Sleep – How it affects aging!

If you want to age well, learn how to sleep! Sleep is so much more than just a way to get from one day to the next. Poor sleep impacts on mood, academic performance, immune health and weight gain. One area most people are unaware of is the impact poor sleep has on how your skin ages!

Everyone knows that a poor night’s sleep leaves you feeling exhausted and looking haggard the next day. This is because so much happens at night, the body needs you unconscious, so it can get on with all of the tasks that take place when you sleep. Researchers from the University Hospitals Case Medical Centre in Cleveland USA tested 60 women between 30-49 years of age. Poor sleepers demonstrated increased signs of skin aging including fine lines, uneven pigmentation and reduced elasticity. Sunburn recovery was also slower in those with poor quality sleep. Learning how to get a great night sleep is an essential step in slowing the aging process.

Often when patients come in for a range of diverse conditions like weight loss, poor immune health or anxiety they are surprised when we start questioning them about their quality of sleep. The connection between sleep and many aspects of good physical, mental and emotional health has been forgotten.

Consequences of Insufficient Sleep

Less than seven hours of sleep a night for an adult can result in daytime fatigue, irritability and forgetfulness. The ideal to aim for is 8 hours for an adult. Interestingly teenagers need more sleep not less than small children. From the age of eleven kids start needing more sleep and yet often it is seen as a right of growing up to be able to go to bed later! Teenagers need between 9 – 10 hours of sleep a night and yet not many get it. Reduced academic performance, mood disorders, increased risk taking behaviour, increased sick days, poor decision making and aggression are often linked to not enough sleep in our teenage population.

At night the body balances the hormones involved with hunger, these hormones are called ghrelin and leptin. A poor night’s sleep can result in overeating the next day. You are not being weak willed, your body has become out of balance. You need to learn how to fix it or weight loss can be an uphill struggle.

Similarly when patients come in to discuss poor immune health we always will look at their sleep. Good sleep is essential to a healthy immune system. Many studies have shown a greater susceptibility to illness when we have interrupted sleep or less than 7-8 hours a night.

How to Look After your Sleep

Parents of young children know the value of routine for getting their kids off to sleep. You may find yourself reading the same book and singing the same song every night to your toddler. These are the special cues you have built into the bedtime routine to send your little one off to sleep. Unfortunately that wisdom gets lost when we grow up. The human body still thrives on routine, but as adults, we may watch scary crime TV, catch up on work emails, read news of terror attacks around the world and then jump into bed and wonder why our sleep is not great. A wind down routine is essential to a good nights sleep. Working out a relaxing sleep routine to give your body the cue it is time to sleep is very important.

Turning off screens (TV, iPads, computers, phones) may be the single most important thing you do to improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Research has shown improvement in all sleep parameters by stopping all screen usage 90 minutes before bedtime. Improvements in day time productivity, reduction in anxiety, an easier time managing your weight and increased energy are gained by moving your screen time to a different time in the day.

Screen time sabotages sleep in two ways. Firstly it often results in increased secretion of our stress hormones, worrying about work emails, hoping your favourite TV character doesn’t get kicked off a show or watching graphic images on the news of disasters around the globe will massively affect sleep onset and quality. Secondly, the blue light emitted from screens is registered by our brain as daylight and suppresses melatonin secretion. Melatonin is our lovely sleep initiation hormone. Reading a book, trying the old art of conversation, listening to restful music, doing a guided meditation, having a bath are all ways of helping our stress hormone (cortisol) to lower in preparation for falling asleep.

Naturopathy and Sleep

As Naturopaths, we look at what the body needs to help it unwind, go to sleep and stay asleep. Many areas need to be addressed. It may be erratic blood sugars that are keeping you awake or waking you in the night. It may be daytime anxiety that is preventing you falling asleep. Perhaps it is body tension that is preventing you falling asleep. Many traditional herbs like passionflower, zizyphus, valerian, magnolia and lemon balm when prescribed professionally, can massively improve quality of sleep. Another winner is magnesium. The right form of magnesium can be brilliant at breaking a poor sleep habit. Magnesium allows the body to relax and the muscles to unwind to promote restful sleep.

It is also important not to overlook diet when trying to improve sleep quality. Caffeine is metabolised at different rates by people. For some people caffeine can have a half-life of nine hours. Let’s say the average half-life is 6 hours. If you had your last cup of coffee at 10am, that would be like having half a cup at 4pm – something most people know will disturb their ability to fall asleep. Patients often grumble at cutting out their coffee but are absolutely staggered by how much it improves their sleep. When we assess sleep disturbances in our patients we often uncover causes like poor iron levels, thyroid problems and blood sugar imbalances.

Many factors can impact on your sleep quality. Poor sleep is aging and negatively affects the immune system. It can detrimentally affect performance, memory, maintenance of a healthy weight and mood. It is essential to address sleep problems so you can reclaim good health. You know you have succeeded when you bound out of bed in the morning feeling great!