Getting the right amount and right kind of sleep can be challenging and changes to our sleep cycle can seem more noticeable as we get older. The amount of sleep we get often decreases with age, not because we need less, but because our ability to get the sleep we need decreases.
We get less deep sleep as we get older. And that doesn’t mean elderly; sleep issues can start as early as in your 40s for men and 50s for women, where we more easily disturbed and less likely to be able to go back to sleep. Our body clock also alters as we age, so we may become sleepier earlier in the evening, often meaning we go to bed earlier and wake up earlier.
But how well do you know what an average sleep pattern looks like, in order to know what a disrupted sleep cycle looks like?
Well, we sleep in cycles, with each one lasting between 90 to 120 minutes in length. Stage one sleep begins with a light, transitional sleep, where we feel drowsiness and the beginnings of sleepiness, often where our muscles twitch. Next we move into a light, non-dream sleep in stage two. More stable sleep occurs here as chemicals produced in the brain block our sense, making it more difficult for us to be woken up. Sleep walking or talking may take place during this stage.
After this comes deep sleep (stages three and four), which is the maintenance time for our body, where repair and recovery can take place and our immune system can be boosted. Our blood pressure and breathing rates drop and muscles relax with good blood supply aiding repair. Bone, tissue and organ repair also takes place during this time. The stress hormone cortisol decreases and hormones that regulate our appetite are released, with brain activity is very low during this time. Think of deep sleep as being like a charger for your body’s battery.
We may then move back into light non-dream sleep for a while, before moving into dream sleep (known as REM – rapid-eye movement sleep). Dream sleep revitalises our memory and brain activity is very high, the exact opposite of what is experienced during deep sleep. Our muscles are invariably paralysed in order to stop us acting out our dreams, so sleepwalking cannot take place during this stage of sleep. Our dreams are a way of trying to make sense of our current and past experiences, and our eyes dart rapidly back forth beneath our eyelids. Dream sleep supports our daytime performance. If deep sleep is the body’s chance to recharge its batteries, dream sleep is the mind’s.
Finally we come back into consciousness or near consciousness, and then return to light transitional sleep as the cycle begins again. This is the time when we’re most likely to become fully awake, especially if we need to go to the bathroom, are physically uncomfortable or are worried about something.
So now we know what an average sleep cycle looks like, we can begin to understand how and where disruption might come.
First of all, it’s helpful to note that we aren’t actually biologically designed to sleep solidly during the night. Waking up four to five times in a night where you have a typical of seven to eight hours sleep time is perfectly normal and doesn’t mean we have a sleep problem.
But as we age, we are more likely to experience physical issues that prevent us from sleeping as well as we’d like. Things such as the side-effects of specific medications, needing to visit the loo more often, medical issues or general aches and pains can all play their part in disrupting our sleep.
Our sleep is also impacted by the environment we sleep in. It’s important that your bedroom is as well-ventilated as possible, not too warm and as dark as possible. It’s also key to have a comfy mattress and pillow, as well as having the right bedding (not too hot or with too much synthetic material against your skin, as these will affect your comfort).
Psychological factors such as life events, stress and worrying or overthinking can also have a massive impact on our quality of sleep. Allowing thinking time during the day can be helpful, otherwise the temptation is to start thinking when we go to bed as there are no distractions. Writing down any worries during thinking time can also be useful. If we just think about things we can go round in circles whereas writing things down and then reading back what we have written uses a different part of the brain. This can often help put things into perspective even if there is no solution to the problem. It’s best not to do this too close to bedtime, so early evening is better.
Our behaviour can have a significant impact on how we sleep, and we talk about practising good sleep hygiene to aid our body’s ability to sleep. It’s good to set up a bedtime routine to allow a wind-down period before sleep. Not being in a brightly lit environment can help with this as our body only begins to produce melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone converted from serotonin) when we are in a dark environment. Practising relaxation techniques during this time can also help set us up for a better night’s sleep (you can browse our guided relaxations to help with this.)
Finally, I’m often asked about the impact of daytime naps. Take one if you like, just try to limit it to no more than 30 minutes (20 minutes is ideal) so you don’t come out of the transitional sleep. Otherwise you may go into a deeper stage of sleep and will than wake up feeling very groggy. Don’t then worry if you sleep slightly less during the night, it’s not going to make a massive difference but it will if you sleep for longer!
You can read more about things you can do to improve your sleep hygiene here.