As I’ve gotten older, getting a good solid 6-7 hours of sleep has gotten to be more of a challenge, but I refuse to start relying on medication to “fix” it, since medication rarely offers a true fix for anything. Not doin’ it.
However, over the last few years, I have learned a few things about what works for me to get good sleep. The keys for me are exercise, and watching what I eat and drink after 8:00 or so.
Exercise helps a lot, especially endurance exercise like biking, swimming, walking or running. And exercising outside is even better, presumably because of the combination of fresh air and sunshine (which is good for you in countless ways, including psychologically). And when you get outside, you are actually moving your body against gravity and through space, just the way God and nature intended, rather than on some silly machine where even though you push pedals or run with your legs, you get nowhere. Personally, I do not like machines – can you tell?
Walking, done properly, is amazingly efficient and helps you in many ways, including better sleep but also helping your moods and attitude as well. As a former runner (20+ years ago), I never believed walking did much of anything for you, but last winter I tried an experiment to help with the seasonal mild depression I seem to get every winter when the days get so damn short: I committed to going for a fast 30-45 minute walk at least 3 times a week, during the daylight hours to get fresh air and sunlight too.
The impact was instantaneous and noticeable: not only did I feel energized after the walk and for the rest of the day, but I slept great at night, and I found the time during the walk to be very valuable and even productive in an emotional and psychological sense, to work through things that were going on in my life at the time (work, family, long-term goals, etc.). You don’t feel drained when you’re done; quite the opposite, you feel re-vitalized and have more energy rather than less. Plus it is a mild boost to the metabolism, which helps with weight loss. And you get “quiet time” with no distractions – who couldn’t use more of that?
So, walking outside, at a fast clip, is highly recommended not just for good sleep, but for better overall Life Management.
I also like biking in the warmer months, and it seems to work just about as well. But walking is easier to fit into your life, and takes less time. My running days are probably over – seems too much like work any more, in addition to other limiting factors like age and declining flexibility. And I like swimming, but I get tired of the chlorine in my hair and on my skin and I’ve grown a little bit suspicious of the ‘water quality’ at the Y, if you know what I mean. And I think you do.
As for food and drink, well, too much of either is not good at any time, and especially at night. You have to figure out what works for you. Here’s what works for me: avoid eating very much within two hours of bedtime, and avoid meats and other protein-rich foods because protein contains amino acids that tend to wake your brain up instead of calming it down for sleep. A small snack is OK (see below). Don’t drink too much alcohol, and I’ve even found that certain types of drinks really disrupt my sleep – I’m looking at you, Martinis and Manhattans. Your mileage may vary, of course, but what I seem to tolerate best: wine (only reds for me), brandy and cognac, and Scotch. These rarely disrupt my sleep. One or two drinks is my limit, both to preserve sleep quality and to limit alcohol consumption overall.
Snacks that work for me include a few crackers with very sharp cheese, a banana with a few nuts, some pretzels or other salty snack, oatmeal, or the occasional cookie or two. With oatmeal, use the old-fashioned kind and add your own flavoring: I like a little brown sugar (1/2 tsp.) and some chopped up dried fruit like dates, figs, or raisins, plus a spoonful of plain yogurt and (if you have them) some chopped pecans. It’s delicious and it’s good for ya, so learn to like it (or something similar).
Here’s another list of suggested foods from a newsletter I subscribe to, from Dr. Leigh Erin Connealy at Newport Natural Health: