By: Allison Kauffman
Regular restful sleep has always been a challenge for me. Truth be told, I have tried taking everything to help me sleep better including Ambien, Tylenol PM, Benadryl and Melatonin. However, now I’m at the point where if I don’t take anything, I won’t sleep, so I am reliant on medication, which isn’t ideal. I’ve also been told as we age, it gets harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
I’m not sure when my problems with sleep even began. I remember before my children were born, sleeping in on the weekends and falling asleep easily. This has dramatically changed for me in recent years. Some nights I need to sleep on the couch because every move my husband makes will prevent me from sleeping. His snoring also keeps me from staying asleep, even if he comes to bed later than me. I envy people who can sleep through anything and sleep anywhere. My husband can fall asleep upright in a chair! It makes me crazy that he is so good at sleeping and I constantly struggle.
Studies show that sleep patterns often change as we age. Sleep needs also change over the course of your life. While babies sleep for 16 hours a day, most adults generally need seven or eight hours a day. This amount of needed sleep goes down as we get older. Everyday Health says having realistic expectations when it comes to sleep is important. They report normal changes for seniors and sleep can include sleeping for less time, taking longer to get to sleep, waking up more often at night, waking up earlier, feeling sleepy earlier and the need for a nap in the afternoon. Older adults also have an advanced sleep phase, which causes them to want to go to bed early in the evening, and then get up early in the morning.
When it comes to napping, Everyday Health says some people shouldn’t nap, while others may need to. In general, people who want to sleep better at night should avoid napping, regardless of age. If you have been diagnosed with insomnia, you should definitely avoid napping because it interferes with your body’s natural sleep rhythms. However, for many older adults, napping during the day is fine, as long as the naps are short, such as 30 minutes.
Taryn Wilk, Community Fitness and Wellness Coordinator at RiverWoods Senior Living Community said, “This population tends to nap during the day, so I recommend making sleeping at night a special event: prepare for bed by reading, doing a puzzle, or listening to music. Dress appropriately so the body is cool, but the feet are warm. Wear a sleep mask to block out any light from nightlights. If all else fails, try using technology! I love the MySleepButton app and the Calm app.”
Taryn also said many of the active agers who have difficulty sleeping don’t do enough activity during the day. She explained, “Appropriately intense workouts have been shown to improve sleep quality. “Appropriately intense” varies for everyone – for some that can be a walk while others may prefer to go for a swim. Meditation can be a great tool as well! I try to include a 5 minute meditation at the end of each class, and I’m always amazed at how quickly we can relax our bodies and minds with the right guidance.”
There are several ideas for seniors trying to get a better night of sleep. The Senior Guide to Sleeping Well from Everyday Health gave the following tips:
- Keep a consistent sleep/wake schedule
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine and tobacco near bedtime
- Be active during the day. Learn more about the wellness programs at our Normandie Ridge and RiverWoods Senior Living Communities online at: https://riverwoods.org/lifestyle/wellness/ and https://normandieridge.org/lifestyle/wellness/
- Use your bed for sleep only and not for reading or watching television
- Turn the clock away from you so you avoid looking if you wake up at night
- Keep your bedroom cool so you don’t wake from being overheated
- Keep your room dark
- Talk to your doctor if problems persist
Another problem keeping seniors awake at night can be anxiety or excessive worrying. It is recommended that you write down concerns before you go to sleep so you don’t think about them while trying to rest. If you are still having trouble sleeping, is it really that big of a problem? Aside from feeling tired, not getting enough sleep can really impact your health and wellbeing. According to Healthline.com, there are a number of reasons to change your sleeping habits. They include:
- Poor sleep is strongly linked to weight gain. Studies show good sleepers tend to eat fewer calories than those who can’t sleep well and feel tired
- Good sleep can improve concentration and productivity
- Good sleep can maximize athletic performance and boost energy for activities
- Poor sleepers have a greater risk of heart disease or stroke.
- Sleep affects glucose metabolism and Type 2 Diabetes risk. Poor sleep habits are strongly linked to adverse effects on blood sugar.
- Poor sleep is linked to depression
- Sleep improves your immune function, boosting your immune system.
- Poor sleep is linked to increased inflammation
- Reduced sleep impacts your ability to interact socially
There are also some foods that can help promote sleep. The Sleep Foundation recommends snacking on these items to get to sleep better and sleep longer:
- Popcorn or whole grain crackers with complex carbohydrates
- A handful of nuts, particularly almonds or walnuts which contain Melatonin,
a hormone that regulates your sleep cycle
- Cottage cheese or foods that are high in lean protein
- A nightly cup of tea, which is herbal and without caffeine. Chamomile, ginger and peppermint can be calming choices for bedtime.
- Warm milk, which can be soothing and promote sleep
- Certain fruits that contain melatonin such as bananas, kiwis, oranges and pineapple.
You can also do relaxation exercises to help you get to sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends breathing exercises before bedtime. They say closing your eyes ad noticing your breathing can be important. You can turn all of your attention to your natural breathing pattern and feel the air enter and leave your nose or mouth. Also they recommend surveying your body for any tension and as you exhale, feel the tension leave that part of your body.
Guided imagery can also help. That’s where you visualize a scene, memory or story that you find calming, while lying comfortably in bed. This allows you to focus your attention on that visualization and let other thoughts go from your mind. Try not to worry if you can’t fall asleep and know that your body will eventually take over and help you sleep. Also, if you are awake for more than 20 minutes in bed, it’s recommended that you get out of bed and do something relaxing and return to bed when you feel ready for sleep again. The bottom line is good sleep is very important in maintaining good health. If you are struggling with sleep, you should definitely see a doctor or make changes that can help you get a good night’s rest again.