Remedies for fitful nights

Created date

February 14th, 2019
A cartoon of a grey haired man looking distressed while counting sheep

You feel as if you’ve tried everything, but a restful night’s sleep still eludes you.

You are not alone. “In one study, 57% of older Americans complained of sleep difficulties and only 12% actually reported normal sleep,” says Matt Narrett, M.D., chief medical officer for Erickson Living.

Although sleep requirements stay about the same throughout life (seven to nine hours), age-related brain changes may affect your ability to get enough. Insomnia may also be a sign of life-related problems, for example, if you are worrying about bills.

Or it could be related to your health. “Along with disorders such as sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome, the presence of certain medical conditions, such as dementia, lung disease, depression, and chronic pain, have been shown to interfere with a good night’s rest,” Narrett says. “A number of prescribed medicines, including diuretics, steroids, and over-the-counter medicines such as decongestants, can also be detrimental to your sleep,” Narrett says.

Sleep is important for good health

“Sleep has a profound positive impact on our health,” says Mary Purdy, M.S., R.D.N., coach and clinical education lead at Arivale, a Scientific Wellness company that combines personalized data and tailored coaching to help members optimize their wellness.  “It affects every cell, tissue, and organ in your body. During sleep, your body goes into repair mode, and if repairs aren’t made, your body can’t function properly.”

Insufficient sleep can affect your brain in many ways. “Sleeping improves learning and is the time when we consolidate memories,” Purdy explains. “From a productivity standpoint, sleep deficits can affect your reaction time and ability to complete tasks more quickly. It can also affect mood.”

Studies show that insufficient sleep can have a profound affect on your heart. “Research shows there is a 200% increase risk of heart attack if you consistently get less than six hours of sleep,” Purdy says.

Your metabolism and immunity can also be altered. “Sleep can change how your body responds to insulin, the hormone that helps regulate blood sugar,” Purdy says. “Not enough rest can change how your immune system functions and can lead to increased levels of inflammation as well as oxidative stress. These effects can increase your predisposition toward disease.”

In addition, according to the National Institute on Aging, adults who have trouble sleeping may fall more often or use more over-the-counter sleep aids.

Do something about it

The first step: See your doctor. “Once you and your physician are confident that you have ruled out medical causes of insomnia and that you have optimized your medical regime, your very next step should be developing good sleep habits,” Narrett says.

“Consistency is key,” Purdy says. “Going to bed around the same time and having a regular sleep routine trains the brain that it’s time to simmer down. I recommend activities that settle the mind. This can be relaxing with a book, taking a hot bath with favorite scents, engaging in a contemplative practice/meditation, stretching, or a simple yoga routine.”

A big influence on sleep is light. “Exposure to natural light throughout the day, especially first thing in the morning, helps signal the brain that it’s time to be awake. Same goes for the later hours of the evening, where working in dimmer light and logging off your electronics two hours before bed can be very helpful.”

Pay attention to what you eat and drink. “Eating balanced meals throughout the day and avoiding large dinners can set the body up for a good sleep,” Purdy says. “Caffeine and alcohol should also be avoided. Some people are genetically predisposed to the sleep-disrupting effects of caffeine and should stop drinking it early in the day. Alcohol may help you drift off, but it reduces REM sleep, the type of sleep that is most restorative.”

Your sleep environment should be cool, quiet, and comfortable. “Rooms that are 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit have been shown to be optimal for sleep,” Purdy says. “Experiment with textures and types of beds and bedding, and reserve your bedroom as a sanctuary of sorts for sleep and intimacy only.”

To medicate or not

According to the American Geriatrics Society, you should avoid sleeping medication, even if it is over the counter. Research shows that seniors are likely to be more sensitive to the negative effects than younger adults because the medication stays in your system longer. Any of these drugs can cause confusion and memory problems that have been shown to double your risk of falls and fractures.

“A lack of value is placed on sleep as an essential part of our lives,” Purdy says. “Very often it’s not prioritized, but quite frequently it can stem from a lack of awareness about what sets the body up for a better night of rest.”


Fast Fact: Some research suggests that the scent of lavender can act as a mild mood stabilizer and sedative.

Source: Mary Purdy, M.S., R.D.N.

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