How to Ensure Quality Sleep
The older we get, the more quality sleep we need. Sleep is a holiday for the body, a time when every system has a chance to relax and repair itself. Doctors who run sleep laboratories tell me that when people come to them for help, they are amazed at how much time the doctor spends scrutinizing what they do during the day. A small study recently found that quality sleep is correlated to brain changes in seniors, making snooze time even more pertinent for prime-timers.
How Sleep Impacts Your Body
What you do with your body and brain throughout the day influences how well your body and brain sleep at night. If you put a lot of junk food and junk thoughts into your body during the day, don’t expect the resulting neurochemicals to become nicer at night. The vicious cycle begins: Suboptimal sleep throws the sleep-inducing neurochemicals out of whack, and this in turn leads to more suboptimal sleep. Inadequate sleep amps up the inflammatory system and causes you to store excess body fat, both of which increase your chances of getting sick and sleeping less.
When you snuggle down with your head in the pillow, your muscles relax, your respiratory and heart rates slow, and blood pressure and body temperature drop slightly. These physiologic changes signal the release of the sleep hormone melatonin, which prompts the brain to slow down and rest. Then, around every 90 minutes throughout the night, your body cycles through light sleep, the state in which you dream, and deep sleep, the state in which you repair and rejuvenate.
You may have heard that the older you get, the less you sleep. While this is often true, it’s not optimal. We are naturally programmed to enjoy the physiologic ideal of sleeping eight to nine hours. Studies show that there is decreased blood flow to the brain (temporal lobes) of people who get less than six hours of sleep a night. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to many health problems. You can tell if you are sleep deprived: you nod off any time you sit down to read, at a movie or a concert, or at the wheel of your car.
Prime-Time Night Quirks You May Experience
As we age, nighttime sleep depressors can deprive us of adequate rest:
- Our hormonal symphony orchestra is designed to play perk-up music (more cortisol, less melatonin) during the day and to switch to softer wind-down music at night (more melatonin, less cortisol). As we age, this hormonal harmony becomes less sleep-inducing: cortisol stays higher at night, and melatonin stays lower.
- We enjoy less slow-wave, or deep, sleep. This is the state of sleep in which our immune and repair systems are most active.
- The amount of melatonin that the brain makes during sleep declines with age. Since melatonin is primarily secreted during the stage of deep sleep, the aging brain does not enjoy as much of this sleep aid. Many of our sleep-tight tips, especially mellowing your mind with meditation as you get into bed, will help your body make more melatonin. Melatonin is not only the body’s own natural sleep aid; it is also a powerful antioxidant that shifts your body’s repair system into high gear.
- We tend to put on more belly fat, which itself contributes to hormonal imbalances that disturb sleep.
- Hormone fluctuations during menopause can keep women awake. An enlarged prostate, and the consequent full-bladder sensation, makes men get up to go.
- Quirks in the gut, such as heartburn and indigestion, are also more common as we age and can contribute to sleeplessness.
- Get lots of exercise during the day.
- Eat snooze foods.
- Don’t dine after nine.
- Stay lean.
- Reduce caffeine and alcohol.
- Enjoy an earlier, consistent bedtime.
- Remove stressful thoughts before going to bed.
- Make the bedroom quiet, dark, cool, and airy.
- Clear a stuffy nose.
- Enjoy sleep-inducing music.
- Try lavender-oil aromatherapy.
- When possible, awaken to body’s own natural “alarm.”