Updated: Jul 21, 2020
I slept like a log in my 20s. My sleep patterns were OK in my 30s and not too bad in my early 40s but then things started to go wrong. Now at 50plus I go to bed exhausted and still have trouble falling asleep. I wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes more than once, sometimes to go to pee and sometimes just because. I find it hard to get back to sleep and then when I do, I wake up before dawn! I never feel truly rested! I always feel like I could do with another hour of sleep.
If this sounds like you, you are not alone. Welcome to the wonderful world of sleep at 50plus.
What's going on?
Well for many 50plus men this is a period of change and stress. Marriages breakdown careers ramp up or fall apart. Children change, become adults with the associated problems and challenges of adult life, or they remain children and are just bloody expensive. Parents get older and need our help. Our own retirement comes into view and for many of us, we just don't have the savings we would like. These are just some of the reasons why chronic stress and worry are such huge problems for those of us who are 50plus and trying to sleep.
At the same time, things are happening biologically that also makes sleep more challenging. Not only is our sleep architecture changing but hormones that promote healthy sleep are on the decline.
Each night we go through four to five different sleep cycles lasting between 90-120mins. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from pixels
Early in the night, we transition from lighter sleep stages (called N1 sleep) to deeper, slow-wave sleep (called N2 and N3 sleep).
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep may appear and becomes more common during the latter part of the night, alternating with N2 sleep.
These sleep cycles make up our sleep architecture.
REM sleep is the deepest state of sleep. It is the state of sleep where dreams occur. Consistent interruptions to REM sleep can lead to a host of potential issues, such as sleep paralysis.
As we get older, the amount of slow-wave sleep we enjoy often decreases whilst lighter N1 sleep increases. As a result, we find it harder to fall and stay, asleep at night.
You can see how this poisonous cocktail of biological changes and a crowded stressful daily schedule can have a devastating impact on our ability to get a good night's sleep. Aside from the obvious problems that poor sleep brings, exhaustion, inability to focus and insomnia, you may gain weight if you don't get enough sleep. In 2017 review of sleep-metabolism research found that running a sleep deficient leads to consumption of an average of 285 additional calories a day.
Hormones have a lot to do with this. When you’re sleep-deprived, cortisol levels are high and serotonin levels are low, and your body starts to crave starchy, sugary and fatty foods, to help boost serotonin and calm stress. At the same time, lack of sleep increases the hunger hormone ghrelin and suppresses the satiety hormone, leptin, which signals when we’ve eaten enough.
So now we know why we're not sleeping well. What can we do about it?
Well here are 10 tips to help you sleep better:
Set an alarm to go to bed. If you find yourself consistently wishing you had hit the hay earlier but staying on track with a calming bedtime routine is virtually impossible for you, consider setting yourself an alarm -- to go to bed.
Resist the urge to snooze. Sleep caught between soundings of that alarm is just not high-quality sleep. The snooze button often disturbs REM sleep, which can make us feel groggier than when we wake up during other stages of sleep. You don't have to launch out of bed in the morning, but setting the alarm for a slightly later time and skipping a snooze cycle or two could bring big benefits.
Go easy on the alcohol before bed. While that nightcap really can make it feel easier to fall asleep, when your buzz wears off later in the night, you're more likely to wake up frequently.
Confront sleeplessness. If you are lying awake unable to sleep, do not force it. Get up and do something relaxing for a bit, and return to bed when you feel sleepier.
Keep your bedroom dark. Even the most inconspicuous glow -- like that from a digital alarm clock -- can disrupt your shut-eye. If you can't seal up all the light sources in your room, consider using a comfy eye-mask.
Keep it cool. The temperature in the bedroom is a little bit of a Goldilocks situation: A room that's too hot and a room that's too cold can both mess with your sleep. Aim for about 20 degrees celsius.
Power down an hour before bed. Dim the lights and turn off all your devices -- smartphones, laptops, TVs, all of which belong outside the bedroom -- about 60 minutes before bedtime. Bright light is one of the biggest triggers to our brains that it’s time to be awake and alert, so start sending the opposite signal early.
Cut caffeine by the afternoon. Your afternoon jolt stays in your system longer than you might think. Experts recommend laying off the caffeine by early afternoon to guarantee it won't keep you up in bed later.
Exercise regularly. In the National Sleep Foundation's 2013 Sleep In America survey, regular, vigorous exercisers reported getting the best sleep. The best news is that it doesn't take much: Adding even just a few minutes of physical activity to your day can make a difference in your rest. Just try not to do it too close to bedtime. Most of us don't exercise intensely enough to really rev ourselves up so much that we override the sleep-promoting benefits of regular workouts. However, especially in people with trouble sleeping, making sure your sweat sessions end at least a couple of hours before bedtime is generally a good idea.
Reserve the bed for sleep and sex only. That means no TV in the bedroom. Even reading in bed can be a problem. But reading is relaxing? Well, yes... and no. A page-turner, a mystery or any other book that demands your emotional and intellectual attention may be more distracting than relaxing. Opt for lighter reading before bed, and keep it to the couch or your favourite comfy chair.
This is a list of some of the things that you can do for yourself to help yourself get a better nights sleep but remember if you are worried that you are not getting enough sleep, talk to your doctor. They may be able to help. Do not suffer in silence. There are things you can do.