5 Strategies for Better Night’s Rest at Midlife
Midlife in Dreamland — It Ain’t the Way It Used to Be
Just can’t fall asleep?
Or is it constantly interrupted?
Or do you wake up after 8 hours or more, feeling un-refreshed?
In my practice as an herbalist and acupuncturist I see such problems all the time. We all deserve a good night’s rest, but this fundamental respite can become torturous for people over 50.
I work with people dealing with the midlife changes that affect their bodies, their minds, their relationships, and even their spirits. In midlife we find ourselves trying to live the way we always have, but not getting the same results. For example, this is the complaint I hear so often from people who are working hard and are very stressed:
“I used to sleep so well, but these days I don’t seem to be able to. It’s infuriating. I’m exhausted, have no energy, can’t concentrate and I’m so irritable. I just need a good night’s rest!”
Slumber habits have been observed in mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. And yet homo sapiens is the only animal known to curtail, interrupt or otherwise disturb his normal rest cycle deliberately. Whereas a bear hibernates until his inner clock rouses him, men and women will shorten their sleep based on external criteria – a business meeting or medical appointment, family demands, a gripping novel that transfixes or a movie too exciting to turn off.
It is a common misperception that less sleep is the sign of a more productive person, or that as we age, we need less.
I have to admit that in the past I have bought into this way of thinking. Instead of trying to live 16 hour days, I tried to cram even more life in by cutting back on my rest – to get more done; a pattern very much like the New York Times writer Jane Brody’s. Read her recent article “A Good Night’s Sleep Isn’t a Luxury; It’s a Necessity”.
I have dozed off at movies, performances and even social gatherings. Occasionally this has been embarrassing. Although my friends, classmates and family who have had to elbow me awake find it both amusing and occasionally annoying.
I have been lucky. At least, while I cheated myself on rest, I have not dozed while driving, although unfortunately many do.
While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration allows that it is difficult to attribute crashes to drowsiness, the agency estimates that as many as 100,000 crashes are due to driver fatigue each year. The NHTSA further projects that these crashes cause an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 people injured, and $12.5 billion in economic losses. And these are just guesses. Who knows the full picture?
Cutting back on slumber is also a danger to those who work under hazardous conditions or with machinery. Or to innocent people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
These days I can see how precious my “zzzzs” are and I want to be sure that I get as much of it as I need; it turns out that in midlife we tend to need more deep nourishing sleep rather than less, so let’s learn to do that.
So How Much Do You Really Need?
Here’s how to determine how much rest your body needs:
Go to bed at the same time each night and see when you naturally wake up without an alarm.
Or, if you’ve had prolonged insomnia, the next time you have two consecutive days off, perhaps a weekend or a vacation, sleep in as much as you can the for first couple of days. Once you are caught up, record how often you wake up without the alarm, plus or minus fifteen minutes. If you have to get up early for work the next day, you may need to go to bed earlier just so you can see when you naturally wake up.
The Midlife Good Night’s Rest Formula:
We all need restful sleep. In fact, getting eight hours every night is one of my basic recommendations for good health. If you find that your spirit needs calming or that you’re having trouble going to or staying asleep at night, try some or all of the following strategies:
1. Nourish yourself to promote health and sleep – what and when you eat do matter.
– Eat every 2 to 3 hours throughout the day
– Breakfast is essential. Ideally it includes protein and vegetables
– A snack with protein will pick you up in late afternoon, say around 4 p.m
– A light dinner that starts with soup, warms up your digestive process, and can include steamed veggies, and some protein. You may want to add foods high in l-tryptophan to your evening meal such as brown rice, cottage cheese, turkey, peanuts or soy protein, since tryptophan promotes sleep
2. Lower the impact of daily stressors through exercise and relaxation – minimizing the effects of stress on your body, mind and spirit are more important during midlife than ever before.
– Under stress our brain, pituitary and adrenal glands release stress hormones, especially cortisol. The continued exacerbation of cortisol levels can cause emotional/mental difficulties such as depression and psychosis
– Regular exercise, meditation, and behavior modifications are all among the beneficial remedies. Exercise releases endorphins which: block pain, decrease your appetite and create a feeling of euphoria that reduces tension and anxiety
– Yoga, tai chi and chi gong are the perfect types of exercise to release stress. Their slow breathing and stretching techniques loosen the muscles we have constricted through our work, anxiety and tension
– Acupuncture to Release Stress: This ancient healing modality can increase the level of endorphins and encourage deeper breathing.
3. Create an irresistible, sleep-inducing bedroom environment – your bedroom should offer a harmonious, restful and even sensual setting, one that is conducive to deep repose and pleasure, both inviting and calming.
– Muted, restful colors are recommended for your decor
– If your mattress needs replacing, now might be a good time
– Use your bedroom only for sleep or sex
– Remove all electronic devices and exercise equipment from your bedroom
– Lighting should be subdued so do consider a dimmer switch, or (toxin-free) candles
– A free flow of fresh air is essential – crack open your windows
– If the noises in your house or from the outside regularly disturb your slumber, consider white noise. A monotonous stream of innocuous, repetitive sounds can put your mind to rest
4. Develop a routine before bedtime that promotes the deepest slumber – what you do during the day and before bed do make a difference.
– Use the hour before you go to bed to do things that nourish your soul and allow you to relax
– Excuse yourself from your daily concerns so that you can relax mindfully
– Remind yourself that this is your well-earned time for pleasure and repose
5. Take herbs and supplements to assist your rest – to complement everything else you’re doing, you may want to use non-pharmaceuticals to assist you in falling and staying asleep or awake feeling more refreshed.
Below area few herbal remedies used in several traditions, as well as vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other natural ingredients that can be beneficial. I need to caution you though, that if you are pregnant or nursing, you should consult a health care provider before taking any herbs or supplements.
Trouble going to sleep:
Blue skullcap quiets the nerves and treats the symptoms of emotional excess. It is used for insomnia caused by worry, nervous irritability, restlessness and anxiety.
California poppy is a mild sedative that promotes relaxation and counters nervous tension, anxiety, and insomnia.
Chamomile treats nervousness, headaches, anxiety, cramps, and spasms. It is also good for febrile diseases (colds and flus) and minor digestive problems. Chamomile tea tastes good and is soothing. Note: if you are allergic to ragweed or the Asteraceae (daisy) family-such as blessed thistle, calendula, echinacea, safflower, or yarrow-you should avoid chamomile.
Calm your spirit so you can stay asleep:
Biota Seed (bai zi ren) counteracts poor memory, alleviates nervousness. It is good for calming palpitations with anxiety, and night terrors.
Polygala (yuan zhi) treats insomnia, anxiety, palpitations, and restlessness. It promotes positive feelings.
Polygonum multiflorum (ye jiao teng) assuages irritability, restless dreaming, and insomnia.
Vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other natural substances that will help:
Calcium is a natural relaxant with a calming effect. Use calcium lactate (if you’re not allergic to dairy) or calcium chelate. (1500-2000 mg daily in divided doses after meals and at bedtime)
Magnesium is also a natural relaxant that helps to relax the muscles. (1000 mg daily)
It’s good to take calcium and magnesium together since they balance and complement each other. Ideally you should take them in a ratio of 2 parts calcium to 1 part magnesium.
Zinc aids in the recovery of body tissues while at rest. (15 mg daily).
Wishing you a better night’s sleep and a Midlife without Crisis!