How to sleep well for older adults: overcoming insomnia


There is a commonly-held fallacy that we need less sleep as we get older. This could not be further from the truth. From the time we reach adulthood to the moment we shuffle off this mortal coil our need for sleep remains roughly the same.

lukas-blazek-263122-unsplash.jpgWhy then is grandad always wandering the halls at midnight and up at the crack of dawn? Well this isn’t because he needs less sleep it’s just that sleep tends to be harder to come by when we get older.

The more advanced in years we become the harder it is for us to both fall asleep and stay asleep. This change in our ‘sleep architecture’ as experts refer to it as, is often due to a general deterioration in our health as we age.

One study found that four in ten older people complained of suffering from the symptoms of insomnia a few nights a week or more.

So if you’re are advancing in years or have someone close to you that is and they are struggling with sleep problems such as insomnia what can you do to help? Well read on and I will let you in on a few tried and tested methods to reclaim the night.

Skip the night cap

We are going to start of with an easy win. If you have any form of sleeping problem then drinking alcohol before bed is going to exacerbate it. Yes, I know you might’ve been having a snifter of scotch before bed every night for the last 30 years but that doesn’t mean it is doing your sleep any favours.

Alcohol is a relaxant and as such it can help us to fall asleep, but falling asleep and staying asleep are too very different things. While a nightcap can help the former it definitely doesn’t the latter. Pre-bed drinkers are likely to find themselves waking frequently in the middle of the night.

The reason for this is alcohol is thought to block the stage of our sleep cycle known as REM sleep, which is unfortunate as the REM stage is considered to be the good stuff, the truly restorative stage of sleep that powers us through the next day.

Plus, alcohol is a diuretic which means it makes us need to go to the toilet more frequently, and anyone over the age of 50 is going to tell they need no help in this department. And that leads us nicely onto our next point…

Drink less before bed

Avoiding alcohol before bed isn’t the only drink you should be skipping. As bedtime approaches you should gradually begin to reduce your fluid intake, this will hopefully reduce the number of frustrating and often unnecessary trips to the toilet in the night.

The average healthy adult can generally go six to eight hours without needing to relieve themselves. As we age however our bodies begin to produce less of the antidiuretic hormone responsible for fluid retention, the result of this is that we produce more urine. In tandem with this is a gradual reduction in our bladder’s holding capacity as we age. What this means is that the time between trips to the toilet gets shorter and shorter.

Nocturia is the name given to anyone who finds themselves up more than two or three times in the night. To be honest, there isn’t much we can do about this natural phenomenon but downing a pint of water before bed isn’t going to help either. Do yourself and your bladder a favour, as the evening turns to night switch from gulps to sips.  

And if you are up and down in the night you’d might as well make sure you are returning to a bed that is as comfortable as possible, for advice on how to choose the best sleeping surface check out this research.

Change your diet

A very common cause of sleeping problems in older individuals relates to their digestive health, another of the bodily processes that unfortunately becomes less efficient as we age. Sorry Gramps! This can range from just have a generally unsettled stomach to more painful ailments such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

So what can be done? Well you might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks but you can certainly change their diet. Lean proteins, healthy heart fats, complex carbs and nutrient rich fruits are all great additions to a diet. This is because these foods tend to contain increased levels of tryptophan, calcium, potassium and magnesium, all of which are active sleep promoters.

To make space for these new additions elders should try to avoid chowing down on greasy or spicy foods, protein heavy dishes like steak and anything containing too much sugar. So give those pre-bed Werther’s Originals a miss maybe Pops!

Well there you have it, three simple changes that you can make that may help you reclaim a little bit of sleep. And let’s face it you deserve to get all the rest you can get now you’ve made it this far! Sweet dreams!