Do you remember having any sleep problems when you were a kid? Few people do... because the most common sleep complaints like insomnia or wakefulness don’t appear until we reach the age of 30. Some people believe it’s “normal” to not get a good night's sleep, or that adults don’t need as much sleep as children do, but the truth is that good sleep is essential to maintaining your youth and vigor.
Yes, as we age, it’s more challenging to attain a full night’s sleep. Yet, to keep looking and feeling young, we all still need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night. As we age, our sleep patterns change. It’s not at all unusual to find yourself taking longer to fall asleep, sleeping more lightly and waking easily, waking up repeatedly throughout the night, feeling less rested upon waking, feeling extremely tired in afternoons and early evenings, being unable to fall back asleep after waking in the early morning. So what’s to blame for sleep disorders like these and others? A couple of factors:
-HORMONES: As we age our bodies secrete lower amounts of vital sleep hormones – melatonin and growth hormone .With less of these two hormones in the system, sleep cycles aren’t as regular and circadian rhythms fall out of balance. Sleep is less deep, more irregular and less restful.
-HEALTH ISSUES: The older we get, the more likely it is that medical problems may interfere with sleep. Chronic pain issues (such as arthritis) can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. In men, an enlarged prostate can lead to frequent bathroom trips throughout the night, interrupting each time. Sleep apnea due to being overweight can make sleeping unsteady and unfulfilling.
-LIFE CHANGES: New baby in the house? Starting a new job? Taking up a new hobby or activity in the evenings? Expect your sleep schedule to suffer to some extent. Changes to your routine and your body’s expected patterns can show up in your sleep. It takes a few weeks to adjust to a temporary disturbance or it may take several months to adapt to a lasting impediment to sleep.
-DRINKING OR SMOKING: If you have a habit for alcohol, caffeine or nicotine, these three substances may be the culprits behind your poor sleep. Try cutting back or cutting out these substances altogether if you want to catch some more shut-eye.
-MEDICATIONS: over-the-counter and prescription medications often have side effects related to sleep. Some may cause excessive drowsiness. Others may cause insomnia, vivid/disturbing dreams, or other side effects like excessive thirst or urination which may interrupt your nightly Z's.
Even if you function well on 6 hours or less of sleep, know that your body does not. Sleep is when the body heals itself and regenerates from cellular degeneration and other effects of aging. The less sleep you get, the less time your body has to repair and renew itself. Eventually your energy flags, you become more susceptible to illness and the common cold, your mental acuity declines, and you end up acting older than your years.
Besides paying close attention to common situational factors like those listed above, you can also try regulating your sleep the same way children do. Go to bed at the same time every night (give or take 30 to 45 minutes). Establish a pre-bedtime routine that is consistent every evening. Have dinner, go to the gym, bathe or shower, and get in bed as close as possible to the same time each day. If you watch TV in the evenings, make sure to turn it off at least 30 minutes before you intend to be asleep. Falling asleep with the TV on actually hinders your ability to engage in deep, lasting sleep. If you can’t stop your mind from racing with the decisions and responsibilities of your day, consider reading a book or magazine in bed. Focusing your attention on something more simple and finite will signal your brain that it’s time to start shutting down. Keep your lights dim in the evening. Do a slow, deliberate full-body stretch (or easy 20-minute session of yoga) prior to bedtime. As you stretch, focus on your breathing... slowing it down and breathing deeply and fully as you move through your stretching.
Do these things and you’ll be making significant strides against aging through lack of sleep. However, if you find that you’re still unable to get more Zs despite making modifications to your lifestyle, you may have an actual medical disorder. See a doctor as soon as possible to keep a sleep deficit from turning into an age accelerator.