I received a Garmin watch for Mother’s Day. It is my first smartwatch. Frankly, I selected it because I get lost a lot on my long-distance walks and figured Garmin had the best GPS. But I refused to buy a watch if it did not have a good sleep-recording system with analysis. Why was knowing how much I sleep each night so vital to me?
My biohacking friends tell me that sleep is essential to relieve much of the stress, body pains and emotional issues that ail us as we age.
I was also told, or so I thought, that you need less sleep as you age. But that’s not entirely true.
According to the sleep experts at Project Athena, a good seven to nine hours is still a useful measure, although we all are different. So I wanted to monitor my sleep and see if anything was deteriorating.
The actual effect of age on sleep and sleep on aging is a bit more complicated than simple cause and effect.
Dr. Li and Dr. Vitiello of the Sleep Medicine Clinics reported that, as we age, we tend to experience shorter and less lengthy nighttime sleeping and increased daytime naps. But interestingly, studies have found that many age-related changes to sleep tend to stabilize after age 60 and remain mostly unchanged for adults over 60 who are otherwise healthy.
One of the most impactful daily activities for the length and quality of your sleep is your diet. There is growing evidence that poor sleep is related to nutritional habits. In turn, lack of sleep or interrupted sleep and poor nutrition are catalysts to an overall decline in physical and mental conditions, especially a decline in cognition in older adults. A sleep-friendly diet during the day, plus attention to what you put in your body in the hours before bedtime, can be most impactful.
As the huge number of diet and nutrition books attest, there are many ways of eating right. But the following six have proven to lead to improved sleep, almost immediately…
- Avoid coffee, tea, caffeinated soda and chocolate after dinner.
- Avoid alcohol in the evening. It only appears to make you sleepy. It will disrupt your sleep.
- Avoid excessive sugar. Too much sugar and refined carbs can cause wakefulness at night and pull you out of the deep, restorative stages of sleep.
- Avoid big and spicy dinners.
- Drink fewer liquids to cut down on overnight bathroom visits.
Most of these suggestions tell you what not to do so that diet does not interfere with sleep.
But what can you do to improve sleep through nutritional changes?
In my podcast, Generation Bold: The Fountain of Truth About Aging, I interviewed Charlie Severn of the organization A Place for Mom, which helps family caregivers cope with many issues of older loved ones. Among the things that A Place for Mom can help with is nutrition, especially if the older person is in assisted living and receiving congregate meals.
A Place for Mom suggests that you can experience better and healthier sleep with a diet rich in these…
1. Nutrient-rich fruits: Fruits high in potassium and magnesium are great. Many of these also contain sleep-inducing tryptophan. These include bananas and cherries.
2. Complex carbs: Complex carbs are lovely for sleep, but watch out for the processed sugars. At bedtime, try whole grains such as oatmeal, popcorn or even sweet potato. These are also high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.
3. Lean protein: More tryptophan from lean meats increases serotonin levels and induces sound sleep, like after turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. But eat this in moderation. Too much protein, or anything high in trans-fats or deep-fried, is decidedly not good at bedtime.
4. Heart-healthy fats: The latest keto and low-carb diets do suggest fats for health. But they differ from the unhealthy deep-fried or trans-fats that can disturb sleep. Heart-healthy fats include avocados, peanut butter and other nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, cashews and pistachios.
5. Warm drinks: A Place for Mom says listen to your mother. “Warm milk with a dash of honey is especially soothing. Decaffeinated herbal teas can also help, particularly relaxing herbs like chamomile or peppermint. Many people drink teas with added valerian root, an herb that has been used for centuries as a natural sedative. Avoid caffeinated beverages, though; even small amounts of caffeine can prevent sleep”.
But diet alone is not the only cause of sleep issues. Other predominantly age-related issues impact us.
Medicines: Older adults do, in general, take more medications than younger people. Often the combination of drugs, as well as their side effects, can impair sleep. Some medicines make it challenging to fall asleep or stay asleep and even might cause the person to wake up at night.
Chronic conditions of aging: Conditions such as heart failure, arthritis, heartburn, menopause and Alzheimer’s disease all negatively affect sleep. Moreover, the symptoms of many medical conditions, rather than the disorders themselves, are the contributing sleep-disruption factors. These include the frequent need to urinate, assorted types of pain and heartburn. These are all serious “sleep killers.”
Age-related emotional or psychiatric disorders: Clinical depression, for example, which is very common in old age, significantly affects the quality and quantity of sleep. Stress caused by life changes, such as a death in the family or of a friend, relocating your home or movement limitations, cause stress and, as a result, sleep difficulties.
The aging couch potato syndrome—lack of exercise and lack of sunlight: A sedentary lifestyle can produce significant sleep interference. You may never feel sleepy, or you may feel tired all the time because of lack of exercise. I interviewed author Judy Foreman, author of Exercise Is Medicine, for my Generation Bold Radio podcast. She was very clear about the importance of exercise in all aspects of life, especially the wake-rest cycle. Finally, exposure to sunlight promotes melatonin and improves the sleep-wake cycle.
Loneliness and lack of social engagement. Retirement without life purpose can cause sleepless nights.One of the most significant changes in an older person’s life is retirement. The resulting schedule changes, or lack of schedule with no specific plans, can produce an irregular sleep-wake schedule and chronic sleep problems. In my blog “How to Find Bliss After Retirement,” I concluded that every retiree can find his/her ultimate bliss after employment ends. A purpose-driven retirement might result in a new schedule, but a healthy sleep cycle will usually readjust and continue.
Don’t sleep through this conclusion. Sleep is critical to good health. Monitor it as carefully as you watch your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Check out these sleep-monitoring apps, and choose one that is right for you…and use it.
And if you do have trouble sleeping soundly and through the night, remember—you are not alone. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has declared June 22 Insomnia Awareness Night. The good folks there have assembled a great deal of helpful information and references.
I end every episode of my podcast with, “Get out there and make things happen!” Productive aging demands a good night’s sleep. And that’s what we want. So make that happen, too.