Your body needs sleep and depriving yourself of it will undermine your immune system. That means its defences against infection are lowered. Lack of sleep will also slow down rejuvenation processes in your brain. That is because free radicals, which build up in the brain, are removed while we sleep.
Perhaps more importantly, the production of natural HGH (human growth hormone, also called the anti-aging hormone) relies on getting a good night’s rest.
HGH is a protein-like substance, produced by the pituitary gland in the base of the brain. It plays a crucial role in many of the body’s metabolic processes – too little in childhood leads to stunted growth, and too little in an adult results in excess body fat, lack of lean muscle tissue, brittle bones and thin, wrinkle-prone skin.
How much sleep do we need?
It’s true that individuals do vary in the amount of sleep they need. However, we are told by experts that around eight hours a night is ideal.
If you’re not quite making the whole eight hours, then try and extend your sleep to achieve this and give your body its best chance to restore and repair itself. If you find you’re losing sleep during the week, then try to catch up at the week-end. After all, lack of sleep of just one hour per night adds up to losing a full night’s sleep every week!
Sleep complaints seem to increase significantly with age. This can be due to hormone levels such as diminishing oestrogen levels (resulting in night sweats during menopause), as well as mid-life uncertainties keeping us awake: problems with younger or older generations in the family, stress about finance or work worries.
If drifting off to the land of nod has become difficult for you, and counting sheep doesn’t work, then try some or all of the following to combat your lack of sleep:
Think about setting fixed bedtime and waking times and banning afternoon naps (unless you’re playing catch-up, in which case have them before 3 pm) so that you adopt good sleep habits.
Research shows that getting even a small amount of daily activity can improve the ability to get a good night’s sleep. I found that taking daily exercise helped me sleep much more soundly than when I sat at my desk all day.
Caffeine intake should be limited. I learnt very quickly that my lack of sleep was caused by a cup of coffee too late in the evening, so now I limit coffee to mornings only. Caffeine is also in tea, chocolate and cola. Some other form of hot drink, however, can aid restorative sleep by reducing anxiety – hot milk or herbal tea.
Alcohol should also be limited because although it might help you to fall asleep (or knock you out in some cases!), it disturbs your sleep later on, as it breaks down in your system.
Eat earlier. Finish your evening meal at least two hours before bedtime. Digesting your meal can keep you awake.
Enjoy a natural remedy such as a lavender bath, which seems to work wonders for me. Enjoy this about an hour before bedtime. The warm water will raise your body temperature and as it cools again your body prepares itself for slumber. The lavender oil will also help you relax and de-stress.
One obvious but important point to help with restorative sleep is to ensure that your bed is comfortable.
Is the mattress supporting you well and are the covers keeping you warm enough? Are your pillows the right height and firm enough for your comfort?
You need minimal light and noise in your bedroom. Have you considered black-out blinds for instance or a sleeping mask? You may also find ear-plugs help to keep out uncontrollable noise.
Watching television in bed is not a good idea as it stimulates the brain in a way which is not conducive to sleep. On the other hand, listening to calming music or reading a novel (something not too challenging!) does seem to help switch your mind off the worries of the day.
Your bedroom should be warm but not stuffy. If possible leave a window open and let fresh air circulate.
If your mind is still actively working out some problem or other and you wake again with new ideas, keep a pencil and paper pad next to the bed so that you can write them down. Then you’ll find it easier to put them to one side and fall asleep again.
As a last resort for lack of sleep (and instead of popping conventional sleeping pills) think about taking a melatonin tablet when you go to bed – but check with your doctor beforehand. I first discovered these as an aid for jet lag. Then I met somebody who had taken one almost every night of her elderly life to help her sleep better.
This form of melatonin, which can be prescribed by your medical practitioner, has been approved for use in the over-55s. Studies show that, after taking it, you can expect to fall asleep quicker than usual and to sleep for a little longer but without any of the debilitating side effects of conventional sleeping tablets.
A more serious sleeping problem may necessitate a visit to a sleep center for acupuncture, hypnotherapy or cognitive behaviour therapy.