At age 67, I am happy to report that I usually feel positive, energetic and ready to tackle the challenges that life presents. The reasons for this are many, including following an anti-inflammatory diet and partaking in daily exercise. I also don't discount fortunate genetics.
But I firmly believe that one of the major reasons I am thriving in my late 60s is that I am adamant about getting sufficient sleep. Almost without exception, wherever I am and whatever I am doing, I wake up at dawn, and go to bed early enough to get eight hours of sleep. Clearly, I could still get my eight hours by retiring later and rising later, but the pattern I follow does more than just give me sufficient sleep - it syncs my own circadian rhythms with those of the sun. I have found that this is best for my overall energy and well-being.
Is this easy? No. Each day, there are demands - and temptations - that would make it useful to stay up later, and it is never easy to reject them. Applying discipline and resolve about bedtime, however, yields abundant rewards.
So the first, most important, and most difficult step toward getting sufficient sleep is simply making the commitment to carve out the necessary hours. If, however, you have done so and still have trouble either falling or staying asleep, here are some other steps that may help:
- Get plenty of physical activity during the day. Studies have shown that people who are physically active sleep better than those who are sedentary. The more energy you expend during the day, the sleepier you will feel at bedtime. Just be sure not to engage in vigorous exercise too close to bedtime as this can make it more difficult to fall asleep.
- Spend some time outdoors as often as you can to get exposure to bright, natural light. If you are concerned about harmful effects of solar radiation, do it before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m., or use sunscreen. To save time, combine these first two points by exercising outdoors whenever possible.
- Use your bed only for sleeping and sex. Don't use it to do work or watch TV.
- Short naps are good. Given modern workplace demands, this is not possible for many people - but if you have the option, try napping for ten to twenty minutes in the afternoon, preferably lying down in a darkened room.
- Reduce your caffeine intake, particularly in the evening.
- Avoid large meals late in the evening, and don't snack after dinner.
- Give yourself some time - up to an hour - in dim light before you go to sleep at night. Evolutionarily speaking, the practice of flooding the night with brilliant light is very recent, and we are by no means adapted to it. Homo sapiens have been around for roughly 200,000 years; the ubiquitous electric light bulb, barely a century. This means that the complex, light-mediated chemical changes that bring on sleep are easily disrupted by the "false suns" that burn around us for hours each evening. Lower the late-evening lighting in your house and bedroom; if other members of the household object, wear sunglasses.
- Limit or eliminate late-night computer and television viewing. A computer or TV screen may seem much dimmer than a light bulb, but these screens often fill your field of vision, mimicking the effects of a room filled with light. Dim screens such as those on e-book readers - or the paper pages of physical book - are better choices for evening viewing.
- Establish a consistent bedtime routine. Routines may include taking a warm bath or a relaxing walk in the evening, or practicing meditation/relaxation exercises. Psychologically, the completion of such a practice tells your mind and body that the day's work is over and you are free to relax and sleep. Similarly, wearing pajamas or other "dedicated to sleeping" garb sends the internal signal that sleep is now safe and appropriate.
- Use "white noise" devices to block out surrounding environmental noise. The much-desired condition of total silence for sleeping is actually unnatural - this is why many people sleep better when they hear rain or chirping crickets.
- Banish artificial ambient light sources from your bedroom including glowing digital clocks and nightlights. I find that natural moonlight through an open window usually provides enough light for getting up in the night to urinate. If this is insufficient, you might try a red nightlight (such as a red Christmas-tree bulb in a nightlight fixture). Some studies indicate that red light does not suppress melatonin production - which may make it easier to go back to sleep.
- The two best natural sleep aids are valerian and melatonin. Valerian is a sedative herb, used for centuries. You can find standardized extracts in health food stores and pharmacies. Take one to two capsules a half hour before bedtime. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the wake/sleep cycle and other daily biorhythms. Try sublingual tablets (to be placed under the tongue and allowed to dissolve); take 2.5 mg at bedtime as an occasional dose. A much lower dose, 0.25 to 0.3 mg, may be more effective for regular use.
Finally, consider getting a consultation at a sleep care center in your area; to find one, see the National Sleep Foundation website. You can also find solutions via The Sleep Advisor website; the "Self-Assessment" tool there takes about 20 minutes to complete. It was developed by Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of medicine and sleep specialist at the Arizona Center for Integrative medicine, and I recommend it highly.
Andrew Weil, M.D., is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and the editorial director of www.DrWeil.com. Become a fan on Facebook, follow Dr. Weil on Twitter, and check out his Daily Health Tips Blog.