7 reasons you can't sleep (and what to do about it tonight)

The importance of shut-eye is right up there with good nutrition and exercise. Follow these steps to bump sleep higher up on your priority list

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From time to time, many of us have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Toss in a global pandemic and the idea of a good night’s rest can seem like a dream.

But before you brush aside your poor z’s and push through your day, know this: Now more than ever, you need sleep. That’s because a restful night’s sleep doesn’t just feel good–it’s closely connected to your physical and mental health.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), low- or poor-quality sleep can make you irritable, sad and forgetful. Plus, getting too little sleep may increase your risk of developing heart disease, a 2018 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests.

Poor sleep has also been tied to higher risks of diabetes and obesity. And a lack of sleep can hurt — literally — because it may trigger changes in brain areas responsible for perceiving and controlling pain, the Journal of Neuroscience reported in 2019.

“We spend so much time around machines that we start to think we are one,” says Matthew Edlund, M.D., director of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Sarasota, Florida.

“One of the basic requirements of the human body is the need for renewal through rest,” Dr. Edlund says. “If you don’t eat food, you’ll die. And it’s the very same way with sleep; we need it to live. If you treat your body like it’s a machine instead of a biological organism, it will break down.”

How a Solid Night’s Sleep Can Help You Age Stronger

When you turn in each night, your brain gets busy. New cells grow as you sleep, and your brain has a chance to rewire memories.

What’s more, while you’re in dreamland, your body is working to shore up the strength of your cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems — and more.

“Because we generally don’t recall what we do in sleep, we don’t think much happens during those hours,” says Dr. Edlund. “But many things that are important for our health are occurring.”

In fact, new NIH research indicates that losing just one night of sleep leads to an immediate increase in beta-amyloid, a protein in the brain that’s been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

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What’s Robbing You of a Good Night’s Rest

Older adults don’t have a lock on tossing and turning at night, says Harvard Medical School sleep medicine specialist David P. White, M.D. People of all ages can have difficulty falling and staying asleep, he says.

That said, here are seven common reasons older adults may experience sleep problems, according to Drs. Edlund and White, as well as information from the National Sleep Foundation:

  1. Ongoing pain due to arthritis or other chronic medical conditions
  2. Late-in-life stressors or transitions (think retirement, downsizing, or the death of a loved one)
  3. Hormonal changes in women
  4. Less physical activity during the day
  5. Certain medications for treating heart disease, allergies, asthma, and cancer
  6. Snoring and sleep apnea, which often worsen with age
  7. Restless leg syndrome, a neurological movement disorder that affects approximately 45% of all older adults

Another big change that comes with age: Your internal clock shifts forward. This causes your body to want to fall asleep earlier and wake up earlier.

“Even if the individual does not go to bed earlier, the circadian system tends to wake the person up earlier than they might want to,” explains Dr. White.

Older adults also spend less time in deep, slow-wave sleep, reveal several studies, including one in the journal Neurobiology of Aging in 2017. As a result, “sleep may also be fragile, says Dr. White. In other words, you awaken easily and have more difficulty going back to sleep.

Snooze Control: Easy Ways to Sleep Tight Tonight

There’s no single cure for insomnia and other sleep problems, but a few key changes to your daily routine can help you catch more z’s. Start with these ideas from the NIH:

  1. Keep your bedroom as dark, quiet and cool as possible.
  2. Minimize caffeine, alcohol and nicotine use, especially late in the day.
  3. Resist the urge to nap in the afternoon or evening.
  4. Make time for a daily workout; regular exercise promotes longer, deeper and less disrupted sleep.
  5. Create a nightly wind-down routine that’s relaxing (a book, bath or soothing music).
  6. Dim the lights and power down your tech gadgets about an hour before bed.

If you continue to have sleep issues, talk to your doctor. He or she can help determine if there’s an underlying problem and suggest safe, effective treatment options.

Rest Easy

For help getting a better night’s rest, take this online learning course from Renew on sleep. Learn more here.

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