And So to Bed

Donald NorfolkNowadays more people than ever before claim to find it difficult to get to sleep. They’ve had a frenetic day at work and a horrendous journey home in heavy commuter traffic. They’ve enjoyed a good meal, watched a crime thriller on the TV and listened to the late night news bulletin with its graphic tales of global disasters, crimes and financial catastrophes. Finally, when they can take no more, they retire to bed and wonder why they don’t fall asleep the moment their head touches the pillow.  There’s an annoying intermission between turning off the lights and entering the land of nod. Studies in sleep research laboratories reveal that patients exaggerate this hiatus by a factor of three. The gap can be shortened by adopting a sensible bed time routine. For thirty minutes before we go to bed we should turn down the lights, stop worrying about our routine problems, and bring a halt to all stimulating activities. A study at the Edinburgh Sleep Centre revealed that looking at a computer screen last thing at night has the same stimulating effect as drinking a double expresso.

Before we clamber into bed we should give particular thought to the things we eat and drink for those can also affect the speed with which we enter the arms of Morpheus. While there’s no truth in the old idea that eating cheese last thing at night will keep us awake or cause bad dreams, there’s plenty of evidence that drinking coffee will hinder our slumbers. So too will a last minute cigarette. Tests show that when people quit smoking, the time they take to fall asleep drops by forty-five per cent. At one time it was thought that we ran the risk of impairing our sleep if we went to bed on an empty stomach. This was believed to provoke a lowering of blood glucose levels, a condition referred to then as ‘night starvation.’ This ancient folk belief has been examined at numerous sleep laboratories around the world, where human volunteers have been set to sleep on beds wired to record their every movement. One of the most consistent findings of these tests is that sleep is more disturbed when the stomach is either empty or excessively full.

Physiologists at the University of Chicago, studied the sleep patterns of human guinea pigs for thousands of nights after they’d taken a wide variety of bedtime snacks. These ranged from plain water and milk, to cheese sandwiches, slices of bread and butter, and mugs of Ovaltine, which at that time was a popular evening drink made from malted milk. They found that the least disturbed sleep came after drinking the Ovaltine, irrespective of whether it had been mixed with water or milk.  Similar results were obtained some years later by researchers at Guy’s Hospital, London, who found that if elderly people took a glass of milk before retiring to bed the quality of their rest was enhanced – they slept longer, and found it easier to get back to sleep if they woke during the night. Another important finding of this research was that the more regularly the milk drink was taken, the more effective it became as a bedtime sedative.

More support for the night cap routine has come recently from both sides of the Atlantic. At Harvard University it’s been found that taking

an evening cup of a chocolate drink improves the health of the heart; while scientists at Nottingham University have discovered that drinking a cup of hot cocoa before retiring to bed appears to improve learning and memory and reduce the long-term risk of dementia. In both cases the protective effect is thought to be derived from cocoa’s high content of flavanols, naturally-occurring compounds which boost the blood flow to the brain.

We’re creatures of habit, and seem to benefit by following the same unwinding ritual when the day’s work is done and we prepare for bed.  For our health’s sake, there’s now ample evidence that we’d benefit if that switching-off routine included the taking of a leisurely mug of hot chocolate or malted milk.

© Donald Norfolk 2010

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