Getting Older? Get More Sleep, Advises Mason Expert

Posted: January 7, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Patrice Levinson, nurse practitioner, Student Health Services

The Mason Gazette would like to thank Patrice Levinson, nurse practitioner in Student Health Services, for contributing this essay, which is full of great health information and “sleep tips” for the new year.

Patrice Levinson
Patrice Levinson
Photo courtesy of Patrice Levinson

I have a New Year’s resolution. My New Year’s resolution is to sleep more. That’s right, I’m resolving to sleep!

Many of us think that the key to feeling healthier is to “eat right and exercise more.” What most of us don’t realize is that in order to eat right and exercise more, we need to get enough sleep.

Since I turned 40, sleeping through the night has become a rare occurrence. Like many working parents, I find there are never enough hours in the day to get everything done, and then we lie in bed at night and worry.

But how can we meet all of our responsibilities, have enough energy, stop worrying and stay healthy if we’re always feeling exhausted?

There are several factors involved in why we don’t sleep as long or as well when we get older.

As we age, our melatonin production peaks earlier and earlier, which means that we fall asleep earlier and awaken earlier. The average adult needs eight hours of sleep for optimum health. Recent surveys show that American adults sleep an average of five to seven hours per night, with some older adults sleeping even less.

Our sleep problems may be related to a medical condition — chronic pain, hot flashes, sleep apnea, cough, asthma, restless leg syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), anxiety or depression.

A change in medication, use or withdrawal from alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or prescription or over-the-counter medications may also interfere with sleep cycles. See your health care provider for evaluation, as needed.

Insomnia Affects Health and Performance

There are five sleep stages in an average sleep cycle:

  • Stage 1 is characterized by shallow sleep when you can be easily awakened.

  • Stage 2 is the longest stage of sleep. Older people can spend the entire night in this stage.

  • Stage 3 is when many physiological repair processes occur.

  • Synthesis of growth hormone and production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine (mood regulators) occur during Stage 4 sleep.

  • Stage 5 or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is dream sleep. Memories are established in REM sleep. REM sleep is crucial for creativity, fine motor skills, mood regulation and daytime efficiency.

What are the health consequences of inadequate sleep? Get ready for a long list!

Chronic insomnia (an abnormal inability to sleep) has been linked with

  • Elevated blood pressure and heart rate

  • Increased adrenaline and cortisol production, which increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease

  • Increased risk for heart attacks and heart rhythm problems

  • Reduced levels of growth hormone and insulin, which increases the risk for diabetes

  • Altered thyroid function

  • Reduced numbers of lymphocytes (white blood cells that fight infection)

  • Less effective response to some vaccines

  • Increased risk for accidents and work-related errors

  • Impaired memory and attention span

  • Increased irritability

  • Impaired judgment

  • Increased musculoskeletal pain

  • Increased risk for anxiety and depression

In addition, the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study showed that those people who slept the least had lower levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite. So, less leptin means more eating, and ultimately, those extra unwanted pounds. The study showed that the less people slept, the more they weighed.

Tips for Better Sleep

I’d like to stay healthy (and slim), so you can see why my New Year’s resolution is to sleep more.

I’ve compiled the following list of tips for better sleep. Sweet dreams and happy New Year!

1. Stick to the same schedule most of the time. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends, even if you feel like you didn’t get enough sleep.

2. Establish a bedtime routine.

3. Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex. Don’t read or watch television in bed.

3. When you go to bed, stay in the dark. Light is important in setting our sleep/wake cycle. Some people find earplugs or eye masks helpful.

4. If your bedroom is not dark and quiet, try using a fan to provide some “white noise.”

5. Keep your bedroom slightly cool. A lower body temperature promotes sleep.

6. If you’ve tried all of the above and still can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, don’t lie there waiting. Get up and go to another room. Sit quietly and read for 20 minutes, and then go back to bed. Repeat as many times as you need. Don’t watch TV, use the computer or the phone.

7. Don’t worry while in bed. Schedule a time into your day to worry, maybe right after dinner. Consider keeping a “worry journal” or a “to do” list.

8. Don’t eat right before going to bed. However, the tryptophans in a glass of warm milk help release the hormone serotonin, which causes sleepiness.

9. Drinking alcohol within six hours of bedtime will shorten the time you spend in the deeper stages of sleep. It will also cause you to wake up more often during the night.

10. Avoid drinking beverages with caffeine after lunchtime. Caffeine intake can double the time it takes to fall asleep and quadruple the number of times you wake up during the night.

11. Avoid nicotine. Smokers have withdrawal symptoms at night. Most smokers have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep.

12. Daily exercise (30 minutes of walking five times per week) can shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and improve the quality of your sleep. Try not to exercise too close to bedtime.

13. Sleep only at night. If you must nap, limit yourself to 20-minute power naps.

14. Avoid sleeping pills. Regular use of sleeping pills can cause rebound insomnia when you stop taking them.

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