Getting less sleep as I age -- any solutions?
October 15, 2019 3:55 AM   Subscribe

I'm sleeping about six and a half hours nowadays. Five years ago, a good night's sleep was seven and a quarter. I can remember times in my life I was able to sleep 10. How do I get back to that?

I'm in my mid-40s now. I'm still quite active for my age, at least 10 hours of exercise a week -- and because I'm active, getting more sleep is very important to me. I know it's when I get most of my gains, when the body does its repair and gets stronger. I'm fascinated by tales of Michael Phelps and Serena Williams sleeping for ten hours a day.

I've gone to a sleep doc, who confirmed I don't have apnea. He said it was just aging. I've read there may be some evolutionary biology reason for less sleep as we age: babies sleep a lot because they're growing, teenagers sleep a lot because hormones are going. The elderly are no longer reproductively viable, so during a time when human society was mostly composed of small groups, older people were most useful by sleeping less and keeping watch.

I still want more sleep. I have friends my age who sleep 8 hours. I've done everything I can to maximize sleep. I keep good sleep hygiene -- same hours, cool dark place, eye mask and white noise machine, no eating too close to bedtime. I've even experimented with everything from Valerian Root to B6 to melatonin to GABA. No breakthroughs.

Unlike many other people with sleep issues, I don't have trouble getting to sleep. I fall asleep easily,. The problem is I wake up sooner than I'd like. I feel okay when I wake, something just says to me it's time to get my day started. I think the best hint to solving this is something I've read on Reddit:

There are two kinds of insomnia -- trouble falling asleep and trouble staying asleep

The second type usually indicates an issue with anxiety or depression.... The human body has "core sleep" that lasts about 5 hours which it uses to keep the basics in the body running. After that the brain starts sorting & processing things and after that point is when people who have trouble staying asleep begin getting up.

I don't think I fit the traditional definition of depression. I'm plenty motivated to hit my workouts, and I'm ready to get out of bed when I wake. But there was a time Google and Facebook were serving me ads for depression, so maybe they know me better than I do...
posted by Borborygmus to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The problem is I wake up sooner than I'd like. I feel okay when I wake, something just says to me it's time to get my day started.

Get up, pee, drink some water, and then put yourself back in bed. You don't have to sleep, but you might sleep, and in either case your body will be at rest for a few additional hours.
posted by phunniemee at 4:11 AM on October 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

Does your body actually need more sleep than you're getting? Maybe you simply need less?
I don't hear you expressing any fatigue. You're just saying that you want to sleep more. But sleep is very individual and not everyone gets the same benefits from sleeping more.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:16 AM on October 15, 2019 [19 favorites]

Are you in a position to try day naps?
posted by lokta at 4:26 AM on October 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Speaking as someone roughly 20 years your senior, I'm sorry to tell you that what you are experiencing is pretty normal as we age.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:04 AM on October 15, 2019 [28 favorites]

Might be a placebo, but I've known a couple older people with this problem for whom a Valerian tincture seemed to do the trick without any other side effects.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:09 AM on October 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

+1 Valerian or Magnesium. I'm a few years ahead of you, and both keep me under just that bit longer which I need.
posted by frumiousb at 5:57 AM on October 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm 45 and going through the same thing. No matter what I do, these days I sleep six hours and forty-nine minutes (yeah, truly; I have an Apple Watch and a sleep tracking app and literally six nights out of seven that's exactly what I get, to the minute). I think that's just your body getting what it needs, and I know you think you need more but you probably don't. Think of it this way: now you have a little more time to do stuff!
posted by rabbitrabbit at 6:26 AM on October 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

Benedryl is also an option.

If anxiety or tension seems to be a factor than attacking that at its root would be a good strategy. There are various things that you can do to deal with that. The first one, exercise, you seem to have covered.

Depending on your religious leanings you might consider prayer - that is the function of bed time prayer. You don't have to believe in God, of course, but a ritual of affirming that the world is unfolding as it should according to the long arc of time, love and science, and the creation of a guardian figure can help reduce your worry and anxiety to a level where you can turn your fears over to the guardian and flip over and sleep. Having a sense that there is a protective parental figure in the room might help. You don't have to believe in the guardian figure any more than a kid has to explain why "You've got your bear, you'll be alright," is sufficient reassurance to keep the inchoate figure of the bogeyman from taking on details. Any imaginary mentor will do if they are meaningful to you.

The right drowse-inducing activity in bed is often key. Many people take up masturbating in the middle of the night because an orgasm is a cue to sleep, and this might work better if you are already in the habit of giving yourself an orgasm at bed time as you will already be cued to sleep with the trigger.

But failing that having a safe place you go to in your head when you are falling asleep is another technique that can work. You build a mental image of your refuge and then rehearse it while lying in bed in the dark. It might be your dream cottage on a lake, and you mentally go through the space describing and observing the dock, the punt, the bull rushes, the path to the back door, the rubber boots, etc. If you create this place as a wonderfully loving space it becomes somewhere that you can go back to without being bored.

Another technique is to use your imagination to combat whatever has you anxious and tense. Supposing you are afraid of Trump refusing to let go of power leading to a civil war, - in that case you create a history in your head of everything he and his followers do, with just enough scary detail to make it fit your fears, but steer the story so that plausible good things happen so that the attempted uprising falls very flat. Trump attempts to order the launch of the nukes. The secret service agent with the briefcase that has the codes not only flees the room with them but two colonels and a general block the door of the elevator he gets into so no one can follow him, while three secretaries, one cleaner and eleven secret service men do a pile on the deranged president and Trump ends up belly to the carpet screaming that he is being assassinated. Once he is safely incarcerated in a hospital ward for his own health and protection, of course, his followers rise and an army marches on the government buildings in Helena Montana, only to get into a squabble over who is the leader of the group and the eleven dead guns-rights-activists are all shot by each other over which pick-up truck gets to lead the column... Trump escapes and makes a speech urging people to uprise. However his incoherence has now moved into asserting that all first born children are vampires going to kill their parents, and that you can't kill or harm them so you have to flee them and if your eldest child is living in your house you need to flee. Also, he believes that he has launched the nukes and says that China has been utterly destroyed... A long involved fantasy like this on the subjects that make you worried and scared can amuse you long enough for sleep to creep over you and meanwhile keep you in bed without leaving you restless and bored.

Soothing repetitive activities that take no brain may also work, as in knitting, or doing Sudoku. Put the barely sufficient light behind you so that if you start sinking downward it will get darker. Ideally the activity is one that engages your attention enough that you can't think of your worries while keeping track of your purling or looking for a row without a seven and yet is absolutely rhythmic so that it becomes hypnotic.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:28 AM on October 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

You might try a weighted blanket and see if that helps.

I have found that sleep hygiene, rather than being a universal truth, is actually highly individual. I sleep just fine under “ideal” sleep hygiene conditions. But my deepest, most restful sleep seems to happen when I fall asleep on the couch with the lights and TV blazing, in a warm room, having eaten a full dinner right before I curled up. It is glorious. See what works for you, even if it’s not “supposed” to.
posted by corey flood at 6:31 AM on October 15, 2019 [9 favorites]

Not sure if you’ve experimented with this — could going to bed earlier help? I can sleep in when my overall sleep schedule gets out of whack from traveling etc. but generally I get up pretty early. I’m more of a morning person and it just seems like it’s my time to be awake, all else being equal. Maybe you’re just getting more wired to wake up earlier and could get more hours in going to bed a couple hours earlier too?
posted by caitcadieux at 6:39 AM on October 15, 2019

I've had this problem and the solution was adjusting my thyroid meds (I was on a slightly too high dose, resulting in mild hyperactive thyroid) and having a high-protein snack just before bed. A small pot of greek yoghurt or skyr and I'm out for a full eight, not waking up from hunger after six.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 6:40 AM on October 15, 2019

+1 Valerian or Magnesium. I'm a few years ahead of you, and both keep me under just that bit longer which I need.

How much of each? Both at bedtime or an 30-60 minutes before? I take magnesium supplements sometimes in the morning.

I'm 35 and seem to need far less sleep than I did even a few years ago.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:46 AM on October 15, 2019

You said not eating too close to bedtime, but I'm not sure what you consider too close. Not eating after seven in the evening improved my sleep a lot, though I still wish I could sleep more.
posted by FencingGal at 6:50 AM on October 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Magnesium is better absorbed by a body at rest, as well as helping with sleep, so it's better to take it at night.
posted by Riverine at 8:22 AM on October 15, 2019

You mentioned using a white noise machine but have you considered listening to podcasts to get back to sleep when you wake too early? Sleep With Me podcast comes highly recommended. In fact, I think I learned of it on the Green. There are sleep and meditation apps that have bedtime stories and soothing voices for adults. Calm and Pzziz are two of my favorites.

FWIW, I am 15 or so years older than you and frequently wake in the middle of my sleep time and sometimes have trouble getting back to sleep especially if I only have an hour or two before I am supposed to get up. Listening to stories or people talking engage my mind just enough to allow me to drift back to sleep more easily than listening to music or white noise.
posted by Gino on the Meta at 8:52 AM on October 15, 2019

You need less sleep when you age but things to look out for. Are you waking the same time everyday, I found I was waking up weird times up because of a the guy next door starting an early morning shift in a noisy car was waking me up. Too much light in your room, is it too hot or too cold. How comfortable is your bed? ie is your bedroom uncomfortable enough that when you're really tired you can sleep but dosing is hard.

Also try going to bed earlier, allowing yourself to lay awake when you wake up for a bit & just relaxing quietly & seeing if you'll fall back asleep. The human sleep cycle has a part in the middle of being more awake & in the era before electric lights people used that time for quiet activities before falling back asleep again & it was considered normal. So maybe try & see if that's how your brain works now, as I've gotten older I find I'm often awake for an hour or 2 during the night, I journal or listen to podcasts until I fall back asleep again.
posted by wwax at 8:58 AM on October 15, 2019

I have to agree with Thorzdad. I'm about the same age as he is, and have been sleeping 6 hours, ALMOST EXACTLY, for at least the last five years. I wake up refreshed, don't have any trouble with typical activities, and really don't seem to want more sleep. I do sometimes take a nap in the afternoon, but that's more about withdrawal than lack of sleep — I took the same occasional naps 40 years ago when I was getting 8 hours.

As it happens, lately I have found myself sleeping only 5.5 hours. This alarmed me at first, until I recalled my father and his mother, who, in their 80s, only slept 4 hours. I suppose if I live to be 100 I won't need any sleep at all. ;-)

As far as depression goes, I wouldn't worry about it unless you're showing other signs. The "can't stay asleep" associated with depression usually refers to someone who wakes up in the middle of the night, wants more sleep but can't get back to it, not someone getting a (more or less) full nights sleep and feeling (more or less) good about it.
posted by ubiquity at 9:02 AM on October 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Mid-40s here, same thing, and I definitely need more sleep than 6 hours despite my brain waking up anyway, and it sucks: I take melatonin and prescription trazadone to sleep; like you, my problem is *staying* asleep, which there doesn't appear to be any good medical solutions for, everything seems more focused on falling asleep and not what happens 6 hours later.

I have found that if I do wake up at like 2am (about 5-6hrs of sleep), if I take another dose of melatonin, it does help fall back asleep easier but I still get up fine in the morning. My doctor said I could double my low-dose trazadone, but then I'm still very groggy in the morning.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:15 AM on October 15, 2019

Waking up in the middle of the night is normal. You can just do a chill activity until you're ready to fall asleep again. It was called first sleep and second sleep. We tend to have a lot of anxiety about waking up that makes falling back asleep harder if we don't realize it's normal.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:22 AM on October 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another bit older here who can only sleep six hours a night. That's including the few minutes I just lay there trying to fully remember my dreams. You should try that. Stay mellow and try to remember the last thing you were thinking and just keep trying to go further back. If you do manage to go back to sleep after your body has had it's fill, I at least mostly just skip any sort of deep sleep and go straight into long weird dreams and wake up again thirty minutes later.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:02 AM on October 15, 2019

Benedryl is also an option.

There have been some studies linking long-term use of anticholinergic drugs like Benadryl to an increased risk of dementia, so taking Benadryl may not be worth the risk just to get more than 6.5 hours sleep.
I have this kind of insomnia too. Drugs have never been particularly helpful to me. Lately I try to accept that I'm awake at 5 or 6am, get up to pee and have coffee and read (on my e-ink kindle) for a bit, and sometimes I get tired and fall back asleep for a while (despite the coffee.) "Fighting" my body (by trying to get more sleep) didn't seem to help and just accepting that it does what it does feels better.

Also, while some people don't do well eating before sleep, there is also a school of thought that eating a high-protein/high-fat snack just before bed helps, because waking up might be a result of a drop in blood sugar. I haven't tested it extensively but I do feel like I sleep a bit better if I do that.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:47 AM on October 15, 2019

64 years old and I sleep 8 to 9 hours per night. Suggestions: cut out the caffeine and the alcohol, if you haven't done so already.
posted by SPrintF at 11:45 AM on October 15, 2019

Strangely enough, I was just talking to my therapist (who is an ACT practitioner) about the role of anxiety (etc.) in shortening sleep duration. I haven't looked for the literature supporting this, but apparently it's a thing. He mentioned his work with people on this, so maybe it's worth talking to an ACT practitioner? If you don't want to start there, there are some very decent ACT workbooks that can introduce you to it enough to see if you see improvement in your sleep quality and duration. If you see those results from solo work, that would be a good suggestion to pick up the approach more seriously with a therapist.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:32 PM on October 15, 2019

I've been experiencing this as well - I used to sleep a solid 8 hours but in the last year (I'm 41) I've been waking up refreshed at 5am instead of the usual 7am. The problem is, I'm so used to going to bed at 11pm that I have a hard time staying up I get up early.

Sometimes I read, sometimes I play Stardew Valley, sometimes I even go to the gym. One of my goals for November-December (when I get a break from my erratic work schedule and have a normal work schedule once again) is to actually make the 5:30 gym a habit. It feels pretty great to get the workout out of the way first thing in the morning...and I dig the morning gym. Nice and quiet!
posted by Gray Duck at 7:25 AM on October 16, 2019

You don't mention anything about gender, but if perimenopause is a possibility for you, insomnia (especially during luteal phase) is quite a common irritant then.

That's... not the same thing as having a fix for it, unfortunately, but it might give you and your doctor another avenue to pursue?

(I'm slugging it out with perimenopause -- insomnia and other issues. Melatonin is mostly handling the insomnia for me, but ugh on all of it.)
posted by humbug at 7:26 PM on October 16, 2019

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