We all want to live radically longer and healthier lives, but to ultimately achieve that, we’ll eventually have to undergo some form of rejuvenation, which is still a ways off. Well, there is one form of rejuvenation that available to us right now, today. And that’s sleep.
In 2016 the CDC reported that more than one-third of adults in the United States were not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. And it’s not just in the US, similar trends are being reported all around the globe.
Why do we need sleep? What does it do?
We spend a third of our lives asleep, or we should. On the one hand, that really seems like a waste of time. If we live to be 78 on average, then we spend 26 years asleep, which means that we only get to experience about 50 years. That just doesn’t seem like enough. On the other hand, for those who have a hard time going to sleep or staying asleep, that 8 hours a night of blissful slumber seems like the Holy Grail – f goal that will never achieve.
But a restorative night of sleep isn’t just a brass ring to reach for, it’s the most regenerative tool that we have. Sleep can have a huge impact on our overall health. It has an impact on hormones. Sleep actively combats stress and strengthens our immune system. It’s crucial for regulating cell function and helping us to heal and recover from exercise.
Adequate sleep is required for every physical, physiological, and psychological function that we undertake, and it plays a significant role in our physical and mental health, overall quality of life, and even one’s safety. And the role that it plays in our neurological function is enormous.
Neurobiological processes that happen while we sleep can have an acute impact on brain health, and as a result, can influence not only things like mood and energy levels but the very ability to function cognitively.
When you’re asleep, structural and physiological changes can occur in your brain that can have an impact on the capacity for new learning as well as the strength of memories that are formed during the day.
Sleep allows for experiences and ideas to become consolidated and plays a pivotal role in memory. And getting enough of it can heighten attention, amplify the ability to solve problems, and elevate creativity.
What happens if we don’t get enough sleep?
But as so many of us are well aware, none of these benefits can be reaped if you don’t get enough sleep. For years, studies have shown what we already know: that not getting enough sleep can impair memory and cognitive performance. And that sleep-deprived people are at a greater risk of chronic diseases, particularly cardiovascular disease, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and obesity.
There’s a couple of hormones that impact appetite and satiety. The hormone peptide YY induces satiety while the hormone ghrelin makes us hungry. And chronic sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on both. Several studies have demonstrated that after several nights of inadequate sleep, levels of YY were suppressed, and ghrelin levels were elevated, meaning more hungry and less satisfied.
Other studies have shown that after not getting enough sleep, people tend to consume more calories the next day and that poor sleep can have a negative impact on weight management.
Science of sleep
Let’s take a look at the science of sleep. What happens once we turn out the lights and retire for the evening? Well, there are 4 stages of sleep.
The first is where you’re still awake. Or, you might have awakened during the night, which is pretty common. Usually, you go right back to sleep.
The next stage is light sleep. Your breathing slows down. Your heart rate decreases. Your body temperature drops. Your muscles relax, and they may occasionally jerk or twitch. This is a transitional phase, as you begin to fall asleep and start the journey between the various cycles or stages of sleep. Waking up is easier when you’re in this stage, but you’re progressing into a deeper and deeper sleep.
From light sleep, you move into a deep sleep. Your blood pressure drops. This is the stage that focuses on restoring your body, healing it, and on recovering from exercise. Your body promotes muscle repair and growth by increasing the blood flow to muscles. Deep sleep is when the human growth hormone is released and when tissue growth and cellular repair occur.
Deep sleep is also when the brain starts to show long, slow brain waves, and it goes through a cycle of flushing out waste products. Waking from this stage is more difficult, and if you wake up from this stage, you’ll probably feel groggy or disoriented.
Finally, you move from deep sleep into a stage known as rapid eye movement, or REM. During this stage, your heart rate and your respiration rate both increase. Temperature regulation is switched off. And your mind is re-energized. This is when you start to dream. This is when consolidation of experiences and memories occurs, and fragments of events and memories can be combined in novel and bizarre ways.
There’s less activity in the frontal lobe where analytical thinking happens. During this stage is when you experience rapid eye movements. You also experience body paralysis, and this is to ensure that you don’t act out in a dream, and this is probably a survival mechanism that kept our ancestors from rolling into the fire while they were asleep.
There’s increased activity in structures of the brain that are involved in memory and emotional regulation. This stage of REM plays a pivotal role in cognitive functioning. However, it’s not like you move through the stages of sleep in a linear fashion, going from being awake to REM sleep and then awakening for the day.
During the night, you move up and down the scale of sleep in cycles, going from light sleep to deep sleep, back to light sleep, then waking up, then going back to sleep and moving quickly into REM, then moving back to deep sleep or light sleep.
What causes us to lose sleep?
There can be several reasons why you’re not getting the sleep that you need. OK, so the first thing that we’re going to talk about is insomnia, and that’s probably the number one reason why most people lose sleep. And it’s a really common problem for people who are 60 and older.
Insomnia is defined as either taking a long time to go to sleep, frequently waking up during the night and being unable to go back to sleep, or waking up early and being unable to go back to sleep. And it’s usually accompanied by waking up tired and feeling sleepy during the day. A lot of people worry about not getting enough sleep, and it’s this very worry that’s keeping them awake.
Next, is sleep apnea, and this is probably the number two cause of sleeplessness. Sleep apnea is a breathing problem, and it’s when people have a short pause in their breath as they sleep. It’s pretty common for people to have sleep apnea and not even know it.
Usually, it’s diagnosed because their partner notices it first, and if your partner tells you that you snore a lot, you might have sleep apnea. If left untreated, it can lead to other problems, like high blood pressure, stroke, or memory loss. If you think you might have sleep apnea, see your doctor. You could be outfitted with a CPAP machine, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure. Other remedies include dental devices or surgery.
Sleep apnea can cause an increase in amyloid, which are proteins associated with Alzheimer’s. Poor sleep increases amyloid deposition, and, in turn, amyloid deposition can compromise the quality of sleep. In fact, a new study was just published that links sleep deprivation with Alzheimer’s. This study was just concluded after 25 years of investigation. It found that 50-60-year-old people, who consistently got less than 6 hours of sleep per night, were about 30% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in life than people who logged 7 hours or more. So if you consciously choose to get less sleep because of your busy schedule, you might want to re-think that choice.
The last thing that can interfere with your ability to get a good night’s sleep is movement disorders, and there are 3 of them that we’re going to talk about. The first is restless leg syndrome, and it’s when you feel like you have pins and needles in your legs. It’s a general feeling of not being comfortable and can cause you to continuously move your legs, trying to get comfortable. Now, it can last all day, but it usually gets much worse during the evening.
Next is a periodic limb movement disorder, or PLMD, and it can cause people to jerk and kick their legs every 20 to 40 seconds while they sleep. While this movement can cause you to either lose sleep or not sleep as deeply, it can also cause your partner to lose sleep.
There’s also a condition called rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder that’s actually a pretty common condition that can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Now, during normal REM, your muscles are paralyzed so that you’re still and don’t act out your dreams. But with this disorder, the command to keep your muscles still is somehow silenced, and your muscles can move, disrupting your sleep.
How does sleep impact aging?
A recent study reports that it’s likely that longevity is linked to regular sleeping patterns, like going to bed and getting up in the morning around the same time every day. But sleep duration also seems to be a factor, and getting either too little sleep or too much sleep can both be detrimental.
Sleeping less than 5-7 hours a night is linked to a 12% greater risk of early death, and it can increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, as well as promoting chronic inflammation. But getting too much sleep can be just as bad, if not worse.
Excessive sleep, which is getting more than 8-9 hours in a single night, can decrease your lifespan by as much as 30%. And excess sleep is linked to depression, low physical activity, and undiagnosed health conditions. Now, sleep requirements can vary from person to person, but as a rule, older people need a little less sleep than younger people. And they tend to get less sleep.
As we age, we tend to go to sleep earlier, to spend less time in deeper stages of sleep, and to wake more frequently during the night, usually to go to the bathroom. We know that getting a good night’s sleep is good for the brain, and this is especially true the older that you get. Older people have less REM sleep and less slow-wave sleep. As you age, you produce lower levels of human growth hormone as you sleep, and this is what causes a decrease in slow-wave deep sleep cycles.
When this happens, you produce less melatonin, which is a hormone produced by the pineal gland, and melatonin is important in getting a good night’s sleep. In order to age well, we need to make sleep a priority. Not getting enough sleep, waking tired every day and other signs of insomnia are not normal parts of the aging process.
Getting a good night’s sleep improves cognition and memory functions. It refreshes the immune system and helps to prevent disease. And it allows your body to perform cellular repairs to the damage that occurs during the day. Older adults who don’t sleep very well are more likely to suffer from depression, attention deficits, memory problems, as well as excessive daytime sleepiness, and they’re more likely to experience nighttime falls.
Getting insufficient sleep can put you on the path to serious health problems and chronic, age-related diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.
Strategies to get more sleep
If you’re not getting enough sleep, what can you do about it? The first thing you should do is track your sleep so that you understand just what kind of a problem you’re facing. Traditionally, this meant keeping a sleep diary, but these days you can track your sleep much better with technology. With the attention that getting a good night’s sleep has been getting lately, there are several consumer devices on the market that can track your stages of sleep throughout the night.
There’s the Oura ring and accompanying phone app. Fitbit has a sleep tracker. There’s the sleep tracker on the latest iWatches, iPhones, and on Androids. Equipped with this tracking data, you can either see your doctor and work out a plan of attack, or for you DIYers, here’s the low-down on some strategies to get more sleep.
Let’s start with sleep aids – over-the-counter and prescription drugs that can put you to sleep and keep you there. And here’s the thing; these are good for short-term, emergency use, but over the long haul, we would recommend finding another solution. Drugs aren’t a cure for insomnia. For one thing, they can form dependencies, and then you’re worse off than when you started.
They can lead to compulsive use, in spite of adverse consequences. Some can build up in the body and develop toxic effects, leading to confusion and even delirium if you take them long-term. Now, there is a supplement that you can take to help you get to sleep that shouldn’t be lumped in with the previous drugs, and that’s melatonin, the hormone that’s secreted by the pineal gland.
Your body naturally produces more melatonin at night, and it helps your body know when it’s time to go to sleep and when it’s time to wake up. Levels in your body usually go up when the sun goes down and drop in the morning when the sun comes up. It’s controlled by the amount of light you get each day, as well as by your own biological clock.
If you’re not producing enough melatonin, which is fairly common as you get older, you can take it as a supplement. It comes in pills, liquids, and chewable, like gummies. You can get it as either a natural supplement or as a synthetic, which comes from the pineal glands of animals. And melatonin is being investigated to see if it can also help with Alzheimer’s, cancer, ALS, and high nighttime blood pressure.
If you’re still not getting enough sleep, the best thing that you can do is to improve your nighttime ritual and develop better sleep hygiene. Follow a regular sleeping schedule, going to bed, and getting up in the morning at around the same time every day. Avoid napping later in the afternoon or evening because getting too much sleep during the day can take away from the sleep that you’ll get at night. Getting broken sleep isn’t getting restful sleep.
Develop a bedtime routine. Take time to relax before going to bed each night. Read, take a warm bath, listen to restful music. Stretch out, meditate and perform relaxation exercises. Create bedtime rituals that let your body know that it’s time to start winding down and going to sleep.
Now, you also want to avoid blue light right before bed. This is light that typically comes from your TV set or your laptop or phone. Blue light mimics daylight, and it tricks your brain into thinking that it’s still daytime, time to be alert. Blue light interferes with your brain’s natural sleep patterns, also known as circadian rhythm.
If you exercise, and you should, don’t do it within 3 hours of bedtime, as this will excite your body and put it on alert by releasing endorphins. But having exercised during the day will actually help you get to sleep. Avoid eating a large meal close to bedtime, and avoid any form of caffeine, such as coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, and chocolate.
And remember, while you might think that alcohol would help put you to sleep, alcohol is actually a central nervous system depressant. It slows down the brain and can make sleeping more difficult, not less. Use low lighting in the evening and as you prepare for bed and keep your sleeping space at a comfortable temperature, not too hot or too cold.
Now, if you wake up during the night and you can’t seem to fall back to sleep, don’t stay in bed and struggle with it. Get up and, for about 20 minutes, do something that can increase your level of sleepiness, like reading. Then go back to bed and try again. If you still can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, repeat this process.
We know, getting a good night’s sleep can be really difficult for some of us, but blowing it off and going without a restful sleep on a consistent basis, is not going to lead to aging well. You really need to do whatever you can to be able to get a good night’s sleep consistently. Go to the doctor, take melatonin, create a restful sleep ritual – whatever you need to do to provide your body with the rest and recuperation that it needs.