After a night spent tossing and turning, you wake up feeling like a couple of the Seven Dwarves: sleepy…and grumpy. Restless nights and weary mornings can become more frequent as we get older, and our sleep patterns change.
“Later in life, there tends to be a decrease in the number of hours slept,” says Dr. Karen Carlson, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “There are also some changes in the way the body regulates circadian rhythms,” she adds. This internal clock helps your body respond to changes in light and dark. When it undergoes a shift with age, it can be harder to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.
Beyond making us tired and moody, lack of sleep can have serious effects on our health, increasing our propensity for obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
A recent study in the British Medical Journal associated several hypnotic sleep aids with a possible increased risk of death. You don’t need to avoid sleep aids if you absolutely need them, but before you turn to pills, try these tips to help you get a better night’s sleep:
Going for a brisk daily walk won’t just trim you down; it will also keep you up less often at night. Exercise boosts the effect of natural sleep hormones such as melatonin, Dr. Carlson says. Exercising too close to bedtime can be stimulating. Carlson says a morning workout is ideal. “Exposing yourself to bright daylight first thing in the morning will help the natural circadian rhythm,” she says.
2. Reserve bed for sleep
Don’t use your bed as an office for answering phone calls and responding to emails. Also avoid watching late-night TV there. Reserve your bed only for sleep.
3. Keep it comfortable
Television isn’t the only possible distraction in your bedroom. Ambience can affect your sleep quality too. Make sure your bedroom is as comfortable as possible. Ideally you want a quiet, dark, cool environment.
4. Start a sleep ritual
Rituals help signal the body and mind that it’s coming to be time for sleep, explains Dr. Carlson. Drink a glass of warm milk. Take a bath. Or listen to calming music to unwind before bed.
5. Eat – but not too much
A grumbling stomach can be distracting enough to keep you awake, but so can an overly full belly. Avoid eating a big meal within two to three hours of bedtime. If you’re hungry right before bed, eat a small healthy snack.
6. Avoid alcohol and caffeine
If you do have a snack before bed, wine and chocolate shouldn’t be part of it. Chocolate contains caffeine, which is a stimulant. Surprisingly, alcohol has a similar effect.
Stress is a stimulus. It activates the fight-or-flight hormones that work against sleep,” Dr. Carlson says. Give yourself time to wind down before bed. To relax, try deep breathing exercises. Inhale slowly and deeply, and then exhale.
8. Get checked
An urge to move your legs, snoring, and a burning pain in your stomach, chest, or throat are symptoms of three common sleep disrupters–restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea, and gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. If these symptoms are keeping you up at night or making you sleepy during the day, see your doctor for an evaluation.
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