Can you remember the last time you slept all the way through the night undisturbed? If you’re over fifty and regularly experience insomnia, restless nights, and struggle to find enough energy to make it through the day, your sleep issues could be related to natural changes that happen as you age.
Not to worry! I have some tried-and-true tips to get your sleep back on track so you can spend your days doing your favorite activities, and being there 100% for the people you love. First, we’ll look at some common causes of sleep disturbances in midlife, and then we can dive into natural solutions you can use to overcome these issues and enjoy a peaceful and restorative night’s sleep.
The Importance of Quality Sleep
Did you know that we spend one-third of our life asleep? Anything we spend that much time doing certainly can’t be neglected. Sleep is vital not only for restoring your energy, it’s also involved in learning, creating new memories, and clearing out the toxins that build up in your brain during the day. It plays a crucial role in numerous bodily processes including metabolism, immune function, and mood.
While some aspects of sleep and its biological purpose remain a mystery, we do know that a lack of good quality sleep is linked to a number of chronic issues such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.1
And, as it turns out, getting too much sleep can be just as bad as not getting enough.2
So what is the “sweet spot” for hours of sleep we should target? The typical range for healthy sleep is between seven and nine hours per night. That being said, every person is different and your needs for sleep may vary over time. Studies have shown that older adults require less sleep to feel fully rested than young adults,3
so if you’re sleeping less now than you once did, it may not be a problem at all. What’s most important is how you feel during the day.
Signs of Too Little (or Too Much) Sleep
- Nodding off during activities
- Difficulty concentrating
- Brain fog
- Carbohydrate cravings
- Stubborn weight gain
The Four Stages of Sleep
Just as length of sleep tends to vary with age, so does the amount of time you spend in each stage of sleep. Each complete cycle of sleep includes four stages, and tends to last between 90 and 110 minutes before starting again. The four stages of sleep are:4
Stage 1: This stage is the transition from being awake to being asleep, characterized by slowed heartbeat, breathing, eye movements, and brain waves. Your muscles also begin to relax and may twitch. Stage 1 typically lasts from five to 10 minutes.5
Stage 2: The second stage is marked by light sleep. Your heartbeat and breathing slow even further, your temperature drops, and eye movements stop. Although your brain waves continue to slow down in this stage, your brain also begins to experience short bursts of electrical activity. Stage 2 can last from anywhere between five and 15 minutes.6
Stage 3: This is the most important stage of sleep for feeling refreshed in the morning. Your breathing and heart rate reach their lowest levels, and it can be difficult to awaken during this time. Time spent in stage 3 usually occurs in longer periods during the first half of the night, and then decreases as the night goes on.7
REM Sleep: An abbreviation for “rapid eye movement”, REM sleep is the stage of sleep when most dreaming occurs. Your eyes move quickly from side to side, your breathing gets faster, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase. REM sleep first occurs roughly 90 minutes after falling asleep, and the REM stage grows longer with each sleep cycle as the night goes on.
As you age, you tend to spend less time in stage 3 and REM sleep and more time in stages 1 and 2.8
This could help explain why you may not feel as refreshed in the morning as you enter midlife. What’s more, memory consolidation requires both REM and non-REM stages of sleep.9
So-called “slow-wave sleep” (the type of deep sleep you get in stage 3) is necessary for fact-based memories, while REM sleep is needed for consolidation of emotional and procedural memory (which includes motor skills and automatic activities such as walking and talking).10
This may be why you can experience greater memory loss as you get older, especially if you struggle to get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep and Aging
Although not well understood, age-related changes in sleep patterns may be due to declining levels of the “sleep hormone” melatonin as you age.11
Because of these natural changes in circadian rhythm, people over fifty spend less time in deep, restorative stage 3 and REM sleep.
This leads to more frequent insomnia, abrupt awakening, or waking up multiple times during the night. There are also a number of health issues that increase with age that could be behind your sleepless nights.
1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is a condition in which your tongue falls back against your throat during sleep, blocking air from entering. This may cause you to wake up multiple times during the night, although you may not even notice or remember doing so.12
Loud snoring is one of the telltale signs of OSA. Although it can affect people of all ages, it occurs more frequently in middle age, particularly among men and those who are overweight. OSA can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, headaches, and depression. It is quite dangerous if left untreated, and can even lead to chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.13
2. Restless Leg Syndrome
Also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease, Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) causes uncomfortable sensations in the legs such as itching, throbbing, tingling, and a “creepy-crawly” feeling. These unpleasant symptoms trigger an irresistible urge to move your legs around, keeping you from falling or staying asleep. RLS can cause daytime fatigue, difficulty concentrating, brain fog, and mood disorders. Frequency and duration of RLS tend to increase with age. Sleep deprivation, nerve damage, iron deficiency, and drinking alcohol or caffeine can exacerbate the symptoms of RLS.14
An overactive bladder can keep you up at night, due to frequent trips to the bathroom to relieve yourself, or fear of having an “accident.” Incontinence can be caused by a number of different factors, however, some common issues that can arise in middle age include multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, constipation, diabetes, and urinary tract infections.15
4. Hormone Imbalances
As you age, your body produces less and less melatonin (the “sleep hormone”), which is one reason why so many older adults struggle with insomnia and other sleep issues.16
Women going through menopause experience additional hormone imbalances, including a decline in estrogen, that can cause night sweats and other symptoms that interfere with good quality sleep.17
In turn, disrupted sleep can wreak havoc on hormone balance, creating a vicious cycle.
These are just some of the issues that can arise in midlife and rob you of your sleep. Fortunately, no matter what is causing your restless nights, there are many proven approaches for improving sleep quality. Let’s take a look at some of my favorite natural sleep solutions to help you feel well rested and ready to tackle your day!
Tips to Support Your Sleep Naturally
1. Establish good sleep habits.
Though it may sound simple, training your mind when and how to fall asleep can actually help train your body too. This is because of what is known as your body’s circadian rhythm, the 24-hour cycle of sleeping and waking controlled by your brain. Your brain tells you when it’s time to go to bed by releasing melatonin.18
Darkness cues your brain to start producing melatonin, and light signals it to stop.
Before electricity, melatonin would be released when the sun went down, so people would sleep when it was dark and wake when it was light. Now that we’re surrounded by bright lights and light-emitting technology at all hours of the day, our natural circadian rhythms get thrown off.
Here are some ways you can set your circadian rhythm back on track:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every night.
- Use blackout shades or an eye mask to block light from street lamps.
- Set your thermostat between 60-67° F. Your core temperature drops as your body prepares for sleep, so reducing the ambient temperature induces your body’s sleep mode. 19
Find out more tips to build healthy sleep habits and reset your sleep cycle in this article.
2. Turn off the electronics and wear amber glasses.
I know it can be hard to break the habits that so many of us have gotten into such as watching the TV, using the computer, or scrolling through our phones late into the night, often right up to the time we want to sleep. However, studies have shown that blue light from electronics can delay the release of melatonin by a full 90 minutes.20
The best course of action would be to turn off all technology about 2 hours before bedtime, and dim the lights to help stimulate melatonin production. Choose a relaxing activity that doesn’t involve a screen such as reading, taking a bath, light stretching, or meditation.
That being said, sometimes using technology before bed simply can’t be helped. You may need to complete a project by a certain deadline, or maybe nothing else relaxes you more after a hard day’s work than catching up on your favorite shows. If you find it difficult to limit screen time before bed, invest in a pair of amber glasses. I have a pair of Fitover Night Swannies from Swanwick that I put on as the sun goes down at night. The tinted lenses block blue light from entering your eyes, so it won’t disrupt your natural sleep cycle.
3. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Alcohol and caffeine are both toxic compounds that I recommend avoiding no matter who you are. However, it is especially critical to eliminate these substances if you are having trouble sleeping. As I mentioned above, alcohol and caffeine play a role in Restless Leg Syndrome, which can keep you up at night. Plus, they both stimulate the bladder, increasing your risk of nighttime incontinence.
What’s more, caffeine can delay your circadian rhythm by roughly 40 minutes.21
And although it may seem to help you fall asleep faster, alcohol actually interferes with restorative REM sleep—which older adults are already short on—which can lead to daytime grogginess and brain fog.22
To replace your coffee habit, try switching to caffeine-free herbal tea. Chamomile, tulsi, lemon balm, and passionflower are especially relaxing choices to sip before bed. As for alcohol, save imbibing for special occasions or opt for a “mocktail” if you’re just looking for something bubbly, tangy, or sweet to drink. I have a number of fun (and delicious!) ideas for mocktails in The Autoimmune Solution Cookbook so you won’t have to feel left out at a gathering or sacrifice your sleep!
4. Try a Sleep Tracker
Knowing how your body is behaving during the night can be a great tool for understanding the best time to go to bed, the best time to rise, and even the best temperature for your room. There are a variety of tools on the market that you can choose but I am particularly partial to the Oura ring, which rests so comfortably on my finger that I hardly even notice it.
5. Consider sleep-supporting supplements.
Supplementation can be a great option for when you just need that extra support to help you get a good night’s sleep. I’m very excited to announce my NEW Rest and Restore™ supplement. Rest and Restore™ contains Magnesium Glycinate, GABA, and L-Theanine, a potent combination for supporting a relaxed mood and a healthy sleep cycle. Paired with calming magnesium, GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps to relax your nervous system.23
Meanwhile, L-theanine is the amino acid found in tea leaves that gives tea its relaxing quality. L-theanine supports healthy levels of GABA in your brain, as well as serotonin and dopamine. All three of these neurotransmitters help regulate mood, concentration, sleep, appetite, and energy.24
Rest and Restore™ is the perfect complement to a sleep-supportive lifestyle. Its natural ingredients can help promote restful sleep and an optimal sleep cycle. Without any next-day drowsiness, you can wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day!
If you’ve been dealing with age-related sleep disturbances, you’re not alone. However, you don’t have to let your age define you: restful, restorative sleep is possible at any age! With these sleep supporting lifestyle strategies and supplements, you CAN overcome the common issues behind your sleepless nights, and reclaim your vibrant, energetic self!