Why We Don’t Sleep Like We Used To
As we age, many of us do not sleep as well as we did when younger. In college years, we may have been able to pass out cold on a couch or dorm room floor, but now, absent the assistance of alcohol, we may not sleep as soundly through the night. Years of physical toll on the body plus accumulated injuries can begin to ache, and the stress of our modern environment often leaves our minds racing beneath closed eyes.
The Sleep Remedies to Avoid
Many adults have unfortunately turned to over the counter or prescribed sleep aids to get through the night, some of which can have harmful and downright bizarre side effects (see: my mother sleep-talking on Ambien). These are somewhat akin to putting a bandaid on the wound, and about as unhealthy as drinking NyQuil on the regular. They may help to knock you out, but don’t necessarily provide a deep and restorative sleep necessary to heal the body. (Disclaimer: whenever possible, I will recommend homeopathic remedies in favor of prescription drugs or any blend of synthetic chemicals – I recommend using them as little as possible. Also, I am not a doctor and don’t play one on the internet.)
How to Sleep Better, Naturally
Fortunately, there are a couple natural and free ways to sleep better at night, and without the use of any drugs to leave you feeling groggy the next morning. They may seem slightly unorthodox, but through empirical research have proven to assist me in getting the quality Zzzs I’d been missing. They are simple, but not all are necessarily easy, and some are only recommended using the right equipment and fitness level. I’ll list them in order of ease:
1) Leave your phone outside the bedroom
There are a couple reasons why this is beneficial. First, instead of scrolling aimlessly (or worse, checking emails or other to-dos) and staring into blue light, you can begin to quiet your brain with some natural light and perhaps a few minutes of reading, journaling or meditating. Studies show that the blue light emanating from most devices actually disrupts the serotonin-melatonin production cycle in the body, making it harder to fall asleep naturally once night has settled. Additionally, giving yourself permission to practice a little self-care, reflection and restoration before you nod off will calm both your mind and nerves. I’ve found it infinitely more grounding than checking the 24-hour news cycle just before closing my eyes and lying awake fretting about the state of the world.
2) Drink some protein before bed
This surprising sleep elixir can actually help you drop in deeper. If possible, have your last meal or snack at least 2-3 hours before bed, and then have a basic protein shake before nodding off. Protein, for one, helps muscle repair during those critical hours of sleep restoration. Studies have also shown that participants who consume more protein before bed report better quality sleep than those who did not.
3) Breathe some fresh air
This has to do with two things: sound and temperature. For one, many people sleep better with a little white noise, whether it be a fan, wind rustling the trees or distant city sounds. Thus, cracking a window or keeping a fan on can actually quiet the mind more than total silence. Second, keeping air flowing or letting a cool breeze in through a cracked window can keep the room temperature slightly cooler. Around 65-68 degrees is an ideal temp for sleeping, as being too hot often wakes us up and being too cold requires more energy to regulate core temperature.
4) Stretch your spine.
You need not be a yogi to get benefit from this, and just a few minutes of stretching can help settle the body. Try a basic seated twist, forward fold, glute stretch and side body stretch to soften some of the muscular tension on your skeleton. Alternately, if you have an inversion table or inversion boots to hang from a pull-up bar, getting upside down for a few minutes is a great way to decompress the spine and also invite some restorative blood flow from the legs back toward the heart. Don’t have an inversion table? Just lay on your back with legs up the wall for 3-5 minutes.
5) Take a cold shower
As I previously mentioned, this is not for the faint of heart, although the benefits are great. While taking a hot shower is therapeutic and calming, it has the adverse effect of warming the body before bedtime, making it harder to fall asleep. Taking a cold shower, on the other hand, helps to lower the body’s core temperature, allowing you to fall asleep faster and get a better quality sleep. A couple pointers on this:
First, try to shower about an hour before bedtime – allowing the body to cool but also settle from the alertness-inducing effects of the cold.
Second, don’t make it too long. About two minutes is sufficient, so set a timer or play a song.
Lastly, breathe. If you’re new to the practice of cold showers, it can come as a bit of a shock to the nervous system, and you’ll find yourself gasping for survival. Practice deep breathing and being with the stimulating effects. Once you towel off and settle the heart rate back down, you’ll find yourself dropping into a peaceful, restorative slumber rivaling that of a hibernating bear.
It may take some experimentation between a combination of these strategies, but they can individually or collectively make a big difference for your circadian rhythms without any need for booze or meds. Happy exploring, and sweet dreams.