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L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan

Gerontologist

The Life-Changing Sleep Secret!

I was born a night owl, loving the quiet of the late evening hours, when all the chores are done, commitments completed, the house nicely buttoned up for the night, and I have time for myself. In my younger decades I could easily stay up until 12 midnight or 1 AM, and wake up at a reasonable hour, refreshed. In the last few years, a strange shift has occurred. Even if I got the needed number of hours of sleep, when I go to bed at midnight, or later, the next day I’m tired and lack my usual pep-a-de-do. I can no longer deny the change.

It began in my early fifties and has slowly, and truly, become my new reality. I fought it for years, but now at almost sixty-one I can no longer stay up late, night after night, and expect to fire on enough cylinders to get through my To-Do list, much less anything on my Want-To-Do list the next day.

Going to bed earlier changed my life. I never thought this would happen, but as a gerontologist, I know retiring earlier to feel more competent is a part of aging well; a fact I wanted to ignore.

life changing sleep secrets

While research tells us losing our protective armor of hormones at menopause can also play a part in sleep-related issues– from small to great on a sliding scale depending on the individual woman– that isn’t my issue. Drilling into the science, I find as we get older, we experience a shift in our various circadian rhythms. Our circadian rhythms works as our body’s twenty-four-hour internal clock. Quietly, under the radar, they carry out key functions and processes. It is my circadian rhythm governing my sleep-wake cycle that downshifted when I wasn’t looking.

Much of the more conventional research ties an imbalance with sleep to our light/dark exposure, but I still wake up at virtually the same time I always did; it’s the time I turn off the light that makes the difference.

A few years ago, Dr. Julia Shekleton and her team at the Division of Sleep Medicine, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, in their ground-breaking article in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, identified why this phenomenon occurs. They called it the Wake Maintenance Zone.

We know the experience of the Wake Maintaince Zone more commonly as “getting a second wind.” Dr. Shekleton tells us the onset of our second wind usually occurs right before our body switches to “getting ready for sleep” mode by secreting melatonin—the hormone released by our brain that makes us feel sleepy. Looking at the circadian 24-hour clock, our brain begins releasing melatonin around 9 PM to our body’s clock even if you are traveling through several time zones. Additionally, in many women, but not all, melatonin declines more sharply at mid-life, which causes many women (and men) to struggle with getting enough restful sleep.

When our second wind kicks in, we get a seemingly “burst” of energy for two or three hours more, making sleep virtually impossible. By the time this second wind winds down, we are out of sync with our natural circadian sleep/wake rhythm, and so lose precious restorative sleep time. As Dr. Shekleton found, the next day our cognitive function suffers, and we feel tired, even if we slept in to try and make up for getting to sleep later the night before. And, if our stress level is high, our cortisol levels will take an uptick at night, just as we want to float off to slumber land, and further sabotage our ability to get restful sleep.

From my perspective as a gerontologist, what I find is working for me, and is helping my clients, is to turn off the light while we are still in the first phases of melatonin secretion—somewhere before 11 PM.  Research tells us this is the magic hour of demarcation, after which our body begins other processes that seem to also feed a second wind. More research is needed, but I know going to bed earlier than my usual time, makes this night owl a much happier, more energetic, and definitely pleasanter person to be around. 

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

The Life-Changing Sleep Secret!

Continuing our discussion from last time on good ideas for getting our much needed shut-eye, here are more sleep suggestions for you to consider:

8. Listen to a bedtime story.

Load a familiar audiobook on your iPod—one that you know well, so it doesn’t engage you but distracts your attention until you drift off to sleep, suggests Dr. Shives. Relaxing music works well, too.

9. Stay cool.

Experts usually recommend setting your bedroom thermostat between 65° and 75°F—a good guideline, but pay attention to how you actually feel under the covers; if you are still experiencing a variety of menopause sleep problems, it may need to be a bit cooler. For optimal rest, once you’ve settled in to bed, you shouldn’t feel cold or hot—but just right.

10. Use a white noise machine to drown out city noises.

Unless you are lucky enough to live in a rural area, free of urban noise.

11. Eliminate sneaky light sources.

“Light is a powerful signal to your brain to be awake,” explains Dr. Shives. “Even the glow from your laptop, iPad, smart phone, or any other electronics on your nightstand may pass through your closed eyelids and retinas into your hypothalamus—the part of your brain that controls sleep. This delays your brain’s release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. Thus, the darker your room is, the more soundly you’ll sleep.”

12. Check your pillow position.

Your head and spine need to be in a straight line to keep your body fully relaxed for restorative sleep. I have seen miraculous changes in people’s quality of sleep from just making this one change.

13. Contrary to popular belief:  Stay put if you wake up.

“The textbook advice is that if you can’t fall back asleep in fifteen minutes, get out of bed,” says Dr. Shives. “But I ask my patients, ‘How do you feel in bed?’ If they’re not fretting or anxious, I tell them to stay there, in the dark, and do some deep breathing or visualization.” But if lying in bed pushes your stress buttons, get up and do something quiet and relaxing (in dim light), such as gentle yoga or massaging your feet until you feel sleepy again.”

14. Spray a sleep-inducing scent.

Certain smells, such as lavender, chamomile, and ylang-ylang, activate the part of the brain which leads to relaxation and helps you sleep more soundly. Mix a few drops of essential oil and water in a spray bottle and give your pillowcase a spritz.

15. Take up yoga.

Doing yoga during the day, or adding a decompressing yoga routine before bed, slows down the body physically, and turns down the volume on noise in our heads, so we can sleep.

16. Add music to your nightly routine.

Soothing music (lovely classical or Gregorian chant) or nature sounds–I like beautiful birdsong,–are two easy ways to bring on peaceful slumber. Try listening to the music and doing some slow, deep belly breathing to help downshift everything from head to toe.

And last, but not least…

Keeping life interesting and mentally stimulating also promotes good sleep and slows telomere aging, as Chiara Cirelli, MD, PhD from the Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin-Madison noted in her research.

Dr. Cirelli said “[Our] need for sleep is strongly modulated by the amount of brain plasticity during our day. The more we learn and adapt the more we need to sleep. A chronic decrease in sleep need could be due to reduced opportunity to learn and be exposed to novel experience, rather than, or in addition to, problems in the neural circuits responsible for sleep regulation.”

I know there are even more ways to call on the sandman, and I welcome any and all useful sleep suggestions!

Until next time…Be Vibrant!