The Power of Sleep
Depression. Attention and memory problems. Cardiovascular disease. Diabetes. Weight gain. Breast Cancer. Shortened Life Span. Stroke. Heart Disease. Cold and flu viruses. All of these conditions have been shown to result from or be aggravated by receiving inadequate amounts of sleep. Sleep is a necessity – we all recognize that – but many people don’t realize that a proper amount of sleep is also essential.
In her New York Times article, Jane Brody wrote “Sleep duration and quality can be as important to your health as your blood pressure and cholesterol level.” In fact some symptoms that we consider typical of aging such as cognitive decline, memory loss, and nodding off during the day can actually, in part, be attributed to lack of sleep.
Sleep is a powerful tool not only in preventing physical ailments and problems but also in healing. During sleep the body has time to relax, shut down, and work on repairing any cell damage that occurred throughout the day. It’s like a re-boot for your immune system. As stated by Sound Options Home Care, “Sleep is the body’s time to rebuild, restore, and rejuvenate.” Sleep is arguably the most effective and important medicine in recovering from a serious injury or illness. There is a reason doctors repeatedly suggest that their patients get plenty of rest during recovery.
Jane Brody wrote, “Failing to get enough sleep night after night can compromise your health and may even shorten your life. From infancy to old age, the effects of inadequate sleep can profoundly affect memory, learning, creativity, productivity and emotional stability, as well as your physical health.”
The risks of not getting enough sleep are enormous. Several studies link insufficient sleep to weight gain. Healthy young men were subjected to less than four hours of sleep per night in one study and ended up with insulin and blood sugar levels of pre-diabetic people. Risk of cardiovascular diseases, strokes, and breast cancer are generally higher in those who receive less than six hours of sleep per night. Additionally, older adults who don’t receive adequate amounts of sleep are more likely to suffer from depression, attention and memory problems, and excessive daytime sleepiness. As sleep specialist Michael Twery put it, “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies.”
Because sleep is so important to our mental and physical well-being, we should make it a priority to get sufficient amounts of sleep each night, especially as we age. Adults will experience changes in their sleep patterns as they get older. You may go to sleep or wake earlier or later than you’re used to. You will likely experience a decrease in the amount of deep sleep you have per night. These changes are normal, however insomnia is not. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School wrote, “Unfortunately, sleep problems in older adults often go undiagnosed and untreated simply because many people believe sleep problems are a normal part of aging or that nothing can be done to help them sleep better.”
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms of insomnia, then you are not getting sufficient amounts of sleep and should address the problem immediately:
- Have trouble falling asleep even though you feel tired
- Have trouble getting back to sleep when awakened
- Don’t feel refreshed after a night’s sleep
- Feel irritable or sleepy during the day
- Have difficulty staying awake when sitting still, watching television, or driving
- Have difficulty concentrating during the day
- Rely on sleeping pills or alcohol to fall asleep
- Have trouble controlling your emotions
Sleep provides much-needed benefits emotionally and physically. Lack of sleep can be detrimental to your health and well-being. We’ve often been told throughout our lives the healthy number of hours of sleep we should get per night. As you age, you may not need as much sleep as you did when you were younger. Rather than trying to get a certain amount of hours of sleep, focus instead on how you feel when you wake. If you get less than eight hours of sleep but feel rested then you should be fine. However if you wake frequently feeling unrested or you feel tired throughout most days then you are most likely not getting enough sleep.
Helpguide.org lists the most common causes of insomnia in adults over 50 as poor sleep environment and poor sleep and daytime habits. You shouldn’t consume alcohol right before bedtime or fall asleep with the TV or computer on. Some medications can contribute to insomnia as well as lack of exercise. Though you may not be able to control what medications you are on, you can and should get a decent amount of exercise each day. A recent study by Feinberg School of Medicine found that aerobic exercise resulted in the most dramatic improvement in patients’ reported quality of sleep, including sleep duration.
Stress can also be a cause for insomnia. If you find yourself lying in bed at night worrying over things that your mind can’t seem to put to rest, start keeping a notebook or journal by your bedside. When you find yourself kept up by worried thoughts, write down anything and everything that’s bothering you. Get it all out of your mind and onto paper. You should rest easier knowing that all those worries, tasks, and stressors will still be there to take care of in the morning and that they won’t be forgotten.
Keep the room you sleep in as dark and quiet as possible. Do not keep too many, if any, electronic devices in your bedroom such as computers, TVs, or radios with bright display lights. Try not to use the bedroom for any purpose other than those related to sleep and your bedtime routine. You need your body to recognize that when you get into bed that is the place to sleep. Keep a regular bedtime routine and start winding down about a half hour before you intend to actually go to sleep. This will help your body know when it’s time to sleep.
Sleep is an essential function in maintaining physical and emotional health, especially as we age. Never take the power of sleep for granted. We often have no idea the good it is doing.