For something we do almost every night for our entire lives, sleep can be more elusive than we might expect. Science might not be able explain why we need sleep yet, but we’re all familiar with the effects of tiredness and fatigue caused by poor quality or insufficient sleep. Especially in older age, the restorative effects of sleep are critical in maintaining energy levels through the day and avoiding stress. Frustratingly, approaching sleep directly is just about the worst thing that we can do, and e.g. going to bed early in the hopes that we’ll also fall asleep earlier tends to be a recipe for a sleepless night. Instead, focusing on gently conditioning our body and mind to be ready for sleep at the right time and working to reduce physical and mental tension in the evenings is the best way to ensure a restful and continuous night’s sleep.
Physical tension can keep us awake by preventing our bodies from relaxing, and gently stretching off before bed-time can be a great way to pick this tension apart. Having a calm, slow-paced stretching routine also adds to the feeling of ritual which is so important in letting ourselves know that we’re going to bed. There can be residual stress after stretching, and the process of going to bed and changing the alignment of our bones, joints and muscles can also produce further tension. A great way of relaxing muscles when you’re already in bed and hoping (but never ‘trying’) to drift off is to gently but deliberately tense muscle groups individually, holding them for about ten seconds before releasing that tension. Working slowly up from your toes to your forehead and the muscles around your eyes not only ensures that no muscle group is left out, it also serves as a form of meditation as your attention is focused entirely on your body while doing this. Moving your focus progressively upward also means that muscles you’ve already stretched are more easily ‘left behind’ and subsequently ignored, passing out of your attention and leaving you with one less distraction. As your brain blocks signals from your body while sleeping, you’re also slowly approaching a mental state which is close to sleep by encouraging your brain to ‘forget’ your body.
Mental tension can also keep you awake, sometimes more profoundly than physical stresses. Avoiding anything remotely intellectually demanding before bed is a good way to allow yourself to wind down. Something as innocuous as an interesting TV show or a minor problem that remains unresolved from the day can float to the surface as you lay in bed. Our brains tend to treat sleep as pretty low-priority unless we’re very tired, so ensuring that we have little to nothing to ‘work’ on while falling asleep is the best way of avoiding a busy, wakeful mind in the evenings.
Try to get anything which you feel demands your attention resolved a couple of hours before you go to bed, and if there’s something which you just can’t let go of, move it outside your mind. Record thoughts which keep you awake on a piece of paper and ideally avoid using your phone as a notepad instead. Most back-lit screens emit a lot of blue light, which suppresses melatonin (the hormone which regulates sleep). Above all, aim to relax as completely as possible at the same time each night and your body will start to keenly anticipate sleep. As part of this routine, try to avoid alcohol consumption late at night as this results in shallower, more superficial sleep. If you feel like you need a quick hit of relaxation, try taking a hot bath before bed; blood will be diverted away from the brain and toward the skin, causing drowsiness. As your body temperature drops afterwards, energy levels will also drop.
The most natural approaches are the best, and establishing a routine which enhances our natural rhythms and leads us to sleep organically is the only real way to consistently ensure good sleep. Above all, never ‘try’ to sleep; let it happen, and if it’s not happening, get up and do something else. Sleep is all about the handover between our conscious and unconscious mind, and getting ourselves to associate sleep with our evening routine, our bedroom and the experience of lying peacefully in the darkness is always the best way of ensuring easy and rejuvenating sleep, night after night.