Seniors are often no strangers to sleep problems. Age brings with it changing sleep patterns that include less time spent in deep rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, leading to nighttime waking and daytime fatigue. However, the quality of your sleep depends, in part, on your personal habits and behaviors. That gives you an opportunity to get more sleep by developing sleep-supportive habits.
Spend Time in Natural Light
Taking a walk outside might sound too simple, but it has merit. As the eyes age, they often dim, letting in less and less light. Light, in particular sunlight, is absorbed by special photoreceptors in the eyes, which then signal the brain to suppress sleep hormones during daylight hours. Without enough light, the sleep cycle may get out of sync with the Earth’s day/night schedule.
Increased exposure to natural light in the morning hours can be helpful for regulating the sleep cycle. If mobility or weather prevent you from going outside, bright light therapy is another option. Bright light therapy involves spending time first thing in the morning underneath lightbulbs specially designed to mimic sunlight. This concentrated exposure promotes the use of the body’s natural sleep-regulating system.
Increase Melatonin Intake
Melatonin is the body’s primary sleep hormone. It’s available in over-the-counter supplement form and can safely be added to most diets. It does have to be metabolized so you’ll need to take it several hours before your bedtime for the desired effect.
Diverse but Balanced Diet
A diet well-balanced between healthy, whole-grain carbohydrates, lean proteins, and an appropriate amount of fats is key to not only better sleep but increased overall health. A study published in 2014 found that amongst seniors, a diverse diet that included vegetables, protein (poultry and fish), and vitamin B6 improved sleep quality and life expectancy. While the benefits were higher amongst women than men, both genders experienced better sleep with a diet focused on balanced nutrition.
Consistent Meal Timing
No matter your age, the body relies on predictable patterns of behavior to function properly. Consistent bed and meal times help the brain recognize when to begin the sleep cycle. While meal timing doesn’t need to be exact, meals should be eaten around the same time and regularly spaced throughout the day. A delay of two or three hours can be enough to also delay the release of sleep hormones.
Bedtime Routine to Reduce Stress
Stress can be a major sleep disruptor, especially at bedtime. A bedtime routine can be used to both reduce stress and trigger the beginning of the sleep cycle. The routine can include anything that helps relax mind or body but should be started at the same time and performed in the same order for the best results. A warm bath, good book, or quiet music are traditional favorites. If you want something off the beaten path, you might try meditation or yoga, both of which have been shown to reduce stress and stress-related sleep issues.
For some seniors, concerns about safety may disrupt sleep. A security system that you set as part of your bedtime routine can help while a medical alert system might be a better choice if there’s a risk of a fall. Take a good look at what keeps you awake then use your bedtime routine to address those specific issues.
Better sleep may not come overnight, but a consistent effort to build healthy sleep habits can reduce night waking and the time it takes to fall asleep. Decide which steps are right for you – an improved bedtime routine or increased time outside – and give yourself the best chance for renewed energy and health.
–by Sarah J., Tuck Sleep
Tuck Sleep is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources. Tuck has been referenced by Well + Good, Smithsonian Magazine, Harvard University and by many sleep organizations across the web.