In his new book Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker, PhD gives us the hard truths about sleep, stating that if we do not get a full night’s sleep, we will be impaired, even at the level of a drunk driver. The science says we need 7-9 hours of restful sleep a night to be healthy, and at least one-third of Americans fail to get this amount regularly.
Walker is professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley and the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. He was previously a professor of psychiatry at Harvard where they invited him to leave after he openly criticized the university for what they were doing to students during finals’ week. We all remember the “all-nighters” and how we felt afterwards; some students die from this.
Unfortunately, for physicians, medical training requires repeated sleep deprivation. Many health care workers often work through the night and do not get the required restful sleep during the day. Our 24-hour society requires this of many other shift workers, as well as people working multiple jobs to support their family. We are a society of sleep deprivation, adding to many health problems, both mentally and physically.
All mammals require sleep. As humans, our sleep changes across our life span. From my days of delivering babies, I found it useful to know that newborns will sleep 20 hours in the first two weeks of life and 16 hours as infants, usually overnight and with two naps. Daily sleep time reduces to 12 hours with one nap as young children. All the way through adolescence, 10 hours of sleep is the norm, although school schedules and the lack of desire to go to sleep often interfere. Many junior high and high schools have wisely delayed the start of school to allow students to get an additional 30-60 minutes of sleep.
Trouble sleeping, or insomnia, is one of the most common health problems. Insomnia has many causes and many solutions. Prescription medications for sleep are not a healthy solution and only add to the problems. Sleep hygiene captures the art of good sleeping behavior and Walker goes into solutions in detail. Blue light from our electronic devices interfering with the brain’s release of melatonin is one of the most recent problems. Through evolution, we went to sleep when it became dark and darkness releases melatonin in our brain. Our indoor world with lighted bedrooms, and even television, will interfere with sleep.
Sleep is about letting go of that we are dealing with mentally and putting our thoughts and problems away, much like our clothes. The idea of “let me sleep on it” is not to be taken literally in that we are not meant to think about and solve problems when we sleep. Rather a good night’s sleep should refresh us for better decision making in the morning.
Some of us think that wine or other alcohol may help us sleep. That may be true initiating sleep, but as alcohol wears off, we usually wake up with some arousal interfering with a full night’s sleep.
Sleeping through the night without getting up to go to the bathroom is a luxury not common to middle-aged adults and especially seniors. We should have the skill of going back to sleep with such interruptions.
Meditation and breath work can help with this. “Four square breathing” is becoming popular. This is a slow inhalation through the nose over about four seconds, hold the breath for about four seconds and then exhale through the nose for the same amount of time. A brief pause before the next breath completes the four parts of the cycle. A focus on that breathing is an easy form of sleep meditation.
As seniors, our pineal gland that produces melatonin becomes calcified. That may be the main reason many seniors have trouble getting a full night’s sleep. Melatonin is not only a sleep hormone, but has been shown to have anti-oxidant and anti-aging benefits. It is safe even up to high doses.
My sleep routine is as follows: I initiate sleep at 9:30 or 10 p.m. and arise eight hours later at 5:30 or 6 a.m. I do this seven days a week. About two hours before I go to bed, I wear blue light blocking glasses. I can feel my eyes relax. Approximately 30-60 minutes before sleep, I take a Sleep 3 supplement by Nature’s Bounty. This is a time-released tablet that has 10 mg of melatonin along with four herbs and an amino acid known to help with sleep. At the bedside, I have available two 5 mg sublingual melatonin tablets to use as necessary to get back to sleep if I am disturbed or need to go the bathroom. I also use four square breathing to help me get back to sleep. Overall, I am sleeping well and feel rested and productive the next day on this routine.
Everyone should develop a good sleep routine. There are lots of options for sleep and Walker gives many suggestions in his book.
Getting regular restorative sleep means that we will spend about one-third of our life sleeping. This is not a waste of time, but rather a recipe for a healthy, productive life. I encourage you to use this book as a manual for healthy sleeping.
Dr. Scherger is founder of Restore Health Disease Reversal in Indian Wells, a clinic dedicated to weight loss and reversing chronic medical conditions. To schedule a consultation, call (760) 898.9663 or visit www.restorehealth.me.