March 14, 2022

Why Your Sleep Suffers With Age — And What to Do About It

Written By

Allie Baker

Don’t sleep on the importance of a good night’s rest. High-quality sleep is essential to perform at your peak, and yet studies show that up to 50% of older adults report poor quality sleep. 

“Sleep is critical for optimal functioning, energy, coping with stress, alertness, focus, mood, metabolism, heart health, and longevity,” says Dr. Vinita Tandon, Lifeforce’s Medical Director and a board certified endocrinologist. She notes that when we sleep, our bodies get to work repairing muscle and tissues, building our bones, strengthening our immunity, and subconsciously working through problems in our minds.

That’s why the National Sleep Foundation and other experts recommend that adults between the ages of 18 and 64 get seven to nine hours of deep sleep and older adults get between seven and eight hours. But if you’ve noticed that your sleep duration and quality is going down as your age goes up, you’re not alone. 

Shifts in sleep can begin in middle age. “Sleep patterns definitely change as you get older,” Dr. Tandon says. “Both qualitative and quantitative decline occurs.” 

How Sleep Changes As You Age

You may notice changes such as taking longer to fall asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, and not staying in a deep sleep for as long, according to Dr. Tandon. “Sleep has two cycles — REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM (non-rapid eye movement). As we get older, we don’t spend as much time in non-REM, which is where we go into deep sleep.” The non-REM stage, when your heartbeat and breathing slows and your muscles relax, is key to feeling refreshed in the morning. 

Your circadian rhythm, your body’s natural internal clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, also shifts forward with age. Beginning in middle age, data shows that the circadian rhythm advances by a half hour with each decade. For example, if in your 30s your sleep cycle was 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., in your 40s it would be 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., and in your 50s it would be 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Why You’re Losing Sleep

There are a few key reasons for these changes. “The main ‘control center’ for sleep is in our hypothalamus, and as we age these cells age, too. They don’t do as good of a job maintaining our circadian rhythm,” Dr. Tandon says. “We also produce less melatonin, and that deficiency contributes to difficulty falling and staying asleep.”

Hormonal changes are also a factor, especially for women. “As women approach menopause, they lose an important hormone, progesterone, which contributes to relaxation, deep sleep, and maintaining normal REM and non-REM cycles,” Dr. Tandon notes. “For many women, one of the first signs of menopause is a deterioration in the quality of their sleep. Because they spend less time in deep sleep, they wake up frequently throughout the night with the slightest sound or temperature fluctuations.”

Stress is another reason you might not be resting easy. “As we get older, we may react more exaggeratedly to stress, which can impact our sleep patterns,” says Dr. Tandon. Stress causes a rise in cortisol, a hormone that signals our bodies to awaken. If you’re waking up at 4 or 5 a.m. with ruminating thoughts that won’t shut off, stress is the likely culprit. 

Why Your Sleep Gets Worse With Age — And What to Do About It

8 Ways to Enhance Your Sleep

The good news is that you have the power to optimize your sleep through lifestyle shifts, a healthy diet, and the support of nutraceuticals. Research shows that healthy older adults are less likely to report sleep problems. The more you care for your overall wellness, the better you’ll rest. Here are 8 tips to help you sleep like a baby at any age. 

1. Create a soothing sleep environment. 

Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool. “The best temperature to stabilize your REM cycle is around 65 degrees,” Dr. Tandon notes. At night, our body temperature naturally drops, which signals to our brains that it’s time to slow down. By keeping your bedroom cool, you reinforce your body’s instinct to sleep. Cooler temperatures also stimulate your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. In addition to the temperature, you can optimize your sleep environment with dark drapes, eyeshades, earplugs, and a white noise machine. 

2. Power down your devices. 

It’s tempting to watch TV or scroll on your phone before bed. In fact, a National Sleep Foundation poll found that 90% of Americans report using an electronic device in their bedroom within an hour of trying to fall asleep. 

But it’s essential to disconnect from technology in order to connect to your body’s natural sleep response. The blue light from devices stimulates part of the brain that makes us feel alert, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. Studies show that blue light also suppresses the body’s release of melatonin. 

To avoid this, set an alarm on your phone to power down at least two hours before bed. Dr. Tandon also cautions against looking at your phone if you can’t sleep or wake up in the middle of the night. “Instead, get out of bed, read a book, or listen to nature sounds like ocean waves or rain falling,” she advises. 

3. Enjoy a healthy dinner.

A nutritious diet is always important, and that goes for supporting your sleep, too. “Try to avoid overeating or undereating in the evening,” Dr. Tandon says. “If you’re too full or ate spicy or greasy foods for dinner, it can cause indigestion and gastric reflux when you’re lying down, which can keep you in a fitful sleep. If you haven’t eaten enough, your blood sugar may drop, which then signals your body to wake up and eat.” 

4. Watch your fluid, caffeine, and alcohol intake.

What you drink is just as important as what you eat. “Don’t drink caffeinated beverages past 2 or 3 p.m.,” says Dr. Tandon. “They have an eight-hour half life, meaning half the dose is still circulating in your body eight hours later.” Dr. Tandon also suggests avoiding or limiting alcohol intake because it disrupts your REM cycle and makes you feel dehydrated through the night. Finally, be mindful of your fluid intake overall since getting up to go to the bathroom will interrupt your REM cycle. “Get most of your fluids in before lunch, if possible,” she suggests. 

5. Get regular exercise. 

Experts find that people who do at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise see an improvement in sleep quality that same night. According to a Sleep in America poll, about 76% to 83% of respondents who exercised regularly reported very good or fairly good quality sleep. That figure dropped to 56% for people who did not exercise. That said, try to avoid exercise within three to four hours of bed because “your adrenaline levels may go up, which encourages wakefulness,” Dr. Tandon says.  

6. Soak in the sun.  

“Try to get outside at least once a day to maintain your circadian rhythm,” says Dr. Tandon. Research shows that increasing the amount of time you spend outdoors can improve sleep quality, especially for men and people over 65. Additional studies find that the absence of natural light can throw off your body’s internal clock and make it more difficult to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. If you can, go for a walk outside first thing in the morning to wake your body up. You can take a stroll with your coffee or tea or schedule a walking date with a friend. On busy days, try taking work calls outside. 

7. Check your hormone levels. 

Fluctuating hormone levels, particularly progesterone in women, can have a detrimental effect on sleep. To understand and optimize your hormones, the Lifeforce Diagnostic is a helpful starting point. It will test your hormone levels, along with other key biomarkers for metabolic condition, critical nutrients, and organ health. Then you’ll speak with a Lifeforce Medical doctor to interpret your results and help you create a customized plan to balance your hormones and feel your best. 

Why Your Sleep Gets Worse With Age — And What to Do About It

8. Optimize with Peak Rest™. 

At Lifeforce, we developed Peak Rest™, a comprehensive, premium-quality, and high-impact formula to support your sleep. “Peak Rest™ was formulated to maximize a smooth transition into and out of all typical stages of sleep — from deep non-REM to lighter stages, such as REM-based sleep,” says Dr. Hector Lopez, Lifeforce’s Scientific & Innovation Advisor and world-renowned expert in clinical research, dietary supplement formulation, and safety. With it, “you should expect to feel more refreshed, alert, and well-rested in the mornings without the ‘lingering hangover’ effects of other popular sleep supplements.” 

But why not just stick with your average melatonin supplement and call it a day? “The neuroscience and biology of sleep is much more complex than just melatonin signaling,” says Dr. Lopez. “Peak Rest™ goes beyond melatonin to optimize restorative sleep. It helps not only regulate your 24-hour cellular clock within the brain and nervous system, but it also anchors and aligns your whole-body circadian rhythm so you wake up refreshed,” he explains. 

“Each and every cell in your body — from the neurons in your brain, to your liver, heart, muscle, gut, kidney, and even immune cells — have 24-hour sleep/wake rhythms of their own,” says Dr. Lopez. “In order to optimize and synchronize these circadian clocks, we need to utilize other active nutrients beyond just melatonin.”

This unique blend of ingredients includes CLOCK® and Sytrinol™ to help enhance a healthy 24-hour circadian sleep-wake cycle. Peak Rest™ also contains Venetron® and Zylaria™, plant extracts that help optimize the neurotransmitters GABA and serotonin. “These neurotransmitters help encourage a calm mind and positive mood and regulate overexcitation and the early onset of sleep,” Dr. Lopez explains.  

Peak Rest™ also helps you show up at your best the next day. According to Dr. Lopez, CLOCK® may increase levels of BDNF, a protein that promotes focus, attention, mood, and next-day alertness. Translation: You’ll have a restful sleep and wake up at the top of your game. 

Learn more about Peak Rest™ here.

This article was medically reviewed by: 

  • Vinita Tandon, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Endocrinology and Metabolism  

  • Kerri Masutto, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner