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Why we find it harder to sleep as we get older?


By Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, neurophysiologist and sleep expert 

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Achieving deep, restorative sleep is an excellent way to bolster resilience as we age. During this sensitive life stage where many women may also be perimenopausal or menopausal, sleep enables the hormonal shifts to occur more smoothly and emotions to be more balanced and even.

When sleep is deep and optimal, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – associated with rest, repair, recovery – gets a reboot and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – activated by stress – is calmed. An overly active SNS can lead to trouble sleeping with temperature fluctuations and anxiety during the night, while boosting the PNS will help to minimise these issues. This can be done by making good lifestyle choices and adopting some effective self-care principles during this life phase.

Sleep issues and insomnia can also be related to the ‘perfect storm’ of several big life stages that can happen during middle age – children growing up, parents growing older, aging physiology, financial pressures, relationship strains, professional expectations or poor lifestyle choices e.g. less exercise.  All of this places even more demand on the hormonal and nervous system which can exacerbate insomnia issues.

This might seem a bit depressing however, I don’t think we should accept it as inevitable that our sleep will deteriorate as we get older.  With age could come wisdom and a deep sense of self-care and what is important in life.  As we get older, we need to take more conscious responsibility for making healthy choices – and we will in turn be rewarded with good sleep and health.

 

Here are some lifestyle changes that can boost self-care and allow sleep deeply and with ease:

 

Prioritise movement – get regular exercise and preferably out in nature and in the fresh air.  You’ll produce more melatonin at night.  Don’t over-exercise as this can have the opposite effect and can stress your joints causing more pain and inflammation at night

 

Don’t skip breakfast

Not only is the ‘most important meal of the day’ vital for energy and concentration, but breakfast can affect your sleep too. I recommend eating within the first half-hour of rising, so you can stabilise your blood sugar levels. Stabilising your blood sugar enhances your body’s ability to produce [the hormone] melatonin, which is needed for sleep, later in the day.

 

Cut back on caffeine

You might feel like a cup of coffee is exactly what you need to keep you awake and alert after a bad night’s sleep, but relying on caffeine can become a viscous circle, keeping you awake later at night. Cutting back on caffeine can hugely enhance your sleep. Ideally, you should avoid having caffeine after 4pm. As well as coffee, it’s advisable to avoid tea, fizzy drinks such as Coca-Cola, and even green tea too. Everyone’s caffeine metabolism is different; however the effects can linger for a long time in the body.

 

Stay well hydrated

Another non-negotiable is drinking more water and making sure you’re staying hydrated. Not only do you lose water throughout the night but being well hydrated can help reduce awakenings and disruptions caused by dehydration, such as a dry mouth and leg cramps. If you often forget to stay hydrated, set alarms evenly throughout your day, and drink a cup of water whenever they ring.

 

Go to bed early

You should try and go to bed early about three or four nights a week. This is about training your body to receive rest earlier. It might be tempting to stay up and watch that extra episode on Netflix, but this can throw your sleep pattern completely out of whack. Three of four nights a week, you should aim to be in bed between 9:30 and 10pm. You don’t necessarily have to be sleeping but resting or doing something that is restful. This might be reading a book (not your phone!), listening to soothing music, meditating, or writing in a gratitude journal.

What you should try and avoid is watching television in bed, sitting on your laptop and being your phone or on social media. The idea is to use this extra time to really disengage from technology and focus on rest and sleep.

 

Set healthy technology boundaries

Practice having healthy boundaries with technology. This means leaving electronics out of the bedroom. Late bedtimes are often related to technology and social media, with people staying up absorbed by the internet or the television. The blue light from devices also impacts the sleep cycle.

Small adjustments include having an electronic sundown, about 45 minutes before you go to bed. Withdraw from technology during that time, setting yourself up for rest and sleep.

Your phone shouldn’t be the last thing that you look at before you go to sleep, and it shouldn’t be the first thing you look at when you wake up in the morning. Avoid this if you can, as it will help teach you not to rely on it so much as part of your sleep routine.

 

Build rest into your day

Taking regular rest stops will stop your nervous system becoming over activated and stressed. Even at work (especially at work and working from home) be sure to take proper breaks for lunch and every 90 minutes or so a few minutes to do something restful. Get away from screens and technology, eat something nourishing, stretch, walk around your garden, drink a glass of water – think of it as pressing the reset button.

 

Keep your sleep environment cool – use a fan, keep curtains closed during the day if it’s hot and sunny, sprinkle cooling eucalyptus oils on your duvet and pillow.

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Dr Nerina Ramlakhan is a renowned physiologist and sleep expert and regularly hosts sleep programmes and workshops. She is the bestselling author of several books about sleep, including The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep (Gaia, 2018).  www.drnerina.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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