How to Battle Mid-life Insomnia

Do you suddenly find yourself wide awake at 3 a.m., or tossing and turning half the night before sleep finds you? Men and women ages 40 to 60 may have some degree of mid-life sleep woes due to stress, hormones and family and work worries that turn sleep into an elusive pursuit. Hopefully, some of the below mid-life sleep advice can help.

Men may get up more frequently to use the bathroom. Women may be disrupted by hormone changes during perimenopause and menopause. Environmental conditions like light, noise and temperature disrupt your sleep more the older you get, and research shows folks in middle age have less deep sleep, more daytime fatigue and may nap more. Well, that sounds like a downer, right?

“There’s a huge difference in sleep for people in their late 40s and 50 and above, and someone in their 20s and 30s,” says Pete Bils, the vice president of sleep science and research at Sleep Number. “Sleep is far less robust once you hit mid-life.” The same way young kids can sleep through a tornado, the older adults get, the more fragile their sleep becomes.

We’re just not as good at getting to and staying asleep by the time we are in our 40s and 50s. Everything from a late meal to a chai may affect sleep. “It’s a common signature of normal aging, but you need to recognize it and then compensate for it with good sleep hygiene,” says Bils.

Short of railing against the Gods of Aging, here’s the best advice for mid-life sleep trouble:

1. Don’t panic.

An occasional bout of insomnia happens to everyone. Rather than get stressed, relax and try to figure out the cause. Work stress, life event, family problems? “When you dread going to sleep and you know it’s going to be an issue, that becomes part of the problem,” says Bils. That’s classic learned insomnia.

2. See your physician.

If you have insomnia for a month or more, you need to rule out anything medical since a medication or undiagnosed or untreated medical condition can zap sleep. Once you’re in the clear medically, work on your sleep hygiene conditions.

3. Pay attention.

Consider the conditions in which you sleep. Is the room cool enough? Is there noise? Are you drinking caffeine after noon? “Caffeine has a very long half-life in the body,” says Bils. It takes about seven or eight hours until half of what you’ve consumed is metabolized. If you drink a latte at 3 p.m., half that caffeine is still in your body at bedtime. “You may be so tired that you still fall asleep, but caffeine is going to disrupt your sleep and wake you up.”

4. Skip screens an hour before bed.

We consume too much media and screen time, exposing ourselves to bright light before bedtime. If the brain detects blue or white light it shuts down the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps trigger sleep. You should be in dingy orange or yellow light like a campfire or sunset, since that’s what promotes sleep. Any other color promotes wakefulness and can prolong the time it takes to fall asleep as you get older. Take advantage of technology like night mode for device screens, which is designed to take the blue out of the screen and mimic the time of day and sun’s position in the sky in your location so screens dim accordingly.

5. Try bedtime restriction.

This is a cognitive behavioral therapy trick to use if you routinely wake up at 3 a.m. and can’t fall back asleep. If you figure you’ve only been getting 4 to 4.5 hours of sleep, restricting yourself to bed for that amount of time later in the night can help you feel a little more refreshed. If you have to be up at 6:00 a.m., set your new bedtime to 1:30 a.m. No matter what, don’t go to sleep before then, and you’ll get the same 4.5 hours. Once you’ve established this routine, you can creep the bedtime back in 15-minute intervals each week or two to 1:15, 1:00, 12:45 – until you reach an acceptable bedtime and you’re sleeping 6.5 to 9 hours. Bils says to consult with your physician before you try this.

6. Bask in morning light.

Expose yourself to bright light first thing every morning. This will shut off the production of melatonin and reset your body clock so it knows it’s time to be awake. “That simple action alone makes it easier to fall asleep later on that night,” says Bils.

Now that you know mid-life sleep is more fragile, take steps to protect sleep by following stringent sleep hygiene rules that you likely ignored when you were younger. You may also benefit from Tips for Better Baby Boomer Sleep.