Woman with insomnia tries to fall asleep

Improving Sleep Without Medication

In March, we blogged about National Sleep Awareness Week, pointing out how a 2003 study by the National Sleep Foundation found that 44% of all seniors have trouble sleeping at least once or twice a week. It’s a problem because people who have insomnia are less physically active and more likely to suffer from Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain, or cardiovascular disease, among others.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, persistent lack of sleep can cause a wide range of health issues that can severely diminish quality of life, including a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, inability to focus, chronic pain, and fatigue, as well as decreased motor functions, which makes driving more dangerous.

For many seniors, insomnia is a frustrating problem, which they feel has no clear solution. Too often, they turn to medications – both prescription and over-the-counter products – but these aren’t always the best solution, especially in the long run. Sleep medications tend to disrupt sleep cycles, leading to less restorative sleep, so they can make the problem worse. Plus, it’s easy to become dependent on many medications, making it impossible to sleep without them. And if the body starts to build up a tolerance for it, more and more meds are needed.

The Myth About Aging and Sleep

It’s a common misunderstanding among seniors that, the older we get, the less sleep we need. For the most part, this is a myth, although aging does cause the body to produce lower levels of growth hormone. That means most seniors experience a decrease in the deep-sleep cycle, which, in turn, causes the body to produce less melatonin and sleep to become more fragmented.

That said, the root cause of many insomnia cases end up being highly controllable circumstances that prevent you from falling asleep in the first place, such as persistent pain or discomfort, poor diet, stress and anxiety, or minor health conditions that can interrupt sleep, like apnea. Some medications, like beta-blockers or SSRI antidepressants, can also make sleeping difficult.

Furthermore, having trouble falling asleep on a consistent basis can turn into a self-feeding cycle because people start to stress out about their insomnia before they go to bed at night. That added stress then compounds on itself, making it even more difficult to fall asleep.

The National Institute on Aging suggests several ways seniors can improve their sleep without turning to medications. One of the most important things you can do to sleep better is to establish and follow a regular sleep schedule. That means going to bed at the same time every night, including weekends, and waking up at the same time every morning. You should also avoid taking naps during the day, which could cause you to not be tired when it’s time for bed.

Other helpful tips include:

  • Establish a relaxation routine leading up to bedtime, such as taking a warm bath, reading a book or magazine, or putting on soothing music.
  • Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature.
  • Don’t watch TV or use a laptop, smart phone or tablet in bed before falling asleep.
  • Exercise at regular times each day, but not within 3 hours of bedtime.
  • Avoid large meals close to bedtime.
  • Stay away from caffeine late in the day.

You might also consider re-thinking your sleep environment. Make sure your bed is comfortable and relaxing and buy new pillows. If clutter stresses you out in general, don’t let things pile up in the bedroom. After all, if your bedroom is a warm, inviting, relaxing space, it can dramatically improve your sleep.

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