Modern humans have become so disconnected from natural light cycles that we routinely struggle to get adequate sleep as we age. While we can’t be sure that our ancestors battled with insomnia, we do know that many adults over 40 have difficulty getting quality on a regular basis. Life stress, worry, unhealthy habits, and hormonal deficiencies can leave many of us wide awake, staring into the darkness wishing for a peaceful night’s rest.
Stages of Sleep
There are five stages of sleep. Getting into them can be a challenge for many, and coming out of them rapidly can be extremely disorienting.
Stage 1, or Light Sleep:
In this stage of sleep you may jerk away as your eyes and muscles slow down at the end of the day. Those who struggle with Restless Leg Syndrome often feel it in Stage 1.
Brain waves begin to slow, though bursts of rapid waves can occur. The brain is headed into deep sleep.
Stage 3 & 4:
Deep sleep starts in stage 3, when the brain slows even further and Delta waves appear. Once stage 4 is reached, nearly all brain waves produced are Delta waves. Sleepwalking, bed-wetting and night terrors can occur during this time.
REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep:
Dreams occur in REM. The voluntary muscles of the body generally become paralyzed while the brain goes to work. The involuntary systems of the body can also become agitated, resulting in elevated blood pressure and rapid eye movements.
The Need for Good Sleep Hygiene
There are toxins that build up in the brain that only sleep can clear. While many of us struggle to get the long-recommended eight hours of sleep a night, it is important to work toward enough sleep that you
1) feel rested
2) are able to focus
3) don’t need stimulants like caffeine in order to function later in the day
Many of us start the day with caffeine, but it remains in our system for up to 8 hours, depending on our genetics. If you’re having a hard time falling asleep in the evening, consider the timing of your last caffeine intake and consider pushing that time back to no later than noon.
Naps can be a blissful treat, but they can have a negative impact on your ability to sleep through the night. Keep your naps to no more than 30 minutes for alertness, but don’t overdo.
Exercise right before bed can increase cortisol production, stimulating the mind and body and making it hard to wind down. When possible, do gentle exercises such as yoga or other stretches before bed. Save the hard cardio and efficient weight workouts for earlier in the day.
Many hormones play a significant role in sleep quality. Progesterone metabolites in women bind to the GABA receptor, which is our main sleep neurotransmitter. As women lose progesterone production generally around age 40, their sleep begins to deteriorate. Restoring healthy progesterone levels is a very effective approach to improving sleep in the perimenopausal woman. As estrogen production stops around age 51, sleep quality declines even further. Testosterone also has an impact on sleep quality, especially in men. Melatonin, produced by the pineal gland in the center of the brain, in addition to being a powerful antioxidant, also affects sleep onset. Our production of melatonin drops in half from age 20 to 40 then continues to decline. Replacing melatonin is important for sleep quality, but please realize that it generally takes 8 weeks of regular use before melatonin improves sleep. Don’t give up after just a week of use. Growth hormone is released in pulses mostly during the first half of sleep – if you go to bed too late, you will compromise this production. Melatonin and testosterone improve growth hormone production, as do avoidance of high glycemic carbohydrates in the evening, adequate protein intake, and heavy weight lifting.
When blood sugar is high, cortisol production increases, making sleep more difficult. Please avoid high glycemic carbohydrates in the evenings if you want to improve sleep quality. Alcohol use also damages sleep, so if you do drink, please don’t drink too much or every night. Magnesium threonate and orotate are especially helpful for relaxing the body and the brain to improve sleep. L-Tryptophan, GABA (Gamma Aminobutyric Acid), and L-Theanine can help with sleep onset. Magnolia and Phellodendron bark can lower excess cortisol production to help with sleep as well.
Monitor Your Body and Be Patient!
There are few things more frustrating than lying wide-awake and not being able to fall asleep. Building an automatic wake-up time takes years, but not all of us get to control our bedtime. Schedules, careers, events and life often keep us up later than we planned. Give yourself a break, and sleep well!