December 15, 2016
As we age, we find ourselves taking stock of habits, some long-seeded, that may be affecting our overall well-being and sense of vitality. With the goal of maximizing the days in our life (and life in our days!), many of us scrutinize and adjust our diets and exercise routines. It’s also important that we do the same with our sleep habits.
As we get older, our sleep patterns change. It’s common, for example, to have a difficult time falling and staying asleep. Studies have found that we spend less of our sleeping hours in the deep, dreamless sleep that restores our mind and body. This has led to a general misconception that the amount of sleep we need declines as we age. It’s just as vital, if not even more so, to guard against and solve problems that creep in and rob us of the hours of rest that we so desperately need to stay healthy.
Below are a few common sleep issues that can develop with age and practical ways to cure or manage them.
Poor bedtime habits
Over time, it can be easy to develop a nightly routine that inhibits our natural ability to unwind from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Drinking alcohol, smoking, using electronic devices with bright screens, and staying up late watching television are just a few of the habits that can severely impede our brain’s ability to slow down and prepare for slumber.
Create a routine
An evening or bedtime routine is an excellent way to signal to your mind and body that bedtime is approaching. Even something as simple as turning the lights down, fixing yourself a cup of caffeine-free tea, and putting your pajamas on will do the trick. The key is consistency–do the same routine every night and you will notice a difference in no time!
Avoid caffeine, alcohol & tobacco
These three substances have all been shown to inhibit sleep when consumed too close to bedtime. Caffeine & nicotine are stimulants that promote alertness and increased metabolic activity. As for your nightcap, research has shown that the amount of time one spends in deep, restorative REM sleep is reduced when alcohol is present in your system.
Take inventory of the time of day you indulge and how you are affected. Each person reacts differently to these substances, and you may need to limit them to early in the day or reduce your overall intake all together.
Use your bedroom exclusively for intimacy and sleep
The ping of a new text. The zip of a Facebook notification. The thrilling trailer for that new show on Netflix that you must binge watch NOW. Seriously, there aren’t enough hours in the day?! It’s crucial to create a “sleep and intimacy sanctuary” in your bedroom. Leave the phone, iPad, and TV in another part of the house. Ask your loved ones and friends to only contact you in the event of an emergency during nighttime hours.
The tendency to develop a sleep disorder, such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea, increases as we age. Pain from chronic disease, natural changes in the body that affect your breathing while asleep, and neurological conditions contribute to disturbances in our sleep patterns. When left untreated, these disturbances manifest into problematic conditions or disorders that can further deteriorate our health.
Get a sleep study to determine treatment options
A sleep study, performed by a certified sleep health practitioner, can diagnose the underlying cause of sleep issues. From there, you can explore the treatment options available that most effectively manage your condition. It’s important to remember that sleep disorders can develop over the years. Getting a sleep study periodically will help you solve potential problems early and reduce their impact on your health.
Anxiety, stress & grief
It’s no secret that strong negative emotions impact a person’s ability to sleep. After all, there’s a reason that the saying “it caused me many sleepless nights” exists to describe such a phenomenon. Stressful life circumstances, such as retirement planning or illness, become more common as we age, and we have a greater chance of being affected by them.
Practice relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques are often recommended to reduce anxiety and stress, two common emotions that can greatly inhibit one’s ability to fall asleep. The goal of relaxation techniques is to calm the mind and eliminate preoccupations by focusing solely on sensations within your body and your breath. Training your mind through meditation to get rid of noise, literally and figuratively, will have a profound effect on your sleep habits.
Chronic illnesses & medications
Chronic illnesses as well as the side effects of some medications used for treatment can create a catch-22 with regards to sleep. One may find themselves faced with the nearly impossible choice of treating a potentially life-threatening illness despite having to endure sleep-inhibiting side effects of the medication. Or on the flip side, electing to forego a medication because of its side effects means having to put up with the pains and discomfort caused by the illness itself.
Speak with your doctor
Don’t hesitate to voice your concerns about side effects you’re experiencing. There may be an alternative medication, or even a completely different management technique, that doesn’t force you to endure negative side effects. It’s important to remember that medicine isn’t one-size-fits-all, and your doctor’s responsibility is to find treatment options that are best for your overall well-being.
Lack of stimulation
The brain and body need a certain amount of daily engagement to maintain a healthy balance that lends itself to good sleep habits. As we get older, social outings and regular exercise may become less of a priority or more difficult to schedule due to transportation constraints or lack of social network. This can lead to reduced happiness that in turn affects our quality of sleep.
Exercise is quite literally a wonder drug for your body and mind. Really, this is no secret. We all know the benefits exercise has on our weight, mood, and health, factors that ultimately influence our sleep quality. Even a small daily commitment, like a 30 minute stroll around the neighborhood, will have a big impact on your ability to rest well at night.
If you are running a sleep deficit, daytime naps can feel like the logical way to try and close that gap. However, napping may actually further sabotage your ability to sleep at night by altering your natural circadian rhythm, the biological process that controls your drive to sleep. Resist the urge to snooze in the recliner at 2 pm and make a conscious effort to go to bed earlier in the evening instead.
Of the many self care strategies you can employ, getting enough quality rest is certainly one of the most impactful for your overall health. Keeping careful gauge on your sleep patterns will ensure your days are full of the energy needed to enjoy your golden years with family and friends!