When Rip Van Winkle took his dog for a walk one sunny autumn day, he had no idea he would drop into a deep sleep for 20 years. According to Washington Irving’s famous short story, the Dutch-American farmer – unlike many of us today – didn’t toss or turn and wasn’t bothered by unusual dreams or awakened by strange sounds. There were no 2 am trips to the bathroom. He simply closed his eyes and gave his body a much-needed rest.
We could learn a lot about sleep from Rip. Quite simply, a little shut-eye does a body a lot of good (although two decades is, admittedly, a little too much). Indeed, a good night’s sleep – generally considered to be eight hours – helps to restore our body and mind. While we are snoring softly, our body repairs, grows and rejuvenates. Sleep helps heal our heart and our blood vessels; it decreases the risk of obesity; and it helps ensure a healthy balance of hormones. Our immune system also needs sleep to stay healthy and respond appropriately to infection.
At the same time our body is being restored, we are improving the brain’s ability to learn and remember things. Finally, sleeping enables our bodies to conserve energy so we are not constantly depleting our reserves and there will be energy available when we need it. All of which may help to explain why Rip went on to live a long, healthy life once he tumbled out of his mountain bed. (The same is also true of those other famous fairy-tale sleepers – Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.)
For those of us nodding off in reality, sleep is as essential as eating nutritiously and exercising regularly. “Sleep plays a critical role in our overall health and well-being,” says Michelle MacLean, a certified wellness coach and nutrition consultant based in Halifax.
Of course, Rip’s youthfulness may have played a part in his lengthy repose. The fact is, getting a good night’s sleep can be more challenging as we get older. According to the Canadian Sleep Society, our sleep changes as we age. We often hit the sack earlier and wake up at first light. We may nap more, and we are often awakened, especially during the second half of the night.
a good night’s sleep – generally considered to be eight hours – helps to restore our body and mind
Fortunately, there are steps we can take to fall asleep easily and rest soundly (and none of them requires drinking a juniper-flavoured liqueur, as Rip did). First and foremost, says MacLean, a consistent schedule is necessary. “Aim to go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time. Many people burn the candle at both ends through the week and think they can make up for it on the weekends. This doesn’t work.”
It’s also important to unplug before you unwind for the day. Any electronics in the bedroom – such as TVs, computers, phone chargers and lights – can cause stimulation. This includes minimizing what is known as blue light, a very short wavelength found at the end of the spectrum that produces a higher amount of energy. At night, all light affects our circadian rhythm (the body’s natural clock), but the blue light from electronics with screens is the most disruptive, notes MacLean, because it suppresses melatonin, a hormone that helps control sleep. “Aim to shut off all screens two to three hours before bed.”
The lure of the little blue light can be pervasive, says Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, in her new book, The Sleep Revolution. “Our houses, our bedrooms – even our beds – are littered with beeping, vibrating, flashing screens. It’s the never-ending possibility of connecting – with friends, with strangers, with the entire world, with every TV show or movie ever made – with just the press of a button that is, not surprisingly, addictive,” writes Huffington, who collapsed from exhaustion in 2009.
Sunshine and exercise throughout the day will also help you sleep well at night. “These activities tell your body it’s daytime; time for being productive, active and alert. And you’ll be able to wind down better at night,” says MacLean.
If eight hours of shut-eye does not come naturally, try to build up gradually to that goal, she notes. “If you sleep five and a half hours now, just do what you can to get to bed 15 minutes earlier until you can do that consistently, and then increase it to another 15 minutes earlier. When you go from five hours of sleep to seven or eight each night, you’ll feel so much better.”
As Rip knew all too well, there really is nothing like a good night’s sleep.
Take time to relax
In the current issue of Caregiver Connection, Karyn Davies, co-ordinator of the North Shore Community Resources Caregiver Support Program in North Vancouver, recommends developing a ritual that allows you to relax before going to bed. “A wind-down routine signals to your mind and body that it’s time to stop doing and going – and to simply rest.” Davies suggests the following:
- Soak your feet in warm water, and then use your favourite lotion to give yourself a foot massage. The warm water will ease tension and help your system unwind, while the fragrance will soothe you.
- Make your bedroom cozy. Switch on your favourite lamp or light a candle on your bedside table.
- Be thankful. Spend one minute reflecting on what made you sad or mad today. After acknowledging how you felt, visualize those events floating away from you. Then for three minutes, think about what made you smile or feel uplifted. Hold the feeling of joy and thankfulness with you as you close your eyes.
Sleep on this
If you’re looking for a little help getting a good night’s sleep, these products may be just what you need.
White noise machine. Unlike most noise that assaults our eardrums, white noise is consistent, and it is spread evenly across all frequencies. For many sleepers, this translates into sweet dreams. It’s not usually noise itself that disturbs our rest, but sudden changes in the noise we are hearing. White noise masks these.
Sleep masks. If you’re trying to keep light out of your eyes, an eye mask may do the trick. You’ll find them in all shapes, sizes and textures. There are even what are called 3-D eye shades designed to ensure greater comfort.
Ear plugs. If it’s noise that disturbs your sleep, you may want to invest in a pair of ear plugs. They are simple and easy to use. Take some time, though, to find the type of plugs that are most comfortable for you.
Ergonomic pillows. When you lay your head down to rest, you may want it to land on an ergonomic pillow designed to fill the curve of your neck for optimal support. These pillows are often made of foam or other material that retains your shape and offers greater support.