With maturity, we secrete less melatonin and we become more morning owls, but if the sleep problem goes further, we should consult a specialist before self-medicating.
You used to sleep like a dormouse. You were one of those people who could take a snooze on the subway, that as you rested your head on the pillow you fell into a deep sleep, you didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom and in the morning you woke up as if you had made a real reboot. That was you, yes, and you didn’t know how lucky you were. Because now every night is a suffering of going round and round. When you manage to fall asleep there is always something that wakes you up and when the alarm clock rings you feel that you are more tired than when you got into bed. What happened to your dream?
Quality and Bad Sleep
The answer is simple and at the same time complicated. On the one hand, it is well known that with old age there is a fragmentation of sleep, but be careful, with maturity our sleep also changes. It is to be expected that we no longer rest as when we were younger. But on the other, the reality is that our pace of life is the opposite of what we need to fall asleep. And that combined cocktail makes us sleep worse at night and, therefore, we are much more tired during the day.
“The quality of our sleep is a clear reflection of our well-being”, summarizes Patricia Rodriguez-Rubio, a neurophysiologist at Hospital Vithas Sevilla. That is why it is important to know when the changes in our sleep are normal or when there is something that is really hindering our rest. “Sleep disturbances may be one more symptom of a health problem that we have and that, if that problem is not solved, the sleep disorder will continue despite the fact that we take sleep medications,” insists the expert.
Expected changes in Sleep
Not sleeping like a baby is part of growing up. “Without the need to reach old age, where there is a fragmentation of sleep, with maturity the amount of melatonin that we secrete decreases. That is why it is normal for us to have a less deep sleep and, therefore, depending on our routine, it is possible that the sleep is less restorative”, explains María José Martínez, coordinator of the Chronobiology working group of the Spanish Society of Sleep (SES) .
If our melatonin level drops naturally, it turns out that we are not helping to improve the situation either. And it is that as much as they tell us that it is not good to go to bed looking at the mobile, this is one of our worst sleeping habits. “Blue light from screens inhibits melatonin secretion, that is, it literally breaks the sleep hormone, which is what tells us it’s time to sleep”.
Another of the changes we notice with age is that we become more morning than evening. In other words, when we were young we preferred to go out at night, and when it was time, to stay studying until late, because we felt more active than getting up early in the morning. Now we are more of “day plans”. Well, it turns out that changing the drinks at night for the vermouth on Sunday morning has its scientific explanation.
“It is what is known as the chronotype, which is the predisposition to get up earlier or later. The morning person is the one who gets up and goes to bed early and the evening person is the one who goes to bed and gets up later”. Well, “during adolescence we have a period of greater evening activity, but with maturity we are increasingly morning people”, summarizes the expert in Chronobiology of the SES. However, we continue to go to bed at evening hours in which it is increasingly difficult for us to fall asleep.
Finally, with age, the sleep we need also changes. “As we get older we need fewer hours of sleep,” says Patricia Rodriguez-Rubio. “A child under 10 years old should sleep 10 hours a day, a young adult about 8 hours, all in a row, no nap is needed, on the other hand, with more than 50 years we are less able to sleep so many hours in a row, so that 7 hours would have to be enough”. Despite this, the reality, according to SES data, is that adults in Spain sleep an average of six and a half hours.
Bad Sleeping Habits
It is worth that age robs us of some quality of sleep. But the reality is that it is our bad habits that really make us feel so tired. As the expert from Hospital Vithas Sevilla insists, “to fall asleep we always need a previous disconnection”. But the restless rhythm of our day to day makes us be active until late at night. The ideal would be to disconnect at around 8 in the afternoon. “It is important not to do physical activity in the hours before bedtime, not to do tasks that require a lot of attention or concentration, avoid the light from the screens of electronic devices in bed and, of course, conversations that can cause emotional tension ( either face-to-face or by Whatsapp).
It is not necessary to do an intense activity just before going to bed, but it is important to arrive at it tired. “It is essential to exercise during the day. If our work is sedentary, we must consider doing sports daily. We should also avoid copious meals or with foods that are difficult to digest at dinner, and always do so at least two hours before going to bed”, remarks the neurophysiologist.
And the nap? “Short naps are also recommended in adulthood, if we feel the need, especially in the case of older people, who do not usually sleep more than 6 hours a day.”
Going to bed after sending a few last emails, or having that chat that we have postponed during the day, can not only make it difficult for us to catch that first dream, but also prevent us from resting the rest of the night. “Physiologically, throughout the night we have several natural awakenings, but if we have concerns, a small child to attend to, etc., it will be difficult for us to fall asleep again, so sleep becomes more fragmented, less deep and the feeling of rest the next day is worse”, clarifies the SES expert.
And if I don’t sleep what do I do?
We may be able to change habits such as dispensing with the cell phone and having a dim light before going to bed. That we make lighter dinners. But it’s not always easy to reconcile work and personal life, and sometimes taking worries to bed is part of a routine that we don’t know how to deal with.
“That’s what sleep specialists are for, not only to treat sleep apnea, but to treat many other sleep disorders or help improve sleep quality,” insists Maria Jose Martinez.
The bottom line is that “we tend to self-medicate more than to change our sleeping habits.” But self-medication should never be the solution.
“In addition to changes in habits, in consultation, light therapy and melatonin can help, but the guideline for these therapies must always be prescribed after a circadian study.” The expert insists that today the easy access to melatonin makes many patients resort to it on their own. However, “this is very dangerous, if we give melatonin or light at the wrong time we can achieve an effect contrary to what we want, so it is essential that a specialist tells us the guideline and the schedule that best suits our case” . A factor to take into account.