Everyone's sleep patterns adapt and develop over time. 'You do not, and you do not need to, sleep as you did 10 years ago because the needs of your body, brain and lifestyle have changed,' explains sleep expert Professor John Groeger from Nottingham Trent University.
'But in our fifties and beyond, the type of sleep we get is more easily disrupted by noise, light, heat, pain, anxiety and bedfellows that have always been the enemies of slumber. And some of these enemies become more aggressive as we age. Menopause affects how your body manages heat, for example, while a weaker bladder means you're more likely to need the toilet during the night.'
The trick, then, is to work out what's waking you up – and take steps to address it.
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Is your bladder to blame?
As we age, we're more likely to suffer from nocturia – a frequent need to wee during the night. Common causes include hormonal changes, prostate problems and urge incontinence.
So while it's important to stay hydrated, it's a good idea to limit your fluid intake during the evenings. And – obviously – go easy on the alcohol. A nightcap may help you to drop off initially, but it reduces the amount of restorative sleep you get, and you're likely to wake feeling dehydrated in the early hours.
Avoid caffeine after 2pm – and try switching a couple of cuppas for cherry juice instead. Drinking 240ml of tart cherry juice twice daily extends night-time slumber by an average of 84 minutes, according to a new study from Louisiana State University. Researchers found the juice contains compounds which inhibit the production of sleep-disturbing chemicals.
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Could it be your medication?
'Many commonly prescribed medications, such as painkillers and antidepressants, can interfere with a good night's sleep,' says Professor Groeger. 'If you suspect that's the case, your GP may be able to offer you an alternative.'
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Is your bedroom dark enough?
The best environment for a good night's sleep? 'Total darkness,' says Lisa Artis, sleep advisor for The Sleep Council. 'When it's dark, your body releases the hormone melatonin, which helps you relax. Any light suppresses melatonin. So invest in a lamp or dimmer light if you want to read in bed. And buy blackout blinds or dense curtains to block out light from outside.'
Even the light from an LED display is enough to tamper with melatonin production – so turn digital alarm clocks towards the wall. What's more, if you can easily see the time as soon as you wake up, you're more likely to lie there counting the minutes. Or you could ditch your alarm for a dawn simulator, which lights up gradually. Lumie has a good range.
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And remember, the blue light emitted by digital devices is one of the worst culprits when it comes to messing with melatonin levels. So switch them off at least an hour before bedtime and keep your bedroom gadget-free.
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Are you getting enough daytime light?
Being exposed to sunlight or bright indoor lights during the morning encourages better sleep quality overnight and reduces stress, says a recent study from Washington State University on how to sleep for longer. The reason? Daytime light exposure helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle.
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Is noise waking you up?
Double glazing, anti-snoring aids and ear plugs can easily combat some of the most common noisy offenders. Another solution is to invest in a white noise machine. This uses a constant neutral sound – similar to TV static – to mask out background noises. Or try a Soothing Sounds Dial, which offers a choice of realistic nature sounds.
What to do when insomnia strikes
Are you too hot or cold?
Sleep experts suggest the optimum bedroom temperature is somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit – but it can take a little trial and error to work out what suits you. Prone to overheating in the middle of the night? Ignore the electric blanket and slip between cool sheets at bedtime. 'As the body gradually cools down, it sends sleep signals to your body,' says Professor Groeger. 'So don't do anything that raises your temperature, such as exercise, too close to bedtime.'
Does your bedtime vary?
'Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day will stop you waking in the middle of the night because you programme your mind to stick to a routine,' says Lisa Artis. And yes, that includes weekends!
Still lying there worrying?
If you've awake for a while and genuinely can't get back to sleep, don't lie there worrying about it: this only fuels your anxiety. 'Get up and do something relaxing such as light stretches, meditation or reading under a dim light,' suggests Lisa Artis. Distracting yourself in this way will calm the mind and you'll gradually feel pleasantly sleepy again.
Finally, if you're regularly being kept awake by stress, anxiety or any kind of physical pain, it's important to address the root cause, so do see your GP.
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