No rest for the wicked takes on a whole new meaning as the years add up. Here, smart strategies to help you get your zzzs.
A lot goes on behind closed eyes during sleep, even though many in our 24-7 society think it a time waster. As Shakespeare’s Macbeth pointed out, sleep “knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,” restoring energy and tissues, enabling learning and creativity, managing memory and fighting infections. Cheat on it, and it’s hard to remember, problem-solve and absorb information to cache on the brain’s hard drive. And there are health risks.
Sleeping less than seven hours per night on a regular basis is associated with weight gain and obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke, depression, and increased risk of death. It’s also associated with impaired immune function—a flu shot may be less effective if the recipient is sleep-deprived.
Making sleep a top priority could be the best preventive medicine for your brain. Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., studying mice have linked disrupted sleep and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. They suspect orexin, a protein that provokes the brain to wake, increases amyloid plaque, which is found in those with the disease.
And sleep, it seems, is the brain’s Molly Maid. Scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y., compared the brains of awake and sleeping mice and realized that certain brain cells contract during sleep, leaving spaces around arteries. Cerebral spinal fluid washes through these channels, flushing out harmful toxins that build up during waking hours, such as beta-amyloid that’s associated with Alzheimer’s disease. (A study in the Journal of Neuroscience noted that sleeping on the side or back does this most efficiently.)
Lack of quality sleep reduces the efficiency of this waste-removing “glymphatic system.” It’s thought accumulated waste products block and enlarge the channels around blood vessels in the brain. In fact, cognitive researchers at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre noted brain imaging findings suggestive of enlargement of these channels in stroke patients who had poor quality sleep.
Dr. Mark Boulos, a neurologist and lead investigator for the Sunnybrook study, suggests people who blame unsatisfactory sleep on age or health conditions should see their doctor to pinpoint and clarify the actual cause.
1. Let there be light…in the morning
A dose of morning daylight wakes up the brain but also makes for deeper sleep at night because light influences an inner timer, our circadian clock, that links body systems with the earth’s light-and-dark cycle. Older adults may have trouble falling asleep because they produce less melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. Others may be affected by artificial lighting—especially blue-rich light emitted by most LEDs, TVs, cellphones and other electronic gadgets—which delays the timer’s nightly cue to secrete melatonin. Try glasses with amber-tinted lenses, known to block blue light.
2. Make for the melatonin
Set yourself up for sleep with a glass of tart cherry juice each morning and night. Researchers at Louisiana State University found tart cherries, also available as dried fruit, contain melatonin and antioxidants and increased hours of sleep for older people.
Taking melatonin slightly before bedtime encourages sleep. Jamieson Melatonin 10 mg Dual Action releases slowly over time; a more direct method is Morphélin: spritzed under the tongue, it delivers one mg of melatonin sublingually. (Be sure to ask your physician if melatonin supplementation is right for you and your medications.)
Need some natural encouragement? Dream Water combines melatonin with lesser known gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP); the former helps you relax and reduce anxiety while the latter stimulates your own melatonin production for a restful sleep. And, at 74 ml, the tonic is also travel-friendly. www.dreamwatercanada.ca
3. Set your body’s optimal sleep temperature
It may be an evolutionary energy-saving ploy, but the body naturally cools its core temperature slightly to prepare for sleep. In the Netherlands, researchers found their elderly subjects, while sleeping in a cool room, increased the most restorative phase of sleep and slept longer when the temperature of their skin was lower than their core temperature. For the best sleep, studies have shown the magic room temperature for most to be just above 18 C. Also, investigators suggest a warm shower or a warm drink before bed as both prompt the body’s cool-down response. And sticking a foot out from under the covers helps to keep you cool—as long as its blood vessels dilate adequately, something regular exercise improves.
4. Try tech
Devices such as the Re-Timer (above) help reset out-of-sync sleep times caused by jet lag or shift work. The glasses-like gadget emits a green-blue light that delays the production of melatonin. Used in the evening, it postpones falling asleep; morning use brings evening sleep on earlier.
Set the mood, throughout the day with new Philips SceneSwitch LED lightbulb. The bulb works with an existing switch to cycle through three settings; switch it on once for bright morning light, twice for natural light—great for tasks like reading, and flip it a third time for warm glow—perfect for triggering the evening wind down.
5. Rethinking sleeping pills
Dr. Cara Tannenbaum, a geriatrician at the University of Montreal, notes women use sleeping pills more than men and due to their smaller size and slower elimination of the ingredients from their body, women are more susceptible to the side effects of the pills; drowsiness, impaired alertness and automobile accidents. The American Geriatrics Society recommends seniors avoid sleeping pills and thus memory difficulties, car accidents and falls.
6. Skip the nightcap
A cocktail may bring on sleep, but the deep sleep phase that follows may be disrupted by competing brain wave patterns similar to those of chronic pain patients. Kick the nocturnal cocktail habit.
7. Flip the mattress
Morning stiffness or pain may mean your mattress has reached its best-before date. Take a test drive first: try a Canadian-made Endy memory foam mattress for 100 days (www.endysleep.com)—or Ikea, which offers a 90-day exchange policy on its selection of mattresses (www.ikea.ca). People with a fidgety partner may want to try a foam or latex model for their movement absorption qualities—they also spread body weight evenly for better blood circulation. And for those who run hot, look for traditional spring styles—Ikea carries theirs in firm or medium firm—that are made with open-spring construction for improved air circulation.
8. Try a new workout
Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, reported finding that tai chi in particular helped older adults with moderate sleep problems, possibly keeping them from developing full-blown insomnia. Tai chi also has a slew of other outcomes that benefit older people, including better balance, mood and flexibility as well as greater lower-body strength and stress reduction.
9. Dress for the occasion
Are night sweats dampening your spirits? Calgary-based company Lusomé makes a line of stylish sleepwear (below), made from naturally blended fabrics, to help manage nighttime hot flashes. And men can suffer from night sweats, too. Potential causes include anxiety, unchecked inflammation and medication use. So if that’s the case, check out their new men’s T-shirt collection. www.lusome.com
A version of this article appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 issue with the headline, “Perchance To Dream”, p. 56-60.