Sleep expert details the secret to a long night’s rest.
We don’t have to rely on counting sheep to fall asleep. Not that it ever does any good anyway. But the medical science is becoming more and more clear: Getting the right amount of sleep is vital to our lives and not getting enough puts us at risk for health problems as we continue to age.
There have been so many studies out there talking about sleep that it’s hard to figure out what’s right.
Dr. Robert Rosenberg, an Arizona-based doctor and medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Prescott Valley, says he understands the confusion and that’s part of the reason he penned his new book, Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day: A Doctor’s Guide to Solving Your Sleep Problems.
“I’m an expert in the field, and I keep up on all of this and it’s amazing,” Rosenberg says. “A study comes out and a week later a study refutes that. I’ve been watching whatever gets the media’s attention that week I suppose.”
Rosenberg says he puts his faith in a Swedish study—the best one he says he’s seen—that came out this year that looked at 75,000 people over the course of 15 years.
That study found seven to nine hours seemed to the best course and those who slept less than seven hours had higher incidents of medical problems and possible earlier deaths, Rosenberg says. Sleeping more nine hours or more wasn’t a problem as long as you exercise regularly and kept active. Those who slept longer and died early didn’t exercise and had underlying medical problems that caused them to sleep later, he says.
“Most of us think it’s a window of seven to nine hours and most studies have shown most people need somewhere from seven to nine hours,” Rosenberg says. “People who sleep less than seven hours show a higher incidence of medical problems such as heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure, especially if they get less than six hours. That’s almost 33 percent of the country, and the biggest group at risk is the short sleepers.”
Those who sleep less than seven hours and certainly less than six hours have higher levels of adrenaline and show premature aging and premature hypertension, Rosenberg says. A study done by Penn State links short sleepers to more incidents of premature deaths due to heart disease.
As for his suggestions, Rosenberg says people 50 and older should get seven to 8.5 to 9 hours of sleep. When you’re over 50, your sleep architecture changes and the older we get we have less deep sleep and more light sleep, he says.
“As we get older in our 50s, 60s and 70s, more people find they can’t stay asleep as soundly and wake up more frequently and their brain-wave composition begins to change,” Rosenberg says. “That has a lot of far-reaching effects. As people get older, they have more medical problems—chronic pain, arthritis, heart disease and lung disease. A lot of things that go on as we age cause us to have more and more problems sleeping. Our circadian rhythms become weaker as we get older. The part of the brain that controls your sleep/wake schedule begins to deteriorate. We don’t have the strong biorhythms we had in our 20s, 30s and 40s.”
Rosenberg says many people have trouble sleeping because they have prostate problems, urinary problems or an overactive bladder that requires them to wake up at night and go to the bathroom. Also, the incidences of sleep apnea increase significantly as we get older, Rosenberg says. If people aren’t breathing properly and there’s a drop in oxygen at night that, too, wakes them up.
What does Rosenberg suggest?
No. 1. People need to keep a firm sleep/wake schedule.
If you’re a retiree, don’t get in the trap of napping for hours a day because you have nothing to do, Rosenberg says. That will destroy your ability to sleep that night. If you’re going to nap, try to keep your nap for no more than 20 minutes and try to keep it before four in the afternoon or it will weaken your ability to fall asleep that night, he says.
No. 2. Give yourself some bright light upon awakening in the morning.
Bright light is the strongest stimulus to keep a sleep/wake schedule. When you wake up in the morning get out in the sun and get at least an hour. Too many older people are only getting, 10, 15 or 20 minutes of sunlight a day, causing their sleep/wake schedules to drift and have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, he says.
A study showed people who worked in cubicles in office buildings that had little light had a lot more trouble staying and falling asleep than those in buildings designed to let the light come in, Rosenberg says.
No. 3. At night, get things dark.
Turn off the television. An hour before bedtime, turn off the computer. Don’t be online playing video games such as solitaire.
“A lot of my older patients do that and they can’t fall asleep because the bright light from the computers, television, iPad and Kindles destroys the production of melatonin which is the main sleep hormone,” Rosenberg says. “It goes to zero when it’s exposed to light so they have no ability to fall asleep.”
No. 4. Avoid caffeine later in the day.
As you get older, it takes longer to metabolize caffeine, Rosenberg says. People are supposed to metabolize a cup of coffee in four to five hours, but for someone in their 60s or 70s it may take 11 or 12 hours. If you’re having trouble sleeping, you should eliminate caffeine before noon, he says.
No. 5. Don’t use alcohol to help you sleep.
A lot of people as they get older start drinking at night thinking that will help them sleep. Initially, it may help you fall asleep, but it will also cause you to wake up from sleep, Rosenberg says.
“The amount of alcohol it takes you to fall asleep becomes higher and higher and we sometimes in older populations see that they become alcoholics because of that,” Rosenberg says.
No. 6. Avoid certain types of food
When you go to bed at night, you don’t want to eat heavy because that will get your digestive system going and cause bloating and blood to go to the intestinal tract and hinder your ability to sleep, Rosenberg says. Avoid sugar and candy, and you don’t want to eat spicy foods either because they raise your body temperature.
“If your core body temperature is raised, it will inhibit sleep. One of the signals the brain uses is a drop in temperature,” Rosenberg says.
No. 7. Eat foods that help you sleep.
A very light sleep snack that combines some complex carbohydrates such as nuts, grains, dairy products can help, he says.
“The old adage of a warm glass of milk helps you sleep is true,” Rosenberg says.
No. 8. Exercise is good.
A study recently came out reconfirming that people who exercise tend to fall asleep and stay asleep than those who don’t. Every study has shown that, he says. Specialists had though that exercising close to bedtime wasn’t a good idea because it raised the body temperature, he says.
“That’s why a hot bath an hour before bedtime can help you fall asleep,” Rosenberg says. “As you get out and begin to cool off, it sends a signal to the brain to go to sleep.”
If none of that helps, you may have an underlying medical problem and need to see a sleep specialist, he says.