My interest in the healing power of sleep really began while recovering from bacterial meningitis four years ago. For weeks after leaving the hospital, I slept 15-20 hours per day. Although this alarmed my caregivers, who wanted me to stay awake, I knew instinctively that my healing was down in the depths of sleep.
During the months it took for me to recover, the books on my bedside table included The Brain’s Way of Healing and Why We Sleep, both of which are fascinating reads that include groundbreaking research on neuroplasticity and the power and purpose of sleep. My instincts were right!
Fast forward to last night: I slept well for my usual nine hours. I consistently and naturally go to bed at about the same time each night and wake up without an alarm. I’m usually rested enough that I don’t really need coffee. I’ve switched to decaf and still make a ritual out of that one perfect cup, often taking it outside to greet the morning light.
The time I spend sleeping helps improve my learning, mood and energy levels, regulates hormones, prevents cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, slows the effects of aging and increases longevity.
So, let me tell you why it’s important to get enough sleep for healthy aging.
It’s a myth that we need less sleep as we grow older. In Why We Sleep, author and professor of neuroscience Matthew Walker explains it this way:
“Routinely sleeping less than six hours a night weakens your immune system, substantially increasing your risk of certain forms of cancer. Insufficient sleep appears to be a key lifestyle factor linked to your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Inadequate sleep – even moderate reductions for just one week – disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure.”
Learning to sleep well is probably the best move you can make for healthy living.
If you routinely get less than six hours a night, have a hard time getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking up refreshed, it’s time for you to assess and update your sleep habits.
Both natural and artificial lighting influence brain and body chemistry. Getting outside to view early morning or early evening sunlight is the key to setting your sleep/wake hormones. Bask in the sunlight, without sunglasses, but don’t stare directly into it.
Limit exposure to bright lights of all kinds about two hours before bedtime. This includes phones, screens and home lighting. Try it and you’ll see positive changes within two to three days. Listen to the Huberman Lab podcast #2 for all the fascinating details of how your body will respond to this single change of habit.
If you toss and turn and can’t get to sleep, you’re not the only one. Just get up. Keep the lights low. Read or listen to music. Don’t look at screens. Don’t turn on bright lights. Try to relax with some light stretching, a body scan or meditation to bring your mind into a restful state that can lead you back to sleep.
Your spine is naturally much more aligned on your back than on your side, yet, three in four people prefer to sleep on their sides. If your muscles and joints are often tight or sore when you wake up, try this light stretching routine before bed to help you gain more ease for supine sleeping.
While lying face up on a yoga mat or rug, stretch your arms overhead and point your feet away as you lengthen through your spine. Then relax everything down onto the floor and take note of where the back of your body touches the mat.
Heels, calves, backs of your thighs. Touching or not touching? Heavy or light?
Ribs, shoulder blades, back of your skull, upper arms, elbows, palms. Touching or not touching? Fully relaxed or maybe still tense and lifted away from the floor.
Breathe in and out 10 times slowly. Relax some more. That is, use less muscle to hold yourself in any particular posture. Even though you are stretched out on the floor in a pretty good relationship to gravity, notice that some parts of you are probably still over-working.
Breathe in and out again, 10 times. And slowly make your way under the covers and off to sleep. Make this your nightly routine and notice what changes in a week or two.
Your hips may be pretty tight from all those waking hours spent sitting in chairs, cars, even on a bike. So much so, that fully straightening your knees while lying face up is tough on your low back.
If you need a pillow under your knees to be comfortable, this Psoas Release can begin to lengthen those tight muscles and make it easier to sleep on your back. Don’t wait until tonight to try it. Get on the floor and give yourself a break right now.
Just 10 minutes of Psoas Release before bed may help you get better sleep and deeper rest. It’s also one more way to ease back into sleep if your eyes pop open at 3:00 am. We’ve all been there.
Katy Bowman also suggests that you sleep without a pillow for the best spinal alignment. However, if your chin points toward the ceiling without one, work your way toward a pillow-free sleep by incorporating this Restorative Exercise during the day.
Try this Head Ramp 10 (or maybe 100) times a day to lengthen the muscles on the back and sides of your neck. I guarantee it will go a long way towards a good night’s sleep without, or even with, a pillow.
I invite you to take one step toward a good night’s sleep today. Click any link in this article to find great ideas to help you age well and move better.
Visit Catherine’s Online Studio for more helpful information.
What are your strategies for getting a good night’s sleep? What keeps you up at night? Are you getting enough sleep to stay healthy?
Tags How to Sleep Better