Why Sleep Gets Worse as We Age + The Best Natural Solutions
Why Sleep Gets Worse as We Age + The Best Natural Solutions
Dr. Bill Rawls
By Dr. Bill Rawls Posted 01-12-2021

Sleep has been making major news for the past few years, for a lot of important reasons:

  • The World Health Organization warns of a “global epidemic of sleeplessness,” since the majority of adults get fewer than eight hours of shuteye a night.
  • Lack of sleep has been linked with many undesirable short-term effects, including irritability and making poor food choices.
  • Shockingly, driving while drowsy can be just as bad as getting behind the wheel after drinking: Research suggests that being awake for 18 hours or more is like having a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent.
  • What’s more, researchers are looking into links between chronic lack of sleep and age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

Not to mention, doesn’t a good night’s sleep just make you feel fantastic the next day? Of course, we all want to wake up feeling refreshed and motivated!

Some of you reading this will have no idea what I’m talking about. In my experience, there’s only a small portion of the population — about 25% — who can fall asleep almost on command. They conk out before the plane takes off, can take a 15-minute snooze and feel reset, and sleep soundly through the night every night. That’s great!

But many of us aren’t so lucky and sometimes (or regularly) struggle to fall and/or stay asleep. This can be something that’s baked into our genes, or it can be related to stress, aging, or lifestyle changes. Consider the new mom who used to sleep great — until she had a baby and now every small stir in the house rouses her.

Young man having sore and tired eyes when using smartphone while lying in bed at night

Likely, you’re familiar with the usual suspects of sleep disruption, many of which are a result of the modern world we live in. For example, electronics like laptops and smartphones emit blue light, a certain frequency that inhibits the release of melatonin, the hormone that is associated with falling asleep. As such, scrolling social media or playing Sudoku in bed could be setting you up for a tough time that night.

Eating habits matter, too. Having a big meal too close to bedtime could force your digestive system to still be processing food when it should be powering down. And don’t forget alcohol, which has a funny effect on sleep. Although it can make you pass out, that depressive effect (because alcohol is a depressant) can run out in the early morning hours, which is why you might find yourself wide-eyed at 2 a.m. And great days don’t start out with a hangover.

Maybe you’ve already cut back on the above sleep-stealing behaviors and taken all the steps you know to improve your sleep hygiene (aka your behaviors and circumstances around sleep), like reducing caffeine, creating a wind-down bedtime routine, or hanging blackout curtains to keep the light out. If, despite all the right lifestyle changes, your sleep isn’t improving or it’s getting worse as you get older, there’s a good chance that your age and hormones may be to blame.

Why Sleep Gets Harder As We Age

In general, the truth is that sleep quality and quantity tends to decline as we grow older. We spend more time in deep sleep when we’re young; later, in our 30s, the amount of deep sleep we get starts to significantly decline. That means we start to be much more likely to wake up to all the little sounds — rainfall, the dog snoring, house-settling creaks — that we used to snooze right on through.

You might also have heard that you need less sleep as you get older, but the latest research is showing that’s not true — seniors need the same seven to nine hours that younger adults do. However, older adults often get less sleep than they need, sometimes due to health issues like painful arthritis.

But it’s also because our circadian rhythms shift over time — we naturally get tired earlier and wake up earlier. Trouble is, we tend not to adjust our bedtimes accordingly, and instead continue to stay up late but get up early, which is a recipe for sleep deprivation.

Depressed young Asian woman sitting in bed cannot sleep from insomnia

Women in particular are prone to age-related sleep disruptions thanks largely to menopause. It starts with the hypothalamus, a walnut-sized part of the primitive brain that senses the environment around you and gets messages from the cognitive brain.

The hypothalamus is involved in sleep, temperature, and hunger. It’s also part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which works to regulate hormones.

During menopause, the ovaries stop producing estrogen, which causes the loss of the estrogen feedback signal to the hypothalamus. This throws off the whole feedback loop, causing disruptions in body temperature (known as hot flashes) and interrupting sleep. Women experiencing this are more prone to anxiety — either as a direct result of the hormonal changes, or because their body’s thermometer is out of whack and they can’t sleep through the night.

Men don’t experience this same dramatic drop-off in their primary sex hormone, testosterone. Though we’ve come to expect testosterone levels to start to drop some in middle age, it’s not a natural phenomenon, like menopause. Instead, it’s the result of food and environment.

All of us in the modern world are exposed to tons of chemicals, including phthalates in plastics and certain food additives — think preservatives and flavorings — that have been shown to mimic estrogen in our bodies and reduce levels of circulating testosterone. Pesticides and chemicals in the linings of food cans have also been blamed for their role in hormone dysfunction.

Senior man sleeping on bed at home

As you might suspect, insufficient levels of testosterone affect men’s quality of sleep. For instance, in one study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, men 65 and older with lower testosterone levels had reduced sleep efficiency, they woke up more often during the night, and they spent less time in slow wave sleep, the deeper phases of non-REM sleep that are key for memory consolidation.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that testosterone replacement is the solution, however. Because medically-administered testosterone replacement doesn’t mimic natural secretion of testosterone, sleep and other processes in the body can be disrupted. Fortunately, in most cases, there are natural ways to support testosterone.

While we can’t change our sex or the fact that time marches on, I have three go-to impactful ways to improve sleep as we get older that are totally within our control.

#1 Take the Right Herbs and Supplements.

An assemblage of the right herbal remedies can help counter some of the aging-related factors that keep us awake to bring on more blissful sleep. Here are the top supplements I recommend specifically for promoting better sleep.

Ashwagandha, L-Theanine, and Relora

image split in three: green ashwagandha leaves, relora bark, green l-theanine leaves

For women who are menopausal or perimenopausal, or anyone who’s experiencing persistent daily stress, I use a combination of ashwagandha, l-theanine, and Relora, a combination of the two Chinese tree barks magnolia officinalis and phellodendron amurense. It’s a wonderful blend that helps balance the HPA axis to improve stress resilience and ameliorate some of the symptoms of menopause, both of which can enhance sleep.

white melatonin tablets

Melatonin

Melatonin supplements can be helpful, and studies show that its efficacy is highest for people trying to adjust to new time-zones after traveling by airplane (aka, dealing with jetlag). One caveat: supplements that are 10 mg a pop are too much for most people. A dosage less than half that amount can be effective.

cbd oil in glass bottle, surrounded by hemp leaves

CBD Oil

CBD, which is short for cannabidiol, is a non-psychoactive extract from hemp oil that many people find to be a great sleep aid. CBD acts on the endocannabinoid system, a complex regulatory system in the body that influences sleep.

pine needle stem

Pine Pollen

Pine pollen contains plant testosterone and other compounds that can help balance the hypothalamus and undo the effects of phytoestrogens, plant estrogens that can impact our own estrogen levels.

#2: Focus On Sleep-Friendly Foods.

When we eat high-carbohydrate, heavily-processed foods — which make up a large part of the modern American diet (think: French fries, bread, potato chips, packaged foods, etc.) — it throws off the balance of bacteria in our gut by feeding the more harmful ones. These bacteria play a key role in regulating levels of estrogen and other hormones, so when their balance teeters in the wrong direction, so too do hormone levels.

For one, excitatory neurotransmitters are turned on. This activates the brain’s fight-or-flight response, which agitates the brain and disrupts sleep. And as we know, disrupted estrogen levels can interrupt sleep.

image split in six: chicken, salmon, lima beans, walnuts, oats, bananas

The fix is minimizing processed and carb-heavy foods and instead focusing on eating whole, fresh foods that are high in nutrients and fiber. This will help balance the gut microbiome and relieve stress and inflammation in the body. Some specific foods that aid healthy sleep, according to the American Sleep Association, include:

  • Chicken and Turkey: They contain tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes mood-chilling serotonin and helps you make melatonin, the sleep-bringing hormone.
  • Yellowfin Tuna and Salmon: They’re rich in vitamin B6, which is what the body uses to make melatonin.
  • Soybeans: They’re high in calcium, a mineral that helps process sleep hormones.
  • Bananas: Bananas are rich in potassium, a mineral shown in one study in the journal Sleep to help improve sleep efficiency and reduce middle-of-the-night awakenings. Other foods high in potassium include avocados, sweet potatoes, spinach, and watermelon.
  • Whole Grains: Oatmeal, wild rice, and other whole grains help support insulin production, which spurs tryptophan activity to promote healthy sleep.
  • Black Walnuts: They contain serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep.

#3: Protect Your Brain from Overstimulation.

There was probably a time in your young life when not much you did during the day would harm your ability to sleep soundly. But as we grow older, all sorts of factors stimulate the brain and keep us awake come bedtime.

There are the usual suspects, like caffeine, blue light from screens, work stress, financial concerns, and relationship issues. And don’t forget the news and television programs detailing serious conflicts between people or major action scenes — just watching tense moments (real or fiction) can cause our bodies to release adrenaline and leave us stimulated for hours.

woman drawing outfit designs late at night

If you want to turn your brain off, it’s important to restrict evening activities to those that don’t require analytical activity. Things like painting, drawing, doing needlepoint, and listening to jazz help promote abstract thinking.

One more thing to avoid within two hours of bedtime: Rigorous exercise. Working out raises your body temperature, activates your nervous system, and boosts your heart rate — none of which are conducive to sleep. A better bet is to schedule workouts during the day, which does set you up for good sleep later.

Though sleep issues are common in both women and men as we get older, they don’t have to be a given. Using the natural solutions above can help you get the sleep you need to fall asleep fast, stay asleep through the night, and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day.

References
1. Sleep and Mood. Harvard Medical School. URL: http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/mood
2. Lousia Lyon. “Is an epidemic of sleeplessness increasing the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease?” Brain: A Journal of Neurology. Volume 142, Issue 6, June 2019, Page e30 URL: https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/142/6/e30/5425265?login=true
3. Sleep and Sleep Disorders: Drowsy Driving. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL: https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/drowsy_driving.html
4. Sleep Deprivation Increases Alzheimer’s Protein. National Institutes of Health. URL: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/sleep-deprivation-increases-alzheimers-protein
5. Lack of Sleep and Cancer: Is There a Connection? Johns Hopkins Medicine. URL: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/lack-of-sleep-and-cancer-is-there-a-connection
6. How Does Sleep Affect Your Heart? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL: https://www.cdc.gov/features/sleep-heart-health/index.html
7. Sleep and Growing Older. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. URL: http://sleepeducation.org/news/2013/08/07/sleep-and-growing-older#:~:text=Interestingly%2C%20older%20adults%20need%20about,have%20more%20trouble%20falling%20asleep
8. George D. Bittner et al. “Estrogenic chemicals often leach from BPA-free plastic products that are replacements for BPA-containing polycarbonate products.” Environmental Health 13, Article number: 41 (2014). URL: https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1476-069X-13-41
9. John D. Meeker et al. “Urinary phthalate metabolites are associated with decreased serum testosterone in men, women, and children from NHANES 2011-2012.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2014 Nov;99(11):4346-52. URL: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25121464/
10. Top 10 Foods That Help You Sleep. American Sleep Association. URL: https://www.sleepassociation.org/about-sleep/top-10-foods-help-sleep/
11. M D Drennan et al. Potassium affects actigraph-identified sleep. Sleep. 1991 Aug;14(4):357-60. URL: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1947601/
12. Barrett-Connor E, Dam TT, Stone K, Harrison SL, Redline S, et al. “The association of testosterone levels with overall sleep quality, sleep architecture, and sleep-disordered breathing.” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2008;93:2602–9. URL: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18413429/

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About the Medical Director
Dr. Bill Rawls
Dr. Rawls is a licensed medical doctor in North Carolina and a leading expert in integrative health. He has extensive training in alternative therapies, and is the Medical Director of Vital Plan, a holistic health and herbal supplement company in Raleigh, NC.
  • Dr. Bill Rawls

    ABOUT BILL RAWLS, M.D.

    Dr. Rawls is a licensed medical doctor in North Carolina and a leading expert in integrative health. He has extensive training in alternative therapies, and is the Medical Director of Vital Plan, a holistic health and herbal supplement company in Raleigh, NC.

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