I believe one of the most important foundations of a healthy and happy life is adequate and regular sleep. Our day starts the moment we wake up. Waking up from a night of good quality slumber is very different from starting our day after a night of restless, interrupted insufficient sleep.
Finding a way to help you with sleeplessness can get frustrating. There is so much information out there. Forget about counting sheep, research indicates it may, in fact, take you longer to fall asleep!
I asked some of my Facebook friends to give me some ideas on natural sleep aids, and they were very eager to share their tips with me. I’ll include them here as well.
Ages and Stages of Life
Everyone has different sleep habits and routines. It depends on your lifestyle, life stage, personality, and overall physical and mental health. For example, a busy and socially active teenaged university student may have many late nights going out with friends or studying, causing her to need to sleep in later in the day. Another example is a middle-aged full-time employee who works Monday-Friday, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. The sleep habits of this mature person are most likely very different from the younger student. An anxious person may also have problems falling asleep.
Ages and stages cause us to have changing sleep needs during our lifetime. When we are very young, as babies, we need a lot more sleep than when we are adults. Older adults need about 7-8 hours of sleep a night.
Problems occur when we have trouble getting the required sleep to “recharge” our batteries. The occasional restless night usually isn’t that much of a concern. We can usually catch up the next night. Chronic, long-term issues with either falling asleep or staying asleep can cause other problems in our lives. Sleep deprivation can cause us to be disorientated, agitated or less able to handle the stressors in our lives. Insomnia is often a serious health condition that requires intervention. Research tells us that women over the age of 60 are at higher risk of having insomnia.
For those of us women who are menopausal, we have other issues to contend with such as hot flashes and night sweats. Hormone changes can cause sleep disturbances, and a visit to a health care professional is highly recommended.
Caregivers of people with dementia often have trouble getting enough rest. As do new parents, especially mothers.
Sleep Hygiene, Sleep Aids and Other Tips
The basics for a good night’s rest include a comfy bed/mattress, the perfect pillow/s, sheets and blankets that provide just the right amount of warmth. If you don’t have these basics, you will need to get those things sorted out. If you have a bed partner, make sure they don’t take up too much room, snore too loud or steal your covers! (Some people have sleep apnea and this is a serious condition that requires a medical assessment).
There are many articles and books written on how to get a good night’s sleep by implementing some lifestyle changes and habits. The term commonly used is “sleep hygiene.” Some ideas to try include:
- Avoid caffeinated beverages such as colas, coffee, and tea too close to bedtime
- Participate in some kind of physical activity during the day but not too close to bedtime
- Get some sunlight and/or fresh air on a daily basis
- Don’t eat a heavy meal right before going to bed
- Keep your room cool, dark and quiet
- Manage stress to help keep a relaxed mind
- Meditate, pray, breathe deeply, practice yoga or listen to music before bed
- Avoid blue light found on cell phones, tablets and computers at least one hour before sleep
- Avoid long naps during the day
If you can’t sleep – Instead of lying in bed awake,
get up and do something else before returning to bed.
For those who are looking for a “sleep aid,” these can come in many forms. A medicated sleep aid can be prescribed by a doctor or other healthcare professional. Home remedies can be tried. Products found in nature can also be tried, such as herbs and essential oils. Tools such as sound machines or white noise can work, too. Some ideas to try include:
- “Sound Machine” with white noise or nature sounds
- Apps for your smartphone or tablet such as “White Noise”
- Turn on a bathroom fan to drown out other noises if it’s close to your bedroom
- Essential oils such as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – in a diffuser, rubbed on your feet (put socks on after if the oil is in a carrier oil or lotion!), sprayed on your sheets or on a cotton ball by your head
- Herbal tea to take before bed such as Sleep and Relax Tea or Nighty Night with ingredients such as chamomile, passionflower and/or valerian root
- Supplements such as “Super Sleep” also known as Melatonin Plus from Webber Naturals or those that contain melatonin, 5-HTP and/or L-theanine; or Healthy Sleep supplement by Jamieson that contains melatonin, skullcap, Rhodiola, rosavin chamomile and L-theanine (be aware melatonin can cause depressive symptoms in some people)
- Herbs such as ashwagandha are also helpful for some people
- Amino acid such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) can help you feel calmer
- Magnesium can help people relax
- Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide) has been known to help in some cases (ask your healthcare practitioner about this)
- Gentle massage with an aromatic essential oil such as peppermint or lavender
- Try some yoga poses before bed
- Bath with Epsom salts
- 30 minutes before bedtime, use passive heat then cool off. A shower, bath, hot water bottle or wheat bag may work for some for as the body cools, it naturally releases melatonin (a naturally-occurring hormone related to the sleep-wake cycle)
- A glass of milk
Other ideas to help you feel calm and relaxed include:
- Get an easy-to-do crossword puzzle book or do some light reading right before bed
- Write in a journal, include things you are grateful for
- Avoid the news, especially if it upsets you
- Try eating some kiwi before bed
Techniques to help you fall asleep, especially for those whose thoughts keep them awake:
- Counting backwards from 100 combined with deep breathing can relax your mind and body. While lying in bed in a comfortable position, with your eyes closed, say the number 100 in your mind. Then take a deep breath in through your nose, hold it for 1-2 seconds, then slowly exhale through your mouth (or nose). Pause. Imagine the next number which would be 99. Repeat the breath in and breath out. Continue counting down and deep breathing. Concentrate on your breath and remembering which number you are on. If your mind wanders, go back to the last number you remembered. Number – breath in – pause – breath out – pause. Repeat until asleep!
- Word games can also help you relax. While lying in bed in a comfortable position, with your eyes closed, pick a letter in the alphabet. For example, start with A. In your mind, start thinking of 5-7 (or more) words that start with A. “Angela, Asia, apple, achieve, angst, approve…” Then when you are done with that letter, go on to the next. “B – Baby, boy, balloon, bubble, Bill, Boston, brush…” Continue going through the alphabet. If your mind wanders, go back to the same letter you were on or move on to the next. You can start at any letter in the alphabet.
Medicated sleep aids to be used with caution include:
- Zopiclone (by prescription, not to be taken long-term)
- Gravol for nausea (contains dimenhydrinate which is an antihistamine and anticholinergic and can cause drowsiness)
- Vick’s NyQuil Complete Cold & Flu liquid (contains doxylamine succinate, an antihistamine which can cause make people feel drowsy, relaxed, and help them fall asleep and can cause dependence)
- Benadryl for colds (contains diphenhydramine HCl, an antihistamine which can make you feel drowsy)
You can also try finding a therapist to help you with CBTi – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to treat insomnia. It is considered the first-line treatment for insomnia and is safer and more effective than sleeping pills. You can even try doing it on your own.
Caution: Older adults are advised to avoid medicated sleep aids as mentioned above as they can increase the risk of confusion, falls and car accidents.
Some not-so-common ideas to consider:
- A weighted blanket can help people with anxiety and insomnia (ex. http://www.gravid.ca)
- Try an ASMR Close Whisper video to help lull you to sleep (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response)
- Hypnosis (This option is also available for those with dementia as long as the hypnotherapist has special training.)
- Rocking Bed – This device is attached to your existing bed to help rock you to sleep.
- Massage your Marma Points and Count Your Rainbows to help tame your “Monkey Mind”
I would recommend a trial-and-error approach to find what works for you. What worked for you when you were younger may no longer work for you now. Ages and stages create different stressors and needs.
When you find something that works, use it for only 3-4 nights in a row and alternate with other methods. Your body will get used to it and you will benefit from switching it up.
And remember, never go to bed angry.
If All Else Fails
I saw this on Facebook so it must be true (insert a laugh here):
Did you know?
Convincing yourself you slept well
tricks your brain into thinking it did.
Please share your tips on how to get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep well, my friend. Sweet dreams.
Angela G. Gentile, MSW, RSW
For more information on insomnia, check out this Mayo Clinic article.
Angela G. Gentile MSW, RSW is a clinical social worker and author of the book, “Caring for a Husband with Dementia: The Ultimate Survival Guide”, “A Book About Burnout: One Social Worker’s Tale of Survival” , “Cancer Up the Wazoo”, and the “Dementia Caregiver Solutions” app for iPhone and iPad. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba with her husband and has two adult children. She is passionate about all things related to Aging Well. For more information, visit: www.AngelaGGentile.com