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Sleep and healthy aging

Good sleep is as essential to good health as good food and water. Try these things to do (and not do) before your head hits the pillow.

March 18, 2024

Sleep and healthy aging

Do you get enough sleep each night? Do you feel rested or struggle with staying alert? Have your sleep habits changed over time? How is sleep related to diet and healthy aging? Discover the effects of sleep on health and why getting "40 winks” is so important.

Getting enough sleep at the right time is as essential to survival as food and water.

Sleep is certainly important to brain function. We all have experienced “brain fog” when we haven’t had enough sleep or after we get too much. But sleep affects almost every function in the body — from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune system and disease resistance. Research has shown that chronic lack of sleep or poor sleep quality increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and obesity.

Internal biological mechanisms affect when you are awake and asleep, but external factors can influence your sleep-wake needs — including medical conditions, medications, stress, sleep environment and what food and drink is consumed. One of the greatest influences is exposure to light, which can make it difficult to fall asleep and return to sleep when awakened. That’s why exposure to electronics with bright screens before bedtime should be minimal. (Are you in bed each night and constantly scrolling on your device?)

How much sleep do we need? It depends on your age.

Sleep requirements and patterns change with age, but also vary significantly among people of the same age. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but after age 60, nighttime sleep tends to be shorter, lighter and interrupted by multiple awakenings. As we age, the quality and quantity of our sleep can decline. This can be due to a variety of factors, such as changes in our circadian rhythms, the natural sleep-wake cycle, changes in our hormone levels, and the development of chronic health conditions. Seniors also tend to take more medications that affect sleep.

Tips to try for better sleep

Try these suggestions from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/National Institutes of Health (NIH) to improve your quality and quantity of sleep:

  • Set a schedule to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day of the week.
  • Exercise 20-30 minutes per day, but not within two hours of bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine late in the day and alcoholic drinks before bed.
  • Create a room for sleep that's dark and quiet at a comfortable temperature.
  • Relax before bedtime by taking a warm bath, reading or other relaxing activity. If you can’t get to sleep, do something else like reading or listening to music until you feel tired.

The sleep-diet connection

Diet can play a role in sleep quality and the development of sleep disorders. Eating a healthy diet that includes a balance of nutrients can help to promote good sleep. On the other hand, consuming certain foods and drinks too soon before bedtime can make it more difficult to fall asleep and can negatively impact the quality of sleep.

Examples of how diet can affect sleep:

  • Caffeine — Consuming caffeine, especially in the afternoon or evening, can make it harder to fall asleep and can lead to insomnia. Caffeine is a stimulant that can stay in the body for several hours, so it's best to avoid caffeine at least six hours before bedtime.
  • Sugar — Consuming excessive amounts of sugar can cause blood sugar levels to spike and then crash, which can affect sleep quality and make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Alcohol — Although alcohol may help you to fall asleep initially, it can disrupt your sleep later in the night. Alcohol can cause you to wake up more frequently, leading to a decrease in the amount of deep sleep and making you feel groggy and unrested in the morning.
  • High-protein and high-fats foods — High-protein foods like steak and chicken can disrupt sleep because they take a long time to break down — and your digestion slows by up to 50 percent when you sleep.
  • Calcium and magnesium — These minerals are important for regulating muscle and nerve function, which can help to promote relaxation and sleep. Good dietary sources of calcium and magnesium include dairy products, leafy green vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
  • Melatonin-rich foods — Some foods like tart cherries, walnuts, and tomatoes are known to have higher amounts of melatonin, which may help to regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

Avoiding heavy meals two or three hours before bedtime is recommended by NIH. Some research has shown sleep deprivation can impair glucose metabolism and affect hormones linked to hunger, appetite and body weight regulation. Temptations to snack after a balanced dinner may really be a signal that your body needs sleep.

Sometimes a light snack before bedtime is a good idea. In fact, no more than 14 hours should elapse between a significant evening meal and breakfast. Consider these snack ideas before bedtime:

  • Choose food with protein or fiber to provide satiety and nutrients, such as cheese cubes or peanut butter.
  • Try small portions of Greek yogurt, vegetables with hummus, fresh fruit or unsalted nuts.
  • Consider a small, sliced apple with nut butter, cheese cubes and whole wheat crackers, or yogurt with fresh raspberries.
  • Enjoy your snack, savor each bite and eat slowly without distractions.

Sleep research and its connection to health and disease is evolving. But a healthy diet and good sleep hygiene practices can help to promote good sleep. It is important to consider the timing, composition and portions of meals for better sleep. A dietitian or your doctor can help you create a personalized eating plan, if needed.

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