One of the most common complaints people have as they age is poor quality sleep. They get less sleep than younger people, and, despite what you may have heard, their sleep requirements do not decline with age. A 70-year-old should still be getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night. The problem is that, for many different reasons, older people usually have issues getting the amount of sleep they need.
The popular approach is to accept poor sleep as an inevitable part of aging and find workarounds, ideally workarounds that require a lifelong prescription to a name-brand pharmaceutical. That’s not my way. I accept that the conventional approach may be warranted in certain cases, but it should be a last resort. A person should exhaust the diet, lifestyle, and exercise options before turning to the prescription pad.
What about that central position of the conventional wisdom: Declining sleep quality is a necessary function of age. Is that actually true?
Age is a predictor of poor quality sleep, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. Not every older adult suffers from poor sleep, which means the passage of time alone cannot explain the loss of sleep quality. In fact, when you drill down deeper, you find that there are many health and lifestyle-related predictors of poor quality sleep among older adults.
These are all modifiable risk factors. Even menopause. Menopause will happen, but the symptoms can be addressed and mitigated (though admittedly not easily). I actually wrote a post about this.
There is one specific cluster of neurons called the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus that acts as a “sleep switch”—releasing GABA and other inhibitory neurotransmitters that inhibit wakefulness. The ventrolateral preoptic nucleus has been shown to degrade with age, actually getting smaller over time; further research shows that the size of a person’s VPN correlates closely with their sleep quality. But there’s no indication that this is an inevitable consequence of aging. After all, the rate of VPN decline varies between individuals. Maybe some of that rate variation is genetic. Maybe some is environmental—based on how you live and eat and exercise. We do know that light and sun exposure during the day boosts serotonin levels, and serotonin is one of the precursors for VPN sleep activity. What if a lifetime of inadequate sun and daylight exposure causes the VPN to “atrophy”? There are many unanswered questions, but even if the VPN turns out to follow a strictly chronological decline, there are improvements to be made.
Other “inevitabilities” of aging are often a function of accruing compound interest on one’s failure to lead a healthy lifestyle. If we’ve neglected our health and wellness for our entire lives—often because we were following bad advice from the “experts” who were supposed to know better—that’s going to come to a head the older we get. The older we are, the worse our body will work. The more negative interest we’ll have accrued.
Okay, Sisson, that’s all well and good, but what if I’m already an older adult, I’ve already accrued a lifetime of suboptimal health, and my sleep is bad? What can I do?
You can start addressing the issues right now, right today.
Resistance training has been shown to improve sleep quality in older adults. Three times a week, older adults lifted weights for 30 minutes in the morning and saw their sleep quality improve by 38%. It also works in older adults with poor sleep and depression.
A three-time weekly walking program for four weeks helped older Nepalese adults improve their sleep quality.
A few years ago, I noticed that my nightly glass or two of wine was messing with my sleep, so I gave it up and my sleep improved immediately. I’ve since re-introduced Dry Farm natural wine—lower in alcohol and sulfites, higher in antioxidants and complexity—and have no issues. If you drink on a regular basis and have trouble with sleep, try giving up alcohol for a month. It’s a potentially very easy fix.
This doesn’t just work in younger people. There is strong evidence that exposure to artificial light after dark is linked to insomnia in older adults. Wearing blue-blocking goggles or simply not using electronic devices after dark are easy fixes.
In older adults, getting more natural light in the daytime hours has a direct effect of improving sleep quality.
Hey, it’s almost like everything in our lives is connected. Some people find this overwhelming and depressing—”how can I possibly fix everything?” I find it empowering. It fills me with optimism because addressing one piece of the chain can get everything else moving in the right direction. Just look at the study with depressed older adults who had trouble sleeping. All they had to do was start lifting heavy things a few times a week and all their major issues began resolving, or at least improving. That’s powerful.
Now imagine if you tried everything. Imagine if you started lifting weights, walking, reduced your alcohol intake. Imagine the changes you could see. Now imagine if you did this from early adulthood and never stopped. Imagine how you’d sleep. Oh, and don’t neglect the power of a consistent routine.
Last year, I released a video of my nighttime routine. Now that I’m in Miami, the setup has changed but I still do the same basic stuff.
I live in a condo now that has a great spa. I do “fire and ice” before dinner almost every night”—usually 7-10 minutes sauna, 3-4 minutes cold plunge at 50 degrees, repeat a few times. So, no longer right before bed. But it has the effect of making me relaxed and sleep-ready a few hours after a light dinner.
But there’s one tool I began using a couple years ago that has probably made the most difference of any particular strategy: controlling the temperature of my bed.
Ambient temperature matters for sleep quality. My chiliPAD has become indispensable. (Disclosure: I became such a fan that I eventually invested in the company.) Carrie uses one, too. We have different ideal temperature ranges. Mine cools to 65 at bedtime, but with the app I can set it to rise to 68 at 3:00 A.M. (otherwise I get a little too much heat loss), 70 at 5:00 A.M. and then 75 at 6:45 to help me wake up. It makes a huge difference and has real evolutionary antecedence; humans spent many millennia sleeping on a cold surface (the ground) covered with animal skins. It’s what our genes still expect from us.
How’s your sleep, older (or not) readers? What’s worked, what hasn’t? If you have any questions about sleep, drop them down below and I’ll follow up!
Whenever I find a product I truly love, I want to share it. Today it’s for two lucky winners.
The great folks at ChiliTechnology have offered two of their cooling systems for MDA readers (the two Carrie and I use): a chiliPAD system and their new OOLER system. Both offer the same fully programmable cooling technology to help you manufacture your best night’s sleep. Plus, I’m throwing in a Primal Essentials Kit (Damage Control, Primal Omegas, Primal Sun, Primal Probiotics and Adaptogenic Calm) because good health and great sleep go hand-in-hand.
One winner will nab the chiliPAD, plus Primal supplements package.
The second winner will enjoy the OOLER system, plus Primal supplements package.
To enter to win:
Open to US only. The winner will be announced and contacted via Instagram direct message on Thursday, May 30th.
Good luck, everybody!
Park JH, Yoo MS, Bae SH. Prevalence and predictors of poor sleep quality in Korean older adults. Int J Nurs Pract. 2013;19(2):116-23.
Ferris LT, Williams JS, Shen CL, O’keefe KA, Hale KB. Resistance training improves sleep quality in older adults a pilot study. J Sports Sci Med. 2005;4(3):354-60.
Singh NA, Clements KM, Fiatarone MA. A randomized controlled trial of the effect of exercise on sleep. Sleep. 1997;20(2):95-101.