As we age, our sleep cycles change, and the amount of time you spend in the deepest, most restorative stage of sleep (rapid eye movement or REM), diminishes significantly. That’s one reason why after age 60, you’re more easily awakened.
Plus, starting at around age 40, production of melatonin—the sleep hormone synthesized in the pineal gland in the brain—begins to decline. Therefore, you have less melatonin to get you through the night, which is why many older folks wake at the crack of dawn even though they’re still tired.
To make matters worse, in your 60s and 70s your melatonin secretion patterns change. It takes much longer for melatonin to kick in at night, leaving you tossing and turning.
The good news is there are five ways to boost melatonin for a sound night’s sleep
- Keep it dark during the night. Nighttime light exposure disrupts melatonin production and interferes with sleep. Research shows you don’t even need to see the light to have it ruin your sleep. This bodes poorly for people who fall asleep with the TV or lights on. A low-watt nightlight in an adjacent bathroom is okay, but when you are ready to go to sleep all other lights (and the TV) should be off and the shades drawn. And if you get up during the night to go to the bathroom, keep the lights dim.
- Let the light in during the day. Just as light during the night interferes with melatonin production, inadequate exposure to light in the daytime also disrupts the body’s natural melatonin cycles. Make a point to spend some time outdoors every day.
- Take melatonin. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study also showed that people who take 3 mg of melatonin before bedtime experience a significant increase in deep, restorative REM sleep. Another study found that 3 mg of melatonin given to poor sleepers improved overall sleep quality and reduced daytime sleepiness. The suggested dose is 1–3 mg of melatonin, taken 30 minutes to one hour before bedtime, preferably on an empty stomach. Melatonin should not be used by anyone who is pregnant or nursing or before driving. Be aware that this supplement causes some people to have vivid dreams.
- Make sure you’re not taking a drug that inhibits melatonin production. Melatonin-inhibiting drugs include beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, anti-anxiety drugs, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), steroids, and some antidepressants. If you’re taking one of these, avoid taking it in the hours just before bedtime if possible. Better yet, explore natural alternatives.
- Get enough melatonin-boosting foods and nutrients. Good choices include oats, corn, rice, barley, ginger, tomatoes, and bananas. Also take a daily multi-nutrient containing 100 mg niacin, 75 mg B6, 500 mg magnesium, and 1,000 mg calcium, which are all involved in melatonin production.