The key to a good night’s sleep is to keep our brains and bodies active during the day.
Do you lie tossing and turning in bed at night, struggling to get some precious shut eye? Perhaps you’re trying too hard to tempt the sandman. Or maybe you are indulging in a daytime nap at your desk or on the sofa and putting your busy clock out of sync.
Our striving to get an unbroken night’s sleep, according to sleep neuroscientist Professor James Horne, is a recent phenomenon. Until electricity started arriving in our home more than a century ago, people would typically go to bed at 10pm, sleep for three hours, then get up for an hour or so, have some food, check security, stoke the fire and then say their prayers. Then they would return to bed for a second sleep.
From the accounts of 17th century diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, we know they frequently got up to visit friends in the early hours. So waking up in the middle of the night is not that unusual, but it can be distressing. According to a recent survey, the average Briton wakes up at least twice during the night, and it is often older folk who find themselves awake at 2am or 3am and fighting to get back to sleep.
Prof Horne says: “Part of their problem may be he fact that they’re having too much sleep during the day and then going to bed before 10pm. If you need a nap in the day, keep it short – less than 20 minutes- otherwise you will fall into a full-blown sleep and consequently you will have a less robust sleep at night.
“Shut your eyes for a few minutes in the day if you really must, but always remember to set your alarm so that you don’t interfere with your night time sleep.”
The professor, who set up and until recently ran the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre, points out that people in warmer climates who have an hour or two’s siesta every day eat their evening meal quite late and stay up much later than we do.
“If you are in the habit of taking a regular nap of an hour or more during the day, you should go to bed at a later hour and expect your night time sleep to be shorter.”
Prof Horne, whose recent book Sleeplessness assesses the sleep need in society today, says: “Just as with eating or drinking, we can sleep more than we need to, out of gratification or boredom, reflecting an appetite for sleep rather than a need.” Man had been aware since tim immemorial that sleep is essential for his wellbeing, particularly his cognitive ability. Indeed, our national playwright Shakespeare, recognised how important sleep is to the human condition.
His plays are dull of quotations about it. Many readers will be familiar with this one from Macbeth (Act II, Scene II) in which he sums up the purpose of sleep: “Sleep that knits up the ravel;’d sleeve of care. The death of each day’s life, a labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast”
Sleep is vital for us because it its the brain’s way of repairing itself. Without it we become crotchety, start making mistakes and can’t function properly. Prof Horne believes the secret to getting a good night’s sleep is for us to keep our brains active and engaged during the day.
“Older people particularly tended to get out and about, explore new environments and be mentally stimulated. It could be something as simple as taking a trip to the market or visiting friends. The important thing is that they go somewhere where they can use their eyes an ears and interact with others.
“Don’t Just sit in front of the television or do crosswords all say, because these activities won’t engage your brain. A pair of walking shoes and a sense of exploration are the best medicine there is for an ageing brain and sleep. If you’re not mobile, persuade fiends or relatives to take you out.
“Remember that while you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, you can teach old humans to do new things because human brains are plastic. For example, an older person can start to learn the trumpet or begin studying a new language and then find out about the customs in that country. The more you use your brain, the better sleep you’ll enjoy. Don’t worry. You won’t wear it out.”
When people retire, the professor urges them not to settle for a quiet life, but to continue being curious about everything. “If you don’t do much during the day, the less you’ll sleep and the more distressed you’ll become, and eventually you may end up taking sleeping pills. Getting the dose correct can be very tricky and, if you do have to take them, you may well feel as if you’ve got a hangover the next day.”
Prof Horne points out that as a result of heir being multi-taskers, women’s brains age more slowly than men’s. On average, a 75 year old woman’s brain is healthier than that of a 70 year old man.
“If a man just wants to work on a computer, he is not exercising all of his brain. We need to encourage mean to multi-task too and to interact with others like women tend to do.”
The downside for women is that at the end of the day they end up more tired than their menfolk and can then be kept awake by their partner’s snoring.
Snoring, Prof Horne said, is much more prevalent among obese men over 50. Sometimes, if they have a fat neck that presses against their upper airways, it causes a condition called sleep apnoea which needs medical attention.” He adds: “We also know that bright light alerts the brain and delays sleep, so working yourself up into a lather about sending texts from your iPad late at night to your grandchildren is not advisable.”
However, Prof Horne believes some of us can become too obsessed with sleep hygiene and go to bed worrying whether we have done everything we should instead of just getting comfortable and falling asleep.
“I’m not saying it’s wrong to do some of these things but I believe in moderation in all things. If you want to play solitaire on your iPad at bedtime, go ahead. Just ensure you’re using the device for something enjoyable not stressful.”
While curling up and watching TV in bed can be pleasant, he warn, that it is not a good idea if you are a poor sleeper because of the stimulation it provides and the light from the screen. Drinking too much coffee late at night is also a mistake. Instead, Prof Horne advises having a cup of warm full fat milk with a tot of whiskey in it. “Don’t opt for skimmed milk because it is like water and will go straight through you. Full fat milk takes a long time.
People should also remember that drinking strong tea will keep them awake because, like coffee, it contains caffeine.” If you do wake up in the early hours and can’t get back to sleep, he advises getting up and going into another room and doing a jigsaw.
“When you get stuck into a jigsaw, you’ll stop worrying about what’s keeping you awake.” He also says people should not have their beds too hot. “If you suffer from cold feet, rather than switch on the electric blanket wear socks.”
When you regularly find yourself awake at 3am, he advises having a caffeinated coffee around 9pm, then dozing until 9.20pm by which time the caffeine will kick in and this will help you stay awake until 11.30pm, when you can retire. If you follow this routine on several successive nights, you should no longer find ourself awake at 3am.
Prof Horne concludes: “People should remember there are no hard and fast rules and that sleep varies according to your peace of mind. My personal remedy is to have a busy day, make some nice memories then go to bed with pleasant plans in mind for tomorrow.
(Story source: Choice)