Getting enough sleep is extremely important for optimal health, yet about ⅓ of adults claim they regularly experience symptoms of insomnia. Plus, 10% of those adults reported having insomnia so severe that it’s been diagnosed as a full-fledged disorder. Insomnia is generally defined as having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep that results in difficulty completing your daily activities.
The average adult needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night to feel alert, but as we age, many people find this difficult to accomplish. The further we get in the aging process, the more likely we are to take medications that disrupt sleep, develop medical and psychiatric conditions, and experience additional sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome; all of these factors make us more susceptible to insomia. Plus, our internal circadian clock and sleep cycles change with age, affecting the length and quality of our sleep.
Poor sleep can compromise your energy levels, increase your risk of mood disorders, and even lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, memory and concentration problems. Plus, it can make you look older. It’s important to understand why insomnia occurs, how to treat it, and how to manage it in the meantime.
What is Insomnia?
While many people are troubled by sleep problems, the International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICDS) requires specific symptoms to be defined as insomnia:
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Repeatedly waking up earlier than desired
- Feeling resistant to go to bed at a reasonable time
- Difficulty sleeping without a caregiver intervening
- Daytime impairments like sleepiness, fatigue, mood changes, and trouble concentrating.
If you experience these symptoms at least 3 times a week over at least 3 months, doctors may consider it chronic insomnia, otherwise your condition would be considered short-term insomnia.
How Aging Affects Sleep
People tend to sleep less and experience more nights lying awake as they age. Some studies suggest that after you reach middle age, you begin losing 27 minutes of sleep each night per decade thereafter thanks to the body’s internal clock. As we age, the body doesn’t process circadian signals as effectively as it used to, causing the body to signal earlier bedtimes and wake up calls. Of the 4 stages of sleep, polysomnographic studies have shown that older adults experience decreased time in the last 2 stages, causing them to be more likely to wake up in the middle of the night.
Treatment for Insomnia
Chronic insomnia can be treatable with or without medication. First, doctors will suggest regular exercise and balanced meals, discourage caffeine and tobacco use and outline a bedroom environment that encourages normal sleep:
- Keep your room dark and quiet
- Maintain a temperature below 75°F
- Avoid using your bedroom as a workspace
Alleviating Symptoms Without Prescription Medication
If you prefer not to use medication, these techniques may help:
- Stimulus Control: Forcing yourself to go to bed when you aren’t tired won’t make your sleep any better. If you lay awake for more than 20 minutes, you should get up and do something until you feel tired.
- Stick to a Schedule: Wake up at the same time every day and avoid napping during the day.
- Keep a Sleep Diary: Record the time you’re asleep, awake, how long it takes to fall asleep, and any other patterns you notice. Based on your diary, your doctor may suggest you restrict the time you spend in bed until you sleep for at least 90% of the total time you’re in bed.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: The goal of this therapy is to figure out what negative attitudes and incorrect beliefs you may have about sleep and replace them with a more positive mindset.
- Bright Light Therapy: Timed exposure to bright lights during the night can help you stay awake longer in order to go to sleep later.
Take a Supplement:
- Smarter Sleep is formulated with two primary ingredients: Melatonin and Lactium®, a natural ingredient clinically proven to help you gently manage your emotional state. Smarter Sleep contains a lower amount of melatonin than some brands in order to avoid any potential habit forming side-effects. When combined, these ingredients naturally support normal sleep processes.
Your doctor may consider a sleep medication, however, popular benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines may produce hypnotic effects, increasing the risk of falling and they have a high risk of tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal. Some medications encourage sleepiness by antagonizing or suppressing the body’s natural hormones; ramelteon influences melatonin receptors and suvorexant suppresses neuropeptides that encourage alertness.
How to get Back to Sleep
Until you get insomnia symptoms under control, utilize these suggestions to get back to sleep:
- Eliminate Distractions: LED lights emitted from electronics and light coming through the cracks in your window curtains may prevent you from falling back asleep. If you are disturbed by noises that are out of your control, try using earplugs, a fan, or a white noise machine.
- Don’t Watch the Clock: Looking at how much sleep you have left can actually make it worse. Plus, many of us use our phones to check the time, exposing you to blue light that can cause mental stimulation.
- Meditation and Breathing Exercises: Why is it that we suddenly have some many thoughts when we lay down to go to sleep? Calm your mind with the 4-7-8 breathing technique: inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds.
- Mentally Scan Your Body: Breathe slowly and focus on relaxing each of your muscles from the face down. This technique can distract your body, allowing you to drift off to sleep.
- Bore Yourself to Sleep: Counting sheep is iconic for a reason. Boring tasks are another way to trick your mind into falling asleep. Researchers believe the part of the brain that is involved with motivation and pleasure might be the reason you become sleepy when you’re bored.
- Try a Sleep App: There are variety of sleep apps that offer relaxing stories, music, or sounds that may help you fall back to sleep.
When to See a Doctor
If you’re continually waking up in the middle of the night with the inability to fall back asleep easily, you may want to talk to a doctor to help you identify the cause.
- Fry, Alexa. “Insomnia and Older Adults.” The Sleep Foundation. 2022.
- Hilbert, Janet. “10 Tips to Fall Back Asleep After Waking Up at Night.” Healthline. 2020.
- Salas, Rachel MD. “Insomnia: What You Need to Know as You Age” John Hopkins Medicine.
- Hidese, Shinsuke et al. “Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Nutrients vol. 11,10 2362. 3 Oct. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11102362