Trouble in the land of nod

Posted on August 26, 2015 by Eleanor McKenzie
Woman asleep in bed

As we age our sleep patterns change, and one of the most frequent complaints I hear from people in the 50+ age group is about a poor night’s sleep. Indeed, I’m one of the complainers! I am a sleep junkie; I am terrified of not having enough sleep and stay in bed longer than necessary during the morning in the hope that sleep might magically carry me back to the blissful Land of Nod. And, if I’ve woken up around 4am and lain awake for what seems like eternity, I’m even more desperate for a sleep fix.

Apparently we don’t need less sleep as we age, but it’s natural for us to wake frequently and so feel that we’re sleeping less. But there are other reasons for sleeplessness; insomnia and worry. I have known insomniacs and it is an awful condition that goes way beyond just lacking a bit of shut-eye. And when worries wake you in the dark hours, it is harder to escape those recurring thoughts whirring about your brain than it would be during daylight.

Medication is typically a short-term solution; doctors now prefer to look for alternatives, and many people don’t want to feel that they are dependent on these types of remedies. Happily, there are other solutions, and one of the most successful is mindfulness meditation techniques.

Breathe and count backwards

Learning to switch off the mind is one of the more effective ways of ensuring you drift off into the Land of Nod, and hopefully stay there until morning. I can personally recommend a breathing technique that I learnt from a Theravada Buddhist who practised the Vipassana meditation method. He also happened to be a consultant gerontologist at a London hospital. Like Vipassana, this technique uses breathing:

  • Lie in a comfortable position where you can inhale deeply into the abdomen
  • Start at number 100 and count backwards using the following rhythm
  • Inhale deeply and as you exhale say 99
  • Repeat the process until you drift off

This technique works because inhaling deeply increases the level of oxygen in your blood, which naturally relaxes you, plus your mind is focused on one thing; counting backwards. This stops multiple thoughts getting in the way, plus the very act of counting down from 100 slows the mind, a bit like reading from right to left, because your brain isn’t used to it.

Observe your thoughts

Another method is observing your thoughts crossing your mind as though they were on a screen in front of you and they pass like clouds across the sky. I think of the technique of thought watching as turning the eyes inwards, and I know from personal experience that thought observation is a very quick way of getting out of the loop of worrying thoughts. You will see how irrational our thoughts often are, to the point you’ll laugh at yourself. Have you ever seen an interview with the Dalai Lama? He’s always laughing and I’m convinced that it’s because he’s a very skilled ‘thought watcher’!


Woman reading comfortably in bed

Active resistance

Sometimes doing the opposite of what seems logical also works. When you can’t sleep, instead of keeping your eyes closed, open them. If you feel your eyelids start to droop, then force them open. Repeat this until sleep naturally overtakes you. Resistance really can work!

Stay at a ‘Sleep Hotel’

The London Mariott Hotel Grosvenor Square offers a ‘Sleep Well Experience’ and is designed to give you a very luxurious night’s sleep. Guests are given a suite in soothing colours with a four poster bed and a rainforest shower and bath that leads onto a private outdoor terrace with water features. You will also be given a bag of L’Occitane goodies, including a soothing shower gel, lavender oil pillow mist and a copy of The Sleep Book by Dr Guy Matthews. Plus there are sleep teas and a Philip Stein Sleep bracelet that retails for £150.

The Sleep bracelet uses electromagnetic wave technology based on “natural frequency channels” that typically surround us during sleep. The Sleep Experience package also includes a special menu at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant, located in the hotel. It’s specially designed to help you sleep, and includes lots of fish and sushi. The package is a lovely treat, even if you’re a good sleeper, and the hotel is minutes from Bond Street and all those lovely shops.

Cold showers

One of my own favourite natural remedies for sleeplessness is a cold shower. It may sound unappealing, but I assure you it works. There is scientific evidence to back it up, and if you can bear it, put your head under the cold water. Cooling your brain down slows the speedy brain metabolism associated with insomnia. Take a cold shower 30 minutes before you want to go to sleep and it will help your body to send sleep signals to the brain. It also improves your circulation.

Rubbing the soles of your feet is another technique I’ve used on the recommendation of an acupuncturist, and there are many others I know of that will allow you to slip into sleep with ease and get a refreshing night’s sleep.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.