Even if you were a champion sleeper in your teens and 20s, you’ll likely have noticed your sleep drop in quantity and quality as you hit your 40s or 50s. There are two reasons for this: biology and lifestyle.
We answer the most commonly-asked questions about sleep in midlife.
Why am I a midlife insomniac?
“As we age, our sleep becomes more fragile, and it is very common to experience fragmented sleep,” says Dr Satchin Panda, author of The Circadian Code. “Our arousal threshold decreases with age, so we wake up to simple noises or disturbances.” As we age, we also tend to shift from being an owl – a late sleeper and riser – to a lark, so we go to bed and wake up earlier.
We can’t change biology, but we can fix our lifestyle. In midlife, we can often hit a stress pile-on: work, teens and exams, ageing parents. “Some people sacrifice sleep in order to cram more into the day,” says Heather Darwall-Smith, author of The Science of Sleep: Stop Chasing a Good Night’s Sleep and Let it Find You. “Add to that, for women, our coping abilities may be seriously undermined by the hormonal havoc of perimenopause (more on that below).
“Each person will have their own combination of these effects,” says Heather. “But most insomnia is due to hyper arousal of our nervous system. It’s logical that this affects sleep; stress is trying to protect us from what we are worrying about, by keeping us alert.”
People often react by drinking alcohol to sleep, and caffeine to wake up, both of which further affect sleep. “Know that it’s normal to have some good nights and some bad nights,” says Heather. “It’s when we begin to get anxious about being able to sleep, that sleep can really become problematic.”
How will good rest improve my midlife health?
If there was a pill that could do what sleep can do, we’d all be taking it. Sleep can help you stay a healthy weight, slow down the ageing process, and reduce your risk of serious conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
One way lack of sleep increases our risk of health conditions, is that it affects how much insulin we release when we eat carbohydrates. Also, less sleep affects your hunger and satiety hormones, so the brain doesn’t get the message you’re full. One study showed that increasing the time spent sleeping by an average of 1.2 hours per night led to a decrease in intake of 270 calories a day.
Good sleep can also keep you emotionally stable. Key research from Professor Matthew Walker from the University of Berkeley, California, has started to unravel why. Brain scans of people watching high emotion video clips, showed that after 24 hours of being awake, the part of the brain that dampens down anxiety had shut down. But after a night’s sleep, it was back online.
How can I make my bedroom sleep friendly?
Keep a journal next to your bed. Research shows that bedtime is the perfect moment to clear your head by writing a to-do list. One study showed people who did this were more likely to fall asleep faster than people who wrote about what they’d done that day. Journalling in other ways is helpful too: try writing a gratitude list or writing down any frustrations, to get them out of your head.
When it comes to bedroom light, keep the room dark to help your body to produce the sleep hormone melatonin. This includes having your bedside light at the minimum you need to see. And reduce screen use; even the blue light they emit will affect sleep. When you are ready to sleep, your bedroom should be pitch black. If it’s not, wear an eye mask.
The best temperature is 15 to 19 degrees Celsius because body temperature naturally dips around bedtime, so keep the window open if you can. This is great for getting rid of stuffy carbon dioxide from breath, too. However, close it if it’s noisy: research has shown that the noise of road, rail and air traffic will stop you sleeping deeply.
Finally, you might find music helpful, says sleep scientist, James Wilson, aka The Sleep Geek. “The existing research outlines that music and sound can help to stimulate the chemicals in our brain that enhance our mood and help us to relax,” says James. “I have found tracks that decrease in volume as they come to an end allow us to drift off into sleep.”
What can I do outside the bedroom to help with better sleep?
To create better sleep while you’re awake, prioritise your natural day-night rhythms.
“Set your inner clock in the morning by getting outside first thing in daylight,” says sleep author Heather Darwall-Smith, ideally walking or exercising. “And go with the natural ebb and flow of your energy during day. Most of us have an energy dip between 2pm to 4pm. This is when you need to rest or do something less strenuous.”
The second recommendation is to keep stress levels low. “Take micro breaks throughout the day,” says Lisa Sanfilippo, psychotherapist and author of Sleep Recovery: The Five Step Yoga Solution to Restore your Rest. “Small resets have a huge impact on our nervous system,” says Lisa. “Even just sitting for a few minutes with your back supported, noticing the pace and tone of your breath is restful.”
Will CBD oil help me sleep?
When you need help to get back into a healthy sleeping rhythm, try CBD. Short for cannabidiol, CBD isn’t a sedative, but a healthy, sustainable and natural alternative to a sleeping pill. It’s the non-intoxicating and non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant, and it’s legal in the UK.
If you are wondering, but will CBD oil help me sleep? The answer is, yes. It can support your body to process stress and anxiety, helping you unwind and rebalancing hormone levels and so improving sleep patterns. “Research into CBD as a sleep aid has found that it can be an effective tool in lowering levels of cortisol,’ says James Wilson. “People with insomnia tend to have higher levels of cortisol at night-time, which has been linked to an increased number of nocturnal awakenings.”
One study showed that nearly eight out of ten of participants who used CBD to treat anxiety reported lower anxiety levels within a month. And as it helps the anxiety associated with sleeplessness, it can help your sleep.
However, you do need to take the right amount regularly to build up a supportive effect. One study into CBD as a sleep aid found that 40, 80, and 160 mg of CBD per day helped the people in the study to fall asleep. After one month, over 60% said their sleep had improved.
How can I have better sleep in menopause?
Almost half of women have sleep problems in midlife. Even in your early forties, levels of progesterone, the hormone that helps you get to sleep and stay asleep decrease. Low levels have a knock-on effect on other hormones, notably melatonin, the sleep hormone.
You may be waking up too hot, because your oestrogen is out of balance. One of oestrogen’s jobs is to help regulate body temperature, skin blood flow and sweating. And new research says you’re more likely to snore as hormones change too.
Before bed, breathe deeply with gentle stretching to pull the tension out of your body: “There’s an interplay between body tension, stress and the impact of fluctuating hormones,” says psychotherapist and author Lisa Sanfilippo. “Shifting your perspective may help quell sleep anxiety too. Say to yourself, this is happening. What do I need to help me? Is it a cool shower before bed? Light cotton pyjamas? Lighter bedding? Open window? Separate duvets – even sometimes a separate bed?”
While, as a midlifer, you may never be a champion sleeper again, there are things you can do to make sure you wake up well rested. You can learn new habits, be more thoughtful about what you do during the day, as well when you go to bed. And then, if you do have a bad night, you’ll have some good habits to fall back on so it doesn’t happen again.