Sleep and Healthy Aging

Posted on Thursday, August 12, 2021

Do you get enough sleep each night? Do you feel adequately rested or struggle with staying alert?  Have your sleep habits changed over time?  How is sleep related to diet and healthy aging?  This month, with information provided by The National Institutes of Health and The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, we will review the impact 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 gotten enough sleep or when we get too much.  But sleep affects almost every tissue in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, and disease resistance.  Research has shown that chronic lack of sleep or getting poor quality sleep 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 – these include medical conditions, medications, stress, sleep environment, and what food and drink is consumed. One of the greatest influence is exposure to light – that exposure can make it difficult to fall asleep and return to sleep when awakened. That is why exposure to electronics with bright screens before bedtime is discouraged.  So how much sleep do we need?  The need for sleep and sleep patterns change with age, but this varies significantly among people of the same age.  Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but after age 60, nighttime sleep tends to be shorter, lighter and interrupted by multiple awakenings.  Seniors also tend to take more medications that affect sleep.

These tips from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/National Institutes of Health (NIH) include suggestions to improve your quality and quantity of sleep –

  • Set a schedule – go to bed and wake up at the same time every day of the week.
  • Exercise 20-30 minutes per day, but not within 2 hours of bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine late in the day and alcoholic drinks before bed.
  • Create a room for sleep - it should be dark and quiet at a comfortable temperature.
  • Relax before bedtime – try 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.

So is there a diet connection to sleep? Avoiding heavy meals 2-3 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.  So keep these snack ideas “in mind” before bedtime:

  • Choose food with protein or fiber to provide satiety and nutrients - 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, eat slowly and without distractions.

Sleep research and its connection to health and disease is just beginning, but the relationship will certainly be interesting.  In the meantime, make healthy food choices, stay active and get your rest!

“Tick Tock: Your Body Clocks – Understanding Your Daily Rhythms” from NIH News in Health (National Institutes of Health/Department of Health and Human Services) April 2018; “5 Tips to Curb Your Late-Night Snacking” by Penelope Clark, MS, RDN and CDN (reviewed 12/2017) and “4 Types of Foods to Help Boost Your Memory” by Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD (reviewed  11/2017)  - both retrieved from Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website and “Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep” (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/National Institutes of Health ) last modified 5/22/2017.

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