Sleep is a basic human need, like food, water and oxygen. We cannot decide to do without sleep any more than we can to choose to not eat, hydrate, or breathe. We spend one-third of our lives asleep; for the average adult that’s 26 years. Our bodies are designed to need sleep and sleep deprivation causes serious health consequences.
Why is sleep necessary?
When we sleep, our brains consolidate learning and memories. There is also a restorative process where our brains and bodies literally take out the trash. Cerebral spinal fluid removes waste chemicals and delivers restorative agents during sleep. Our energy is conserved during sleep when food is not taken in. Our heart rate and blood pressure all slow down, and our muscles relax. Our bodies rejuvenate in a state of rest.
What If we don’t sleep?
Chronic sleep deprivation is serious and can lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and increased mortality. Other consequences of lack of sleep are decreased focus and attention, reduced learning and information retention, impaired perception and judgment, poor decision making, poor mood regulation such as anger management, increased risk of depression, decreased productivity and an increase in errors. These result in increased accidents and injury. Many often say they do not need sleep or are fine with a few hours. They may have become accustomed to reduced hours, but their bodies will prove otherwise.
How does aging effect sleep?
A common misconception is that sleep needs decrease with age. In fact, our sleep needs remain constant throughout adulthood, needing 7-9 hours per night. Older adults find themselves wanting to sleep earlier in the evening and wake earlier in the morning. During sleep we transition between various stages of sleep: light, deep and occasional periods of REM marked by rapid eye movement and dreams. Growth hormones in aging do cause a decrease in deep sleep. Older adults spend more time in light sleep, are awakened more easily and take more time to get back to sleep.
What causes sleep issues?
Many things can cause insomnia or poor sleep. Poor sleep habits such as dozing in front of the TV before bedtime, using a computer before bedtime, and bright bedroom lighting. Other causes that are controllable are lack of exercise, daytime napping, lack of sunshine/time outdoors and lack of social engagement. Less easy to change: pain or medical conditions, actual sleep disorders, needed medications, menopause issues, and general stress.
Ways to catch better ZZZs:
Before giving up on a good night’s sleep, try some of these tips. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule going to bed and waking. Create a soothing environment that is quiet, dark and cool. Avoid bright lights/ screens one-hour before bed as blue lights activate the stimulant brain chemical serotonin. Developing a soothing bedtime ritual such as a warm bath, reading, listening to calm music or prayer/meditation. Try going to bed a bit later or earlier to find your best body rhythm. Only nap before 2 p.m. Limit caffeine and alcohol near bed time, minimize liquid intake within 1.5 hours before bed, avoid large and spicy meals three-four hours before bed, have a light protein bedtime snack, and avoid sugary/ high carb foods. Exercising regularly, but not right before bed, improves the quality of sleep.
Safe sleep for seniors:
Some safety tips for seniors: keep a telephone with emergency numbers by your bed; if you wear an alert necklace or bracelet, be sure it is where you can reach it but not roll on it; have your glasses, lamp or flashlight in easy reach; place a glass of water by your bed for easy access; never smoke in bed; remove area rugs to avoid tripping if you get up; and use motion sensitive nightlights to illuminate the path to bathroom.
Treatment for sleep issues:
Talk to your doctor about any medication, both OTC and RX, as well as pain issues, that may be causing sleeplessness. Consider if you have sleep apnea or other breathing concerns and the appropriate treatment for it. Some nutrients that help sleep are magnesium, calcium and potassium, melatonin, Vitamin A, D and B6, selenium, tryptophan and omega-3s. Always check with your health care provider before starting supplements as they could interact with other medications.