On My Honor: Sleeping Well

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Michael Brown

A John Denver song was playing quietly in my head last night about 2 a.m. as I awoke for a little break from my sleep. I was dreaming about a friend doing well and being happy. I usually remember what I dream, but only briefly. Dreams for me are like soft summer clouds, changing form slightly as they pass along. Most of my dreams seem to be inconsequential and don’t appear to require much analytical interpretation.

What is more important is that I’m in fact dreaming and remembering those dreams. REM sleep, which should happen about 25% of our sleep time, is when dreams occur. Research indicates that those with chronic sleep apnea seldom sleep deep enough to dream well, and often cannot remember those dreams. Another indication of sleep apnea is snoring. I’ve learned to be comfortable sleeping on my sides rather than my back or stomach, and I think it helps make sure I get my REM sleep.

Sleeping well is a biological imperative, a time when our bodies repair themselves and the brain processes thoughts. Most of us, including older adults, require seven to eight hours of sleep per day. Younger folks need a bit more. One of my granddaughters, who I predict will be tall, sleeps with her legs extended and toes pointed. That likely maximizes the effect of the growth hormones released during her sleep.

There’s a cultural component to sleep. In Japanese households, for example, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of sleeping well. The Japanese typically sleep on the floor on a futon made of natural fibers. Some research indicates that the soft beds customary in the U.S. may cause joints to sag, resulting in stretched ligaments. Is it age or my bed that causes me to often wake up sore? Maybe I should try sleeping on the floor.

Sleep debt increases our susceptibility to all sorts of physical and mental diseases, such as diabetes and depression. Lack of good sleep can happen for a variety of reasons. It seems like there’s always something more important: time with family and friends, catching up on work, or completing household chores. Light seems to matter. Electronics such as lamps, computers, TVs, and smart phones emit blue light. Blue light is a major component of daylight, so it’s not surprising that our brains respond to seeing the light on a DVD player and a TV screen in much the same way as they would to daytime light.

Melatonin, created by our bodies in lower light at day’s end, helps regulate the natural rhythms of wakefulness and sleep. By reducing the amount of light close to bedtime, we help our bodies maintain the natural day/night cycle. So, turn off or block those electronic lights during sleep. When it comes to getting a good night’s rest, sleep aids are less effective than healthy behavior. Obesity is a major cause of sleep apnea. Avoid alcohol and caffeine in the evenings. Eat lightly at dinner and do a little judicious snacking before bed. Eating nuts, bananas or cherries, and possibly cheese and crackers, increase magnesium and tryptophan levels, which aid sleep naturally. If you’re still having trouble sleeping, check with your doctor about taking a low dose (0.5 mg) of melatonin to assist the natural aids.

To get my daily requirement of sleep, I try to nap every afternoon. That way, I don’t mind being awake for a short period at 2 a.m. Oh yes, I have one other recommendation for falling asleep quickly and deeply. Pick up a copy of Don Quixote, War and Peace, or a similar long tome and read some of it each night before falling asleep. My E-reader indicates I’m only 37 percent of the way through Don Quixote. At the rate I’m progressing, it will be mid-2107 when I’m finished. But I’m sleeping well.

Michael Brown is an education consultant and former teacher. He can be contacted at michael.brown@utexas.edu.