I hate to admit it, but I have recently begun a bad habit. After working at the center and then doing things around the house and fixing something to eat, my husband and I will settle down in the living room and watch some TV. After an hour or two, I will usually fall asleep. My husband does not want to wake me, so he will go on to bed and leave me there. I will usually wake up about 1 or 2 and I will still have a couple of things to do before the next day. Then, when I do finally hit the bed, I will be wide awake and lay there for quite some time before I go to sleep. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that this is probably not good for me. I had no idea how bad this was until I recently saw something in a magazine about this.
We are designed to sleep in the dark. When the sun comes up, the light receptors in the retina at the back of the eye tell us it’s time to wake up by inhibiting the release of melatonin — the hormone that makes us sleepy. When you sleep in front of the television, you may be preventing yourself from ever reaching a deep level of sleep. As you sleep, the light receptors in your eyes will still be able to pick up the dim light from the television, even if they are shut. This can definitely lead to bad nights of sleep.
The amount of sleep that a senior needs is about the same as any adult — seven to nine hours. However, due to some factors, seniors may not be getting the sleep they need:
• The natural aging process can effect sleep. As we age, the body makes less of the chemicals and hormones that help us sleep well such as melatonin.
• Some seniors develop sensitivity to environmental factors such as noise.
• Chronic pain such as arthritis can keep you from sleeping well.
• Effects of medication can interfere with sleep.
• Sometimes seniors have an increased prevalence of sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and insomnia. Men who have prostate conditions may have to urinate more frequently at night.
• Changes in mood, stress, and depression can keep you from sleeping well. Seniors may be affected by the death of a spouse or close friend. They may be facing significant life changes such as retirement.
You may be asking why sleep is so important. When we sleep, our bodies regenerate cells and clean our blood by circulating it through the liver. The need for sleep is just as important as food and water is to our bodies. Poor sleep even hastens the progression of conditions such as heart conditions, memory loss, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and many more. Poor sleep can even raise the risk of falls. I also just heard that people who get fewer than seven hours of sleep each night are more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s.
If you think you are not getting enough sleep, the following may help:
• Don’t exercise for two hours before your bedtime. Exercise releases the stimulant adrenalin that can raise your heart rate and body temperature, causing you not to sleep well.
• Do not use technology just before going to bed. The light from cellphones, video games, and computers causes the same effect as falling asleep while watching television.
• Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool and your bed is comfortable. If there is noise that you cannot control, purchase ear plugs.
• Move bedroom clocks out of sight. This light can even disrupt your sleep.
• Maintain a constant sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
• Limit caffeine late in the day. Avoid coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate before bed.
• Avoid alcohol. It can actually disrupt your sleep.
• Satisfy your hunger before bed. Have a light snack such as cereal, yogurt or warm milk.
• Cut down on sugary foods. Eating a diet high in sugar and carbs can cause wakefulness at night and pull you out of the deep stages of sleep.
• Minimize liquid before sleep. Limit what you drink within an hour and a half before bedtime to limit how often you wake to use the bathroom at night.
• Postpone worrying. If you wake during the night feeling anxious about something, write it down on paper and don’t worry about it until the next day.
• Do a quiet, non-stimulating activity such as reading a book or listening to music if you are having trouble falling asleep.
• Some people who have difficulty sleeping turn to natural remedies such as melatonin supplements. Always check with your doctor before trying something over the counter.
You may be wondering about naps. Are they OK? According to the Senior Health Center, afternoon sleepiness is not unusual as you get older. If you want to sleep better at night, then avoid napping. However, for most adults, napping during the day is fine as long as the naps are relatively short — 30 minutes or so — and you take one early in the afternoon, closer to lunch than dinner. Otherwise, you can fall into a cycle of daytime napping and poor nighttime sleeping.
And finally, if you think you are having sleep problems, keep a sleep diary and take it to your doctor. Write down when you have alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine and keep track of your medications, exercise, lifestyle changes, and recent stresses. This will help your doctor determine if a referral to a sleep disorder specialist is needed. If you suspect you have sleep apnea, a condition where a person stops breathing possibly hundreds of times, see your doctor immediately. Sleep apnea can keep your brain and whole body from getting enough oxygen. This is a very serious condition.
If you follow these tips, hopefully you can have a good night’s sleep every night. It sure is important. Just be sure to turn off that television!
After reading about sleep habits, I have decided to have all my chores done before I sit down to relax and then go to bed when I feel sleepy. I hope you will take these suggestions and then make changes in your sleep habits as needed.
Be sure to watch for the article next week. I will tell you why it is a good idea to sleep with a plant!
Sue Walker is the executive director of the Etowah Area Senior Citizens Center. She may be reached by calling 423-781-7632.