How do you know when to sleep? It’s a ridiculous question, right? Doesn’t everyone fall asleep when it’s nighttime? In reality, it’s not that simple. If it was, so many of us older adults wouldn’t wake up at 4:00 in the morning, even though sun is still on the other side of the world.

The truth is that there are a number of factors that determine how well we sleep at night. Some of these have to do with what is going on in our heads. For example, as we get a little older, our brains tend to have trouble producing melatonin, a hormone that tells our bodies when to sleep.

Other factors have to do with what is going on in our bodies. It’s difficult to sleep when you are in pain or having to pop to the bathroom several times a night. Still other factors are environmental, such as the quality of our mattress or the amount of ambient light in the room.

Today, I want to focus on one aspect of regulating our sleep that doesn’t get enough attention – sunlight. As you’ll see, this is especially important for older adults who are wondering how to improve their sleep. Obviously, like any age-related health issue, everyone’s body is different. But, I hope this gives you one more option to discuss with your doctor.

This is Your Brain on Sunlight

Let’s return to the question that we asked at the very beginning of this article. How do you know when to sleep?

You have probably already heard of your circadian rhythm, the system in your brain that controls when you should be awake and when you should be sleeping. Well, it turns out that sunlight is a powerful signal that your brain uses to set your internal clock.

It’s important to keep in mind here that not all light is created equal. Several recent studies have shown that low-intensity light does not have the same power to influence your brain that bright sunlight does.

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors spent most of their days outside. As a result, their brains were bathed in sunlight for hours at a time. Fast-forward to today and many of us spend most of our time inside. We may be exposed to light, but, it is not necessarily the kind of bright, natural light that our brains need to manage our sleep cycles effectively.

The bottom line is that, if you want to sleep better a night, make sure that you get plenty of natural light during the day.

Action: Schedule an additional 30 minute walk every day. Mark it on your calendar and make a commitment to getting out of the house, rain or shine!

Sunlight Helps Your Brain in More Ways than One

In addition to helping to set your internal clock, sunlight helps you to sleep better by contributing to a healthy lifestyle. Think about it. Almost all of the activities that you do in artificial light involve sitting: relaxing in front of the TV, listening to the radio and working on your computer. By contrast, almost all of the activities that you do in natural light are healthy: walking in the park with your grandkids, playing sports with your friends and traveling.

This is important, because, according to a study published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity, getting at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activities per week can improve your sleep in several ways. First, it may help you to feel less sleepy during the day. Second, it may help to reduce some of the aches and pains that are associated with aging.

Action: Write down a list of 1 physical activity that you like to do outside in each season. For example, in summer, you might like playing Frisbee with your grandkids or doing gentle yoga in the garden. In the winter, you might like bundling up and walking in the park. Don’t let the weather be an excuse for staying indoors.

Don’t Take the Sun to Bed with You at Night

If I took a poll, I would guess that the majority of the women in our community take one or more devices with them to bed every night. This could include smartphones, iPads, laptops or other devices. The problem is that our brains can’t tell the difference between different sources of bright light. So, when you’re sitting in a dark room, looking at your phone, it’s almost as if you are looking straight at the sun. In other words, you’re tricking your brain into thinking that it’s still day time.

Action: Try dimming the lights in your house one hour before you go to bed. Then, make a commitment not to take your phone to bed at night. You will be amazed by the impact of these two simple lifestyle changes.

We can’t change the fact that our bodies change as we are. But, that doesn’t meant that we have to accept broken sleep, forgetfulness or depression as being a “normal part of aging.” In reality, we have more control over our bodies than we like to believe.

If you are struggling to sleep at night, part of the solution may be as simple as putting down the TV remote and getting out into the world. Let your brain bask in the sunlight. It will reward you with more energy during the day and better sleep at night.

Have you found that your sleep patterns have changed as you have gotten a little older? Have you tried getting more sunlight? Did this help? What other techniques have you used to improve your sleep after 60? Please join the conversation and “like” and share this article to keep the discussion going!

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