Sleep patterns are one of the many things that change as we age. Older folks spend less time in deep, dreamless sleep and wake up a few times a night on average. According to an article entitled Aging and Circadian Rhythms, “sleep disorders are far more prevalent in older adults.”
The American Academy of Family Physicians lists common age-related sleep changes as getting tired earlier; waking up early or in the middle of the night; and having insomnia; all of which can lead to less shut-eye and may make you feel tired during the day. An underlying medical problem such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome could also be the culprit.
SleepEducation.org offers yet another reason seniors may not sleep as well as their younger counterparts: They produce and secrete less of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. Finally, according to the Sleep Foundation, “sleep patterns also shift due to alterations in circadian rhythm”. “Circadian” literally translates to “about a day” in Latin, but the National Sleep Foundation defines circadian rhythm as “the 24-hour internal clock that controls our sleep/wake cycle, as well as metabolism, cognition, and more.”
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine warns that “Older adults who have poor nighttime sleep are more likely to have a depressed mood, attention and memory problems, excessive daytime sleepiness, more nighttime falls, and use more over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids. Poor sleep is also associated with a poorer quality of life.” Harvard Health cites that “Insufficient sleep can also lead to serious health problems, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight problems, and breast cancer in women.”
In order to feel rested, alert, and function at their best, all adults require 7-8 hours of sleep a night, no matter their age. Here’s how to get to sleep, stay asleep or go back to sleep, sans sedatives.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine
Don’t drink caffeine within six hours of bedtime. That’s how long it takes for the stimulant to leave your system. On the same note, even small amounts of booze before bed can make it harder to stay asleep. Alcohol has carbohydrates, which our bodies metabolize into sugar. Who wants a sugar rush in the middle of the night? Plus, alcohol is a diuretic, leading to more mid-night trips to the bathroom. Thirdly, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which is why you snore more after too many gin and tonics.
While smoking is bad all around, with literally no benefits whatsoever, 34.2 million Americans keep on puffin’, thanks to the addictive nature of nicotine. Nicotine is a stimulant, so if you customarily have a cigarette before bed it can be harder to get to sleep. Plus, waking up coughing does not constitute restful slumber.
By now we’ve established that what you put in your body can affect the quantity and quality of zzz’s you get, and that also applies to food. As a rule, you should have dinner at least a few hours before bedtime to allow time for digestion. Digestion during sleep may cause “heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, or other unpleasant, sleep-disrupting symptoms” according to Sleep Advisor.
That being said, some foods contain vitamins and minerals which aid in promoting sleep. Tryptophan-rich foods such as dairy products, poultry and some fruits, such as apples and bananas, produce serotonin. The body synthesizes tryptophan into sleep’s favorite chemical, melatonin, aka the governor of the entire sleep/wake cycle. Tart cherries make a great bedtime snack because they contain melatonin.
According to the Alaska Sleep Education Center, “magnesium is often referred to as the sleep mineral.” It’s a natural relaxant that helps deactivate adrenaline. Bananas contain tryptophan, magnesium, and Vitamin B6 (which also converts tryptophan into melatonin) so if you need a bedtime snack, grab a banana. Dark chocolate is a wonderful source of magnesium, but it also contains caffeine, so unfortunately it is decidedly not a good bedtime snack. Calcium is another melatonin-making mineral, which is why a warm glass of milk helps put you to sleep.
Maybe you’re just not wearing yourself out enough during the day. Daily exercise tends to make sleep deeper and more restorative. However, Harvard Health recommends avoiding vigorous activity for at least an hour before bed.
Make your bedroom a haven for rest. Eating and watching TV are off-limits in this snooze-zone. Your mattress, sheets, blankets, pillows, lighting, window treatments and the thermostat should invite you into a dark, quiet, cool and comfortable slumber.
If you deal with the sound of traffic or loud neighbors, try using a noise machine, fan or humidifier. The soft, low-pitched, constant sound can help drown out the noise. Snoring spouse? Invest in earplugs. If there’s a street light outside your window, use an eye mask to block it out.
Light is our strongest sleep cue. Our bodies are naturally hard-wired to get sleepy when the sun goes down, however since the advent of electricity, those wires have gotten crossed. Simulate sunset in your home before bed by dimming bright lights and avoiding screen time.
Darkness is essential to sleep. According to Harvard Health, “Even dim light can interfere with a person’s circadian rhythm and melatonin secretion.” Read a book or listen to a podcast. If you simply must scroll through Facebook before bed, make sure the blue light filter is turned on in your device’s settings. Blue spectrum light is the same kind of light that the sun emits, so you can see how it triggers our bodies to be awake and alert.
Set a bedtime
Routinely rising and resting at the same time every day is the consistency your circadian rhythm craves. However, as you’ve probably noticed, sleep can’t be forced, no matter how hard you try. Sleep expert Michael Schwartz iterates over and over that falling asleep, or back to sleep, is a passive event. If you’re still awake after 20 minutes of going to bed, get up and go back to bed when you feel tired.
There are a handful of ways to wind down at night. Taking a warm bath is a popular way to relax, but mindful meditation is like a warm bath for your brain. Similarly, breathing exercises can help prepare the body for sleep. Plus, they can be performed in bed!
Give deep abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing (also known as “tummy” breathing) a shot. Lie down in comfy clothes. Consciously relax your muscles from head to toe. Put one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. Slowly inhale through your nose–deep into your diaphragm–and feel your stomach rise and naturally sink as you exhale. Another popular breathing exercise is the 4-7-8 breathing technique, which is just breathing in for four counts, holding for seven, then exhaling for eight. Repeat up to four times.
You might not even notice the tension you’re holding in your body until you focus on it. Progressive muscular relaxation, aka the Jacobson Technique, forces you to focus on this tension, from head to toe. Starting at the top, contract your forehead, tightening it for 20 seconds, then release. Repeat with your eyes, nose, jaw, tongue, face, etc., all the way down to your feet. According to sleep expert Michael Schwartz, slowly and systematically contracting, holding and releasing different muscles not only releases muscle tension, but it also causes our body to release endorphins that naturally help us relax.
Talk to your doctor
Perhaps your lack of sleep is due to an underlying sleep disorder, or it could be due to the side-effects of medications you take. Antidepressants, beta-blockers and cardiovascular drugs can all interfere with your slumber. Your MD can also refer you to a sleep specialist.