Optimizing Sleep and Minimizing Stress


by Nils Osmar. Updated March 22, 2022

Want to live longer? There’s evidence that getting enough sleep and handling stress in effective ways may be factors both in how long we live and how well we age (or delay aging).

Researchers have established that there’s an association between sleeping enough, optimizing our lifespan, and preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia. Getting a minimum of around 7 hours (for adults) has benefits related to brain health, life expectancy and quality of life. Lack of sleep may increase our odds of developing both conditions

How Much Sleep Is Optimal?

Many of us think we know the answer, but the truth is that there’s no universal agreement on this question, partly because humans come in different sizes, shapes, ages and genders. What’s right for one person may not work for another. According to a CDC article entitled, “How Much Sleep Do I Need?“, our sleep needs may vary depending on our age:

  • Newborns may need 14-17 hours of sleep sleep in a 24 hour period.
  • 6 to 12 year olds may need 9=12 hours per 24 hour period.
  • Adults 18-60 may need 7 or more hours per night.

Some studies suggest that woman may need more sleep than men, and may benefit from getting even an additional ten or fifteen minutes of sleep a night.

For some people, of course, regardless of gender, getting even 7 hours may be easier said than done. This can be because of disruption to our circadian rhythms, because of stress and worry keeping us up at night or because of underlying medical or emotional condition. It could also be caused by the pineal gland calcifying as we age and producing less melatonin (a hormone which promotes deep sleep and dreaming).

Whatever the cause, people can experience trouble sleeping, and there’s some danger that this may actually age us before our time.

Do Our Sleep Needs Change as we Age?

According to this LiveScience article, “Do Older People Need More Sleep“, older adults need the same amount as young adults. However, the author adds:

Unfortunately, many older adults don’t get the sleep they need, because they often have more trouble falling asleep. A study of adults over 65 found that 13 percent of men and 36 percent of women take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep… Many people believe that poor sleep is a normal part of aging, but it is not. Sleep patterns change as we age, but disturbed sleep and waking up tired every day are not part of normal aging.

So the short answer is that when we reach the age of 60, 70 or 80, we appear to need the same amount, but are often less able to get it. Re: dealing with this situation, the author’s recommendations include:

  1. Aim to go sleep and wake up at the same time, even on weekends. 
  2. Try not to nap too much during the day.
  3. Try to exercise at regular times each day. 
  4. Try to get some natural light in the afternoon each day.
  5. Don’t drink beverages with caffeine late in the day.
  6. Don’t drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes to help you sleep. (Alcohol may make it harder to stay asleep once you doze off.)
  7. Create a safe, comfortable place to sleep. 
  8. Use your bedroom only for sleeping. 

Stress Matters Too

  • Here we need to differentiate between physical and emotional stressors.
  • Physical stresses like exposure to heat and cold can trigger our sirtuin genes and might possibly be of benefit. Heat shock proteins and cold shock proteins, produced as a response to extreme climate conditions, can actually lengthen our lifespans. And the stress of exercise can, if all goes well, strengthen our muscles.
  • But emotional stresses, especially ongoing, recurring or unrelenting ones (like being stuck in a bad relationship or a job we hate) tend to wear us down.
  • Quality of life matters as much as quantity. Aim to sleep for 7-8 hours/night if possible. (I know this may be easier said than done!)

Figuring out Stress

Looking for ways to get out from under stress is also important. This might include:

  • Taking walks in the woods.
  • Getting fresh air and exercise.
  • Making a list of things you love, and finding ways to do all of them at least once a week.
  • Giving yourself the space you need to process things emotionally. Feeling sad? Don’t hold it in. Research has shown that there actually are benefits to having a good cry.
  • Feel like laughing? Watch a funny movie. (See Norman Cousins’ amazing article about how he “laughed his way out of cancer“) (The laughter may or may or may not be what “cured his cancer”, but he had fun doing it.)
  • Need a hug? Hugs can strengthen your immune system. Find a safe way to get (or give) one, even during these pandemic times.

What about Supplements?

  • Speaking anecdotally, I find that supplements can also sometimes help. But it works best (for me) if I swap them around now and then.
  • I take immediate-release niacin three days a week, usually around dinner time. It raises blood glucose, so I often take berberine and chromium along with it, to offset that side effect. It has the benefit of leaving me feeling a little sleepy. However, if I take too much (which is more than a gram in my case), (1) I may experience a niacin flush (which I sometimes like but sometimes don’t), and (2) I may go to sleep quickly but wake up hyper-alert around 3 or 4 a.m. and have trouble getting back to sleep.
  • I take glycine and NAC (N. Acetyl Cysteine) most nights about an hour before bed. When taken together they significantly raise NAD. The NAC also helps keep my breathing clear, and the glycine is associated with a restful night’s sleep.
  • I take apigenin right before bed, and have found that (for me) it usually promotes a night, of deep restful sleep accompanied by interesting dreams I usually remember in the morning.
  • If a supplement ever stops working for me, I’ll go three or four nights with no supplements before trying a different one.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

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