As fall sets in and the days grow longer, you might find yourself more reluctant to get out of bed, or perhaps suddenly your sleep may feel more disrupted.
For those who want to optimize aging and weight management, seasonal sleep disruptions can have unforeseen consequences.
Your sleep cycle is controlled, in part, by the amount of light your eyes receive. When the sun is up, your body gets the signal that it’s time to be awake, and when the sun is down, your body produces more melatonin to help you sleep.
Therefore, shorter days mean less stimulation to be awake. For some, this results in more sleep or feelings of tiredness during the day, for others it can lead to disjointed sleep, like falling asleep easily at first and then waking up a lot at night.
The stress hormone cortisol is also linked to weight gain and food cravings when elevated. If you’re struggling with poor sleep and nighttime eating, cortisol may be to blame.
In a phenomenon known as “phase advance,” the circadian rhythm gradually shifts to an earlier bedtime by a half hour every decade starting in middle age.
According to the Sleep Foundation, by ages 60-65 the circadian rhythm has shifted so an optimal bedtime is 7pm-8pm and wake up time is 3am-4am.
Sleep quality also reduces with age, as does frequently waking up (and for many those midnight trips to the bathroom).
Unfortunately, daytime napping can alter the circadian rhythm making it harder to fall asleep at night.
Many women begin to notice sleep issues around the time of menopause. Research indicates that postmenopausal women may experience the following in comparison to premenopausal women:
Furthermore, it is estimated that 45%-62% of people over the age of 60 (compared to 2% of women ages 30-60!) have “obstructive sleep apnea syndrome,” which is obstructive sleep apnea co-occurring with daytime sleepiness.
Experts say older adults are less likely to seek medical attention for their sleep issues and some doctors may even miss the signs, as the treatable issues are often blamed on the normal progress of aging.
Sleep needs are the same for older adults as for younger adults, most people needing about 7-8 hours of sleep a night.
And yet, older adults are more likely to be sleep deprived, only getting 6.5-7 hours a night, according to the Sleep Foundation.
It’s tempting to throw your hands in the air and declare good sleep a thing of the past, and yet there are many good reasons to consider improving your sleep quality.
In a recent study funded by the National Institute on Aging, people in their 50s and 60s who slept less than 6 hours a night were at greater risk of developing dementia later in life.
Sleeping less than 5 hours or more than 9 hours a night is associated with increased risk of chronic disease like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Negative mental health effects (namely increased risk of depression) have also been found for those outside the recommended 7-8 hours.
Poor sleep is associated with increased amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to irritability and stress.
While you sleep your immune system is hard at work, whether you are sick or not. Adequate sleep can help your immune system stay strong so it is able to fight off sickness after exposure.
Sleep deprivation has very real consequences for weight management. For every hour of sleep you are deprived, it is estimated that people eat an additional 385 calories.
By that math (and certainly not an exact science here), one month straight of sleep deprivation can result in over 3 pounds gained!
Poor sleep can result in emotional eating to manage tiredness and the mood changes that can occur. If you’re noticing more emotional eating at night, don’t miss my free guide to stop after dinner overeating.
The good news is there is much you can do to care for yourself to improve your sleep!
To help set your circadian rhythm, aim to get as much natural light as possible in the morning. Watch your light exposure at night, use blue-light blocking apps on your phone and computer, like Apple’s night mode, and wear blue light blocking glasses if you’re going to watch TV at night.
If you, like me, live in a region of the world without much sunlight in the fall or winter, talk to your doctor about using a sun lamp.
Make sure your bedroom is optimized for sleep. Dark, cool, quiet. Products like black out curtains, cooling sheets, a comfortable mattress, and ear plugs or noise machines may help. Follow the same sleep schedule as much as possible, consider trying an early night/early morning schedule to go with natural cycles.
Eating large amounts of food, or foods high in sugar/carbs before bed can imbalance your blood sugar and cortisol, disrupting your sleep.
Talk to your doctor about taking melatonin in supplement form to help your body recognize it’s time to go to sleep. Generally thought of as safe and non-habit forming, melatonin can help your body reset its sleep cycles.
If you have been struggling with sleep for a while, make an appointment with your doctor to get help.
Have you noticed sleep issues with the changing seasons? Has your sleep quality or sleep time declined as you age? What have you tried to improve sleep? Has it worked?