By Rachel Welch
Are you familiar with the tale of Sleeping Beauty? More specifically, the part in which she falls asleep for 100 years and wakes up? Somehow, despite the 100 years of time that passed, she emerged from her slumber and had not aged a day! In the original fairy tale, this is thanks to a fairy's magic. And while this story is fiction, it makes sleeping for 100 years look pretty appealing (1). Sleep is highly valuable to our overall health, well-being, and maybe even the preservation of vitality. With continuous sleep research, we continue to learn more about the connection between sleep and aging gracefully.
Let's dive right in with a shocking fact. Did you know that just one night of insufficient sleep can make an older adults' cells age more quickly? The speed at which our cells age is relevant for many reasons. Our body is made up of cells, and each cell's health impacts the overall health and well-being of our body. If our cells are aging more quickly, we are aging more quickly. This can bring a higher risk of disease, autoimmune disorders, and other unpleasant side effects! (2).
Sleep also affects our hormones, immune system, and of course, our energy levels. We discussed the importance of idle time for our brains in a previous post. This is the time that our brains use to daydream, wire new synapses, and absorb information from the day (3). Just as we need conscious, idle time, we also need our brains to benefit from the various stages of sleep.
Sleep has several different cycles throughout a night of rest.
Stage 1 of Non-REM (rapid eye movement) Sleep:
This is the time in which we transition from wakefulness to sleep. Usually lasting several minutes, our heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow and our brain waves begin to slow down into sleep patterns.
Stage 2 of Non-REM Sleep:
This is light sleep, when our body temperatures drop, and eye movements stop. This stage is before we enter deep sleep and is where we spend most of our repeated sleep cycle time.
Stage 3 of Non-REM Sleep:
This is deep sleep, which we need a good amount of to feel refreshed the next day. This occurs in longer periods during the first half of the night. This phase is when we may have a difficult time waking up. Our muscles are relaxed, and our brain waves move very slowly in this stage.
Rapid eye Movement (REM)
REM sleep is where we have our awesome dreams or not-so-awesome nightmares. During dreams, our limbic system gets a boost of activity! This is the part of the brain associated with emotions and memory. This is why, when we dream, our minds may take random parts of our day and warp them into strange and emotionally charged dreams. REM sleep also allows our frontal brain systems (which help with analytical thinking), to rest and recharge. REM sleep is why we may feel more cognitively sharp after a good night's rest, and more mentally scattered if we are sleep-deprived (4).
The various sleep stages and their duration leads to a related outcome in health, well-being, and aging.
Studies suggest that a healthy quality and quantity of sleep may have the potential to reduce the negative effects of chronic illness. This can include obesity, depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (5). A person's level of sleep sufficiency is known to be a marker of whether or not they struggle with, and how much they are impacted by these conditions.
Just as sleep and sleep quality impact aging, the reverse can have an impact as well, and the process of aging can impact our sleep. It seems that as we age, sleep quality decreases (7). Scientists aren’t sure why, but it seems the best defense is to focus on ensuring good sleep by adjusting the factors you can control.
Avoid screens before bed: The blue light emitted from our devices mimics the light of the sun. This is registered in our brains as "daytime" and "time to be awake!" Avoiding screens before sleep helps the brain to wind down and prepare for healthy sleep (7).
Avoid caffeine after 3:00pm: Caffeine has an average effective time frame of around 6 hours, after which half of it is still in your body. Avoiding caffeine after 3:00pm will help most people to get better sleep at bedtime. Adjust your schedule accordingly, and plan to stop consuming caffeine 6-8 hours before you go to bed (8).
Make your bed a sacred space: Our brains constantly find patterns and associations with everything. Make sure your bed is only associated with sleep. This means no TV in bed, no food in bed, and no work in bed. To help your brain associate your cozy bed with sleep, try eliminating any other factors, and save your bed for only sleep.
Don't stress about sleep: Finally, do your best not to stress out about sleep. Relax, take some deep breaths, and snuggle in. While sleep is of great importance, and while it can impact our aging process, stressing about it and adding pressure will not help it —will only keep your mind more alert.
Sleeping Beauty had fairies on her side, who cast spells of protection to prevent her from aging. We may not have fairies to help us, but we do have research and science that gives us a path towards better sleep, and therefore graceful aging.
Equip your cells to age at a normal pace by ensuring high-quality sleep. This can be done by exercising during the day to tire out your body. Sleep quality can be increased by eating well to give your body balanced nutrition and taking your vitamins. Stay properly hydrated throughout the day, so that you don't wake up thirsty in the middle of the night. And, remember the sleep hygiene tips above.
The key to graceful aging is quality sleep. Quality sleep may not halt the aging process for us like it did for Sleeping Beauty, but it will help us to live a happier, healthier, and well-rested life.