place from your past and visualize yourself in that situation. Stay in your happy place…don’t let your mind take you away from it by letting negative or stressful ideas invade your happiness. Slowly, your body should start to relax and you will sleep.
- Finally, consider the following 12-Step Serenity Prayer: God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.
Create a Sleep Mindset
As with exercise and fitness, getting a good sleep has a lot to do with your mindset. If you believe you are not going to sleep well, you likely will do that – sleep poorly!!
Creating a sleep mindset means changing the way you think about sleep and how you behave as you approach going to sleep.
The key here is to focus on reducing stress – in whatever form it exists – throughout your day as well as just prior to heading to bed. The exercises we describe to address health & fitness issues in Help: I’m Being Held Prisoner By My Couch are also applicable to issues with sleep. If the tips provided here do not help improve your sleep, please check out our book to follow the mindset exercises there to change how your mind and body “think” about sleep.
- Breathe in a deep, rhythmic, slow pattern that creates a meditative state in which your body and mind relax and allow you to fall asleep more easily.
- Lying on your back, start at the top of your head and relax every muscle in your scalp, slowly move down your body, relaxing the muscles as you go and maintain the relaxation as you go. Keep moving down your body focussing only on relaxing your muscles and keeping them relaxed. It is rare for anyone to get much further than their hands without falling asleep.
So, start tonight and make a ritual out of your bedtime, don’t just stagger into the bedroom and fall into bed only to lie tossing and turning most of the night. Make bedtime a peaceful mind and body experience in a relaxing, quiet environment. And, remember, how you fall asleep is a very good indicator of how you will awake and start your day, so start a positive cycle of sleep and great mornings now to add to all the amazing BoomerBody things you are already doing for your health and body.
 By Gary Stix on March 22, 2013. Sleep Hits the Reset Button for Individual Neurons. Scientific American. Retrieved on March 8 from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/talking-back/sleep-hits-the-reset-button-for-individual-neurons/
 Takano, J. The Power of Collagen. Retrieved on March 18, 2016 from http://www.pyroenergen.com/articles11/collagen.htm
 J R Davidson, H Moldofsky, and F A Lue. Growth Hormone and Cortisol Secretion in Relation to Sleep and Wakefulness. Retrieved on March 18, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1188300/