To sleep, perchance to dream. . .*
Dream on, Hamlet! And while you do, realize that your brain is doing all kinds of crazy cool maintenance.
Will girls ever get to play Hamlet?
You’ll be glad to know, Lily, this dream has come to pass. Dreams are wonderful things, but you know how you and 9 and I can be- –
Not very good sleepers!
Our nuclear family- -Us, Mom, Dad, and Sister (and however many younger selves they have, or had, inside) are divided fifty-fifty, half of us light and reluctant sleepers, the other half ardent sleeper-inners. Turns out, there is a right and wrong to what quantity of sleep is healthy, and getting out of sync with our circadian rhythms- –
How our bodies respond to changes in light during a 24-hour cycle. The central idea is that humans evolved in a world with natural light, primarily from the sun and, eventually, with fire. It seems we, as a species, had enough time to adapt to the technological change when we gained some control over fire, but once the incandescent bulb was perfected and put into wide use we slipped out of our natural waking and sleeping rhythms, our bodies and brains tricked by artificial light.
This trickery, while it succeeds in increasing the number of hours in a day people can work and play, is not good for our bodies, and particularly our brains. Not enough sleep is bad for us; so is sleeping too much. Somewhere between seven and nine hours of good quality sleep per night is optimal for most people.
One of the biggest culprits in compromising our sleep is the prevalence of blue light in our relatively new digital world. Blue light radiates from computers, smart phones, tablets and e-readers.
Why is blue light bad?
Good question, Lily. It’s not a matter of good or bad, it’s a matter of night and day. Blue light is naturally found in daylight. When we see blue light after the sun goes down, especially a couple of hours before bedtime, it screws up the activities in our brains and bodies that ease us into sleep. It takes us longer to fall asleep and the quality of that sleep can be diminished.
The negative effects of compromised sleep cycles grow worse with age. Internal processing systems are slowing down naturally and our bodies really need enough sleep to repair damage and renew connections that aid memory.
Enter a new (for me) concept: Sleep hygiene.
Like our sleep needs a bath?
Not literally, 9, but our approach to sleep does need freshening up. Like not eating or drinking anything 2 hours before going to bed, and not looking at digital devices during that time, either.
Wow. So what do we get to do?
More of what we do already, like read from books and magazines-print versions, not digital. And writing in a journal. Very small amounts of melatonin can be taken to nudge our bodies toward a normal sleep routine (as with most things, too much melatonin is not good).
We could listen to music, right?
Yes, Lily, and what a good idea.
Successful Aging (by neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin © 2020) gives a seven-step approach to improving sleep hygiene:
- Start getting ready for bed about two hours in advance (don’t eat or drink, no digital devices)
- Ensure the room you sleep in is completely dark-if you have a device that emits blue light in the room, cover it up
- Sleep in a cool room, if possible
- Keep your sleep and wake cycle synchronized by getting sunlight in the morning, even on a cloudy day
- Write in a journal before bedtime (relaxing, improves memory, a good time to download your “to do” list for tomorrow)
- Don’t rely on sleeping pills for more than two nights
- Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning (Levitin notes that, in the short run, the consistency of your sleep cycle is more important than the amount of sleep)
I average a shy (and interrupted once or twice) six hours of sleep per night, with a consistent 4 AM alarm in the form of Friday, the cat. Last night I tried just one of the suggestions given above, not eating after 6 P, followed by an 8 P bedtime. I admit I took a last look at the email right before lights out, but before then I read and made a short journal entry (pretty much my regular routine).
Result? Six hours of uninterrupted sleep.
One night isn’t enough for a scientific proof, but I feel encouraged. Like most humans I will probably adopt the list of recommendations “cafeteria style,” choosing the ones with the most appeal and trying the others if I get desperate. Now that I am, in fact, older, and experiencing more age-related things that need repair (including renewal from about an hour of physical fitness activities every day) I am more open to expert advice.
Speaking of exercise, this also boosts our brains, and a healthy diet is integral, too. I’m doing pretty well with this, I think, but it’s interesting to see what improvements can be made with a little fine-tuning.
Sleep is something I’ve considered a nuisance for most of my life. Rather than a joy it’s a “Close your eyes and think of England” activity. Mom can tell you I was one of those bad babies who wouldn’t take a nap. But I’m not a baby anymore and should probably try to “make nice” with sleep, learn to approach it with joy, blah, blah, blah.
Time to write a fan letter to Daniel J. Levitin and tell him to add Attitude Adjustment to the sleep hygiene list.
*William Shakespeare, Hamlet
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