In this week’s column, nutritionist Nonie De Long outlines why, as we age, it can be difficult to get the sleep we need to be well
Dear Nutritionist, I consider myself healthy and really watch my diet, but since hitting middle age, I’ve had a very hard time with getting enough sleep. Can you please give me some advice or is it fine that I don’t sleep like I used to? — Cara
There are a couple things your question brings up that I would like to touch on. First of all, sleep quality and quantity often decline as we age, and while it used to be thought that wasn’t very important, we now know it’s correlated to a number of chronic disease risks, including dementia, obesity and diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and depression.
So getting a good sleep and getting enough sleep are of particular importance. Some factors that play a role as we age can make it more difficult:
Declining melatonin production:
As we age, the amount of melatonin our bodies make declines significantly. Melatonin is a hormone the body makes in the presence of the onset of darkness to signal other hormones and the body that it’s time to sleep. When it isn’t present our bodies can miss the signal and we can then find it difficult to wind down at night.
The time we spend in front of screens can increase as we age at the same time our melatonin production and hormone production slows down. This can make sleep even more difficult. As a precaution I suggest everyone set their devices to automatically filter blue light after evening time, so they aren’t blasting their retinas with information to create wakefulness.
Lack of schedule:
When we work five days a week long enough, we tend to be forced to conform to a schedule even if we aren’t naturally the got-a-schedule type. But in retirement, that can drastically change. And often, late nights and sleeping in can become the norm. But this cycle can dysregulate hormones that help us sleep deeply. It’s best to stick to a healthy schedule even in retirement to ensure we get the sleep we need.
Medications and supplements:
Many drugs interfere with sleep. Antidepressants come to mind immediately, but even natural supplements can contain ingredients that inhibit sleep in some. I’ve seen multivitamins that contain green tea and diet supplements that contain caffeine and these can definitely inhibit a good night’s sleep. Some others can promote it — like magnesium and 5-HTP. So it’s important to know what you’re taking and the best time to take it. If in doubt, please see a professional and have them go over all of your products to make sure they are taken to optimize your sleep cycles.
I’m a firm believer in a good cup of coffee to pick the spirits and the brain up in the morning. But frequently, as we age our livers don’t break this stuff down as effectively as they used to. It can take eight hours to clear from the body in some people, especially women. I suggest caffeine intake prior to 1 p.m. for all sensitive and elderly clients. This can help greatly.
We all know how peeving it can be to wake to use the bathroom only to be unable to get back to sleep, but this can become a chronic cycle as we age. Sometimes the brain won’t shut off or the body just won’t relax again. Sleep meditations can help with this, but so can homeopathy and herbals. Most frequently, though, I see this in clients with dysregulated blood sugar.
Once they follow the dietary recommendations below, it often seems to improve. That’s in part because an inflammatory diet exacerbates bladder discomfort, but also because it impacts the hormones that can keep us awake. Hormones work in symphony, so when one is triggered too often or out of balance, others tend to follow. Being unable to go back to sleep, hot flashes, and night sweats are all signals that the body’s hormones are out of whack. Rebalancing hormones can effectively address this.
Stress and grief:
By middle age most of us have experienced some significant grief and setbacks in life. This can be anything from the loss of a family member to the loss of a job or home. It can be devastating to have this happen at any point, but often the body is not as resilient to stressors as we age, and we can find it harder to bounce back from these pains physically and emotionally.
It may seem unrelated, but a body that does not have enough nutrients can’t be as resilient in times of acute or prolonged stress. I truly believe resiliency, more than any other factor, is the litmus of health. We want to increase our resiliency, as we age, not decrease it. This relies on sleep to a great degree, so it can be very chicken and egg once we get into a rut where we’re not getting enough deep sleep.
Part of the way I suggest clients overcome this hurdle is to increase their nutrients by adding some superfood supplements into their diet and reducing foods that deplete them. This impacts sleep tremendously. There are also herbs we can use when insomnia is a factor. I also suggest clients find a spiritual or faith community or another community of meaning to them to help them overcome and heal from emotional pain.
Just as with emotional injury, it can be more difficult to heal from physical injuries as we age and nothing impacts sleep like pain. And of course, the aging body can be more prone to injury. So again, I suggest clients pay special attention to nutrition to help maintain bone density, joint flexibility, and healing capability as they age. And reversing ageing on a cellular level can greatly help with getting deeper sleep. Exercise like walking, swimming, yoga, and pilates are all incredible for building flexibility and strength to prevent bone loss and injuries.
Poor nutrition habits:
Often middle age is the time when our nutrition deteriorates significantly, while our nutritional needs increase significantly. Taking time to ensure you are getting the most from your food only makes sense. Eating a healthy diet is important, but so, too, is avoiding inflammatory foods and ensuring you get enough of all the vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients you need. Adding hormone supplements can also help with protecting the body from aging-related decline. And, when we age, our digestion can become sluggish so I always assess digestion and elimination to ensure it’s optimal. Eating organic is great but we don’t benefit as much if we’re not digesting and absorbing it properly.
Alcohol consumption often goes up as we age, even though our ability to handle it declines. It’s a burden on the liver and digestive system, so it’s essential if we want to drink with any regularity and maintain optimal health that we seek help to bolster these systems with herbals and added nutrients. A damaged liver makes it really difficult to experience optimal health and longevity.
Sugar consumption also goes up as we age. I visited a friend in a nursing home only to be appalled at the breakfast fare. It was an assortment of pastries and cookies, with very few lower glycemic alternatives. We need to radically change how we think about nutrition as we age if we want to avoid the common degenerative diseases. I advise clients to make sure at least one meal a day is liquid, eat ample complete protein at every meal, remove snacking except one day a week, and keep it low glycemic.
Sleep apnea has become an epidemic. People who suffer can experience periods of waking throughout the night — or just very low quality sleep — due to problems breathing. I see this most frequently in obese clients, but sometimes it’s present in younger people with fatty liver disease. Losing excess weight and following a healthy lifestyle almost always reverses the disorder, in my experience. If this is something you suffer from and wish to address holistically, I invite you to get in touch.
Lack of exercise:
We realize in children that exercise and fresh air help them sleep but somehow we think it doesn’t apply as we age! Nothing could be further from the truth. Getting outside for a brisk walk or to garden or any other outdoors activity is very important as we age. I recommend at least 30 minutes or 8,000 steps. Varying our activities can help keep it fun. This is essential for our bone density, muscle tone, balance, and sleep.
If you need a walker or support to start, by all means use it. It really is true with muscles that they deteriorate in the absence of challenge, so it’s best not to let them atrophy. Make exercise a priority. Free online yoga is one great way to tone muscles and organs and stay limber and fit, even if being outside is challenging or you can’t attend a class or exercise group.
All together changing these habits has an incredible impact on sleep. If all else fails I often recommend clients take this sleep supplement to help them overcome insomnia.
Thank you, Cara, for writing in. As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re looking for more specific health information, check out nonienutritionista.com. I provide 1:1 health coaching and several group classes, including a KETO reset and an eight-week sugar detox.