Most people find that they need less sleep as they age. If you've noticed a change in your sleeping patterns - perhaps you find it harder to drop off or wake up several times during the night - here are some tips that may help.
The occasional poor night's sleep can leave you feeling tired and grumpy the next day but it's unlikely to do any serious harm to your health. However, if you've been suffering with sleep deprivation for a while, your health may be affected so it's important to see your GP for advice.
Lack of sleep affects everything from blood pressure to memory loss, and is linked to an increased risk of dementia as we get older. Insomniacs are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, heart failure and diabetes. Poor sleep has also been linked to widespread pain in the elderly and increases the risk of injury from falls or accidents.
Unwind and relax
Stress and anxiety can affect your ability to sleep, whatever your age. Unwind by listening to a meditation/relaxation CD in the evening or have a warm bath before you go to bed. Lavender is known to be soothing, so try a few drops of essential oil in your bathwater or on your pillow. Exercise, such as yoga or tai chi, is a good way to combat stress - but make sure you exercise in the day rather than the evening, as it can be too stimulating. If you can't sleep because something is troubling you, try talking it over with someone you trust. If you would prefer to talk to someone impartial, the Silver Line (0800 4708090) is a free confidential helpline for older people, open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.
It's important to stick to a regular sleep routine, especially if you're suffering from broken sleep. It can be tempting to stay up late to make yourself tired, but this can actually make things worse. Go to bed at the same time each night and try to avoid catching up on sleep too much in the day. If you nap during the afternoon, try to have it around the same time each day, and set an alarm to limit how long you sleep for. Cutting back on the length of daytime naps may help you sleep better at night.
Get your bedroom right
As well as ensuring your bed is comfortable, make sure that your bedroom is dark. Light exposure can cause a shift in your body clock, so don't put on a bright light if you wake up in the night. It's better to use a low-level light (making sure you can see safely) if you need to make a trip to the toilet.
The temperature should be on the cool side, but not cold. Research has shown that blue light emitted from TVs and computers can cause sleep problems, so don't use these in the bedroom.
You probably already know to cut out caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in the evening and to avoid eating a heavy meal before bed. If you feel peckish at night, eat a small turkey sandwich or a banana with a glass of warm milk. Turkey and bananas both contain tryptophan, an amino acid that the body uses to produce serotonin, which slows nerve activity, calming the brain and promoting relaxation. At night, the brain converts serotonin to melatonin, which regulates sleep.
Don't just lie there
If you have a disturbed night and can't drop off after 20 minutes it can help to read a book or listen to the radio for a while. Don't do anything too taxing and avoid watching the TV. Try going back to sleep after twenty or thirty minutes.
If you've been suffering with insomnia for a month or more, make an appointment to see your doctor. Your GP can check to see if an underlying health condition or if any medications you're taking, such as HRT or beta-blockers, is causing a problem.
Your GP is likely to ask about your sleep habits, advise you on sleep hygiene and may ask you to keep a sleep diary. A short course of sleeping tablets can help in the short term but aren't recommended for long-term use as they can be addictive. If you're aged over 55 your doctor may prescribe medication containing Melatonin – a naturally-occurring hormone that helps to regulate the sleep cycle.
Three products that may help to combat insomnia:
Yogi Tea Bedtime Tea, (17 teabags) £2.29
Stop Snore Ring, £9.99
Nytol One-A-Night 50mg Tablets (20 Tablets) £5.99