Sleep generally worsens with age
Sleep tends to become more fragmented as we age; we take longer to get to sleep, we wake more often during the night, and we are less refreshed in the morning. Fortunately, we have many available non-drug, plant-based solutions that can promote healthy sleep at any age.
Most of us will run into sleep problems at some point in the aging process, and it is important to overcome these difficulties right away. Sleep is critical to health and poor sleep quality or insufficient sleep leads quickly to a number of degenerative conditions, including metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, and mental degeneration.
I have been an insomniac as long as I can remember; even in childhood I took an hour or so to get to sleep and had dinosaur nightmares on top of that. As an adult, sleep was always a hit or miss thing. I’m a striver, seemingly always doing battle with some aspect of schooling or career or business venture that just won’t shut down at bedtime. I’ve spent great effort to find out how to sleep better, and have found strategies the work well for me most of the time.
Why Sleep matters
We have a brain cleaning system, newly discovered and understood, wherein we flush the fluid in our brain and spinal cord, sweeping out the debris from the day’s metabolic operation of our brain.
When we sleep, the brain’s material shrinks back from the outer walls of its blood vessels, opening channels for the Cerebral-Spinal Fluid (CSF) to flow outside of the vessels, pumped by the heart’s pulse wave, into the lymphatic system, essentially changing the brain’s fluid and eliminating the day’s garbage.
Called the Glymphatic System, this process prevents the buildup of Amyloid-Beta and Tau proteins seen as the cause of Alzheimer Disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. Many studies have now shown that healthy sleep delays and prevents brain degeneration seen in several forms of dementia and cognitive impairment with aging.
Other studies show that this is a two-way street; that chronic sleep disruption is an early marker for the degeneration which may come years later. Drug companies are currently searching for drugs which can force the sleep function without disrupting the Glymphtic System operation, as do nearly all sleep drugs currently available.
I just spent two weeks in Ambien withdrawal (a drug that will blessedly put you to sleep, anywhere, in about 10 – 15 minutes, but only for 3 – 4 hours), having once again let a temporary need for sleep get me hooked on a drug that I know full-well creates a dependency in just a few weeks. I had to endure several night when I just didn’t sleep to kick the habit, but eventually recovered real, restorative sleep.
The impetus for taking it started with a cruise (don’t sleep well in unfamiliar place), and then on workout days (I seem to replay intense workouts when I go to bed, which generates adrenaline just like the real workout) and then I started needing it every night, until I soon needed it twice a night. I’ve done this with several sleep aids, including booze, over the years, eventually realizing I was addicted and then having to quit cold turkey.
A Better Way to Sleep
So here is what works well for me nearly all the time and, importantly, why. The wake/sleep mechanism is embodied in a group of neurons in the hypothalamus called the Orexin System. Orexin is a neurotransmitter that these neurons produce to regulate several functions, including awakeness and appetite (really energy intake regulation).
This system is opposed or balanced by another group of neurons in the Ventrolateral Preoptic Nucleus (VLPO), very much like a teeter-totter; if one goes up, the other goes down.
Regarding awakeness; if orexin levels (really orexin neuron firing rates) are above a threshold, we are awake; if they drop below that threshold, we go to sleep. It is like a flip-flop, it is a two state system. In narcolepsy, the firing balance of these neurons is too close to the threshold, and can drop into the sleep zone during normal activities nearly instantaneously; a very dangerous event.
Serotonin and GABA (gama-aminobutyric acid) are neurotransmitters that activate the VLPO, which acts to inhibit orexin neurons to promote the transition to sleep. 5-hydroxy tryptofan (5-HTP) is a precursor to Serotonin, and 5-HTP readily crosses the blood-brain barrier while GABA seems to find its way from our stomach to the brain via the Vagus Nerve pathway. Both are available as supplements at most vitamin stores. Once reaching the brain, 5-HTP converts to 5-hydroxy tryptamine (serotonin) and along with GABA influences the VPLO to throttle back the orexin system and permit sleep.
The orexin system monitors a number of chemical messengers, and one important item, with regard to sleep, is histamine. Histamine influences many different processes (including allergic responses) and it activates orexin neurons, and will keep us awake.
Antihistamines block this activation, and can permit restorative sleep. Costco sells Sleep Aid (Doxylamine Succinate) in 25 Mg tablets; just half a tablet, along with my other items cuts the time (for me) for sleep onset to less than 15 minutes. Dramamine and Z’Quil work similarly. And now we know that the Glymphatic System’s brain flush is not disrupted by these efforts, and the sleep we get is actually restorative.
As a further benefit of these supplements, you virtually can’t be depressed while taking 5-HTP nor anxious while taking GABA. If you don’t greatly exceed the recommended doses you won’t overwhelm cellular receptors and develop a tolerance, and have to stop using them for a few days to let the receptors recover. I typically take 200-300 mg of 5-HTP and 1500 mg of GABA half-hour before starting to bed.
I use a number of herbal teas and extracts along with 5-HTP and GABA to further promote sound sleep and speed getting to sleep. One I don’t use is melatonin – it makes me very agitated in a dose-dependent manner; not the normal result, and it might be a great benefit for you in making you drowsy and getting sound sleep. I once asked one of my doctors why melatonin agitated me; he said melatonin acts as an arousal stimulant in nocturnal animals, so I must be part vampire – not a medically enlightening diagnosis, but made me wonder.
Vitamin Shoppe carries an herbal tea – “Nighty Night” – that I use along with GABA and 5-HTP. It has passion flower, chamomile, linden flower, catnip, hops, lemon verbena, lemon peel and lemon grass. I have been brewing that with a bag of chamomile tea about 1 hour before I start to bed.
Vitamin Shoppe has another great product “Snooze Right”, containing l-taurine, inositol, valarian, hops, scullcap, chamomile and passion flower, which I alternately use for great sleep. Another helpful component is L-theanine; I usually take 100-200 mg along with 5-HTP and GABA. To reduce cortisol levels in the evening I take 2-3 ashwagandha 450 mg capsules with dinner.
Since getting over my ambien habit, I have been sleeping quite well, with the aid of these supplements. Everybody’s different, but you can find solutions that work for you because sound sleep is critical to aging well.
Good Living –
Your Senior Fitness Coach,
Frank Wilhelmi – Retired/consultant electronic engineer researches and reports practical strategies for optimizing health and fitness into advanced age. “I have a passion for living life to the fullest, and helping others to do the same.” A rapidly growing body of knowledge now enables us to extend our health and fitness decades beyond popular expectations.