L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan


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!

Sleep Suggestions, Part II

So how can women over 55 get the healing slow wave activity and REM sleep they need to take over the world?—I mean optimally function in the world?

Separating the cow patties from the gems on the internet, the solid gold research points to a number of practices we can adopt to get the REM age-defying sleep after menopause we need. O.K., I added “youthening” to the list, because sleep slows the signs of aging, as I discussed in my September 2, 2019 post, and clears out the gunk from our aging brain, while it reverses telomeres aging—all of which keep us younger than our drivers’ licenses claim we are. Let’s start with the a few easy choices we can make to improve our sleep, and then add a few others that require a little more time to implement.

Dr. Breus clinical psychologist and author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep says, “If you do only one thing to improve your sleep, this is it: Set a sleep schedule—and stick with it.” Going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning—even on weekends, presently shows incredible promise as a magic formula for getting good sleep. A consistent sleep routine keeps our biological clocks finely calibrated so we rest better, plus exposure to a regular pattern of light and dark helps, too.  Opening the blinds or going outside right after awakening can help us stay in sync and keep our clocks humming.

Here are some additional things you might try:

 1. Keep a sleep diary

Dr. Lisa Shives of the National Sleep Foundations suggests: “To help you understand how your habits affect your rest, track your sleep every day for at least 2 weeks. Write down not only what’s obviously sleep related—what time you go to bed, how long it takes you to fall asleep, how many times you wake up during the night, how you feel in the morning—but also factors like what you ate close to bedtime and what exercise you got. Comparing your daily activities with your nightly sleep patterns can show you where you need to make changes.”

2. Review your medications

Beta-blockers (prescribed for high blood pressure) may cause insomnia; so can SSRIs (a class of antidepressants that includes Prozac and Zoloft); these are only the tip of the mountain of drugs that cause us to lose sleep. Write down every drug and supplement you take (as they could interact), and have your supplements expert evaluate how they may be affecting your sleep.

3. Cut caffeine after 2 pm

That means coffee, tea, and cola—all caffeine, even chocolate, if you’re sensitive.

4. Write down your woes

“The number one sleep complaint I hear? ‘I can’t turn off my mind,’ ” says Dr. Breus. To quiet our anxious mind, every night jot down your top concerns—then write down the steps you can take to solve the problem. Once concerns are converted into some kind of action plan, you’ll “put your mind at rest,” as the cliché goes.

5. Take time to wind down

“Sleep is not an on-off switch,” says Dr. Breus. “It’s more like slowly easing your foot off the gas.” Give your body time to transition from your active day.

 Dr. Shives suggests:

  • First 20 minutes: Prep for tomorrow (pack your bag, set out your clothes).
  • Next 20: Take care of personal hygiene–take a warm bath (my personal go-to for transitioning), brush your teeth, moisturize your face, and brush your hair to relax your scalp, brush slowly and turn upside down, too; this calms your mind, as well.
  • Last 20: Relax in bed, reading with a small, low-wattage book light or practicing deep breathing.

6. Don’t drink alcohol at least 2 hours before bed

A few hours after drinking, alcohol levels in your blood start to drop, which signal your body to wake up. It takes an average person about an hour to metabolize one drink, so if you have two glasses of wine with dinner, finish your last sip at least 2 hours before bed.

7. Snack on cheese and apple slices

The ideal nighttime treat combines carbohydrates and either calcium (unless dairy sensitive) or a protein that contains the amino acid tryptophan—studies show that both of these combos boost serotonin. Finish up your snack about an hour before bed so that the amino acids have time to reach your brain.

In my next post I will add a few more suggestions to the list to help you get your ZZZ’s.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!