More than half of men and women over the age of 65 complain of a sleep problem. Many middle-aged and older people sleep less, wake up multiple times a night and end up not feeling rested in the morning. This article will discuss the common causes of sleep disorders and how to restore a good night’s sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene.
Causes of Sleep Problems
Several factors may contribute to the inability to sleep well as we get older. Probably, the most common cause of sleep disorders is poor sleep habits. Examples include the consumption of alcohol and caffeine before bedtime, increased wakeful time in bed or late afternoon napping can also affect a person’s ability to sleep. One of the causes that so many of us don’t recognize as a factor includes overstimulation with late-night activities such as television.
There are medications such as the use of diuretics or water pills that may impair a person’s ability to fall asleep or stay asleep and may even stimulate wakefulness at night. There are also medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and depression that are frequently accompanied by difficulty with sleep. Finally, there are sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome causing sleep problems.
Restoring Good Sleep Hygiene
Begin by having a fixed bedtime and wake time. The body “gets used” to falling asleep at a certain time, but only if this is relatively fixed. Even if you are retired or not working, this is an essential component of good sleeping habits.
Avoid napping during the day. It is natural to feel sleepy at the end of the afternoon. Avoid the temptation to take a nap at this time, as you will certainly have a problem getting to sleep at night. If you do take a late afternoon nap, limit the nap to 30-45 minutes or avoid going into a deep sleep where you start dreaming.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime. Many people believe that alcohol helps them sleep. While alcohol has an immediate sleep-inducing effect, a few hours later, as the alcohol levels in your blood start to fall, there is a stimulant or wake-up effect.
Exercise regularly but not right before bed. Regular exercise, particularly in the afternoon, can help deepen sleep. Strenuous exercise within the two hours before bedtime, however, can decrease your ability to fall asleep.
Find a comfortable temperature setting for sleeping, and keep the room well ventilated. If your bedroom is too cold or too hot, it can keep you awake. A cool (not cold) bedroom is often the most conducive to sleep.
Block out all distracting noise, and eliminate as much light as possible. Use blackout curtains to keep the room dark and avoid sunlight entering the room early in the morning.
The bed should be only for sleep and sex. Don’t use the bed as an office, workroom or recreation room. (Sex is excluded from this caveat!) Let your body “know” that the bed is associated with sleeping.
Try a light snack before bed. Warm milk and foods high in the amino acid tryptophan such as bananas may help you sleep.
If possible, don’t take your worries to bed. Leave your concerns about job, school, daily life, etc. behind when you go to bed.
Establish a presleep ritual. Presleep rituals such as a warm bath or a few minutes of reading can help you sleep. Avoid reading thrillers or reading that may stimulate your brain making it difficult to get to sleep.
When all else fails, if you don’t fall asleep within 15-30 minutes, get up, go into another room and read until sleepy. Most people wake up one or two times a night for various reasons. If you find that you get up in the middle of night and cannot get back to sleep within 15-20 minutes, then do not remain in the bed “trying hard” to sleep. Get out of bed. Leave the bedroom. Read, have a light snack, do some quiet activity or take a bath. You will generally find that you can get back to sleep 20 minutes or so later.
Bottom Line: Good sleep is part of leading a healthy lifestyle. Practicing good hygiene is part of being able to get to sleep and staying asleep. If these simple measures don’t work, consider speaking to your doctor.
Dr. Neil Baum is a physician at Touro Infirmary and can be reached at 504.891.8454 or you can follow Dr. Baum on FaceBook, (http://www.facebook.com/dr.neil.baum) Twitter and his blog site at http://neilbaum.wordpress.com/