As we get older, sleep can be harder to come by. Our sleeping patterns may change as part of the aging process our bodies go through; we could be dealing with a physical or health condition robbing us of sleep . . . The result is that shut-eye eludes as many as 40% of the elderly.
Solutions can range from lifestyle changes to prescription medications. However, many people find themselves resisting taking prescription sleeping pills because of risks and potential side effects, such as an increased risk of falls, headaches, dizziness and dependence.
“It’s not always necessary to get a prescription for a sleep aid. There are natural ways to make adjustments to your sleeping habits,” says Charlene Gamaldo, medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital.
Not getting enough sleep can be more than an irritant. A proper night’s sleep improves concentration, memory and enables the body to repair any cell damage suffered during the day, boosting the immune system. Older adults who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be afflicted by depression, attention and memory problems and pronounced daytime drowsiness. It can also lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight gain, and breast cancer in women.
Common Causes of Sleep Problems in Older Adults
In some cases, seniors can be afflicted afflicted by specific sleep disorders, such as:
- Sleep apnea
- Restless leg syndrome (RLS)
- Periodic limb movement disorder
- REM behavior disorder
Medical conditions ranging from chronic pain and Alzheimer’s disease to neurological conditions and poor bladder control can interfere with sleep cycles. So can certain medications, such as diuretics (for high blood pressure or glaucoma), antihypertensive drugs (for high blood pressure) and H2 blockers (for gastroesophageal reflux disease [GERD] or peptic ulcers).
Other reasons that seniors can have trouble sleeping can include:
- Poor sleep habits and sleep environment
- Menopause and post menopause
- Lack of exercise
- Social isolation
- Not enough sunlight
Natural Treatments for Sleeplessness
Sleep is a natural function, and increasingly people are looking for natural ways to restore healthy sleep patterns. These can include:
- Meditation: Being quiet in meditation, mindful of breath and arising sensations in the body and mind, has been shown to help with insomnia and overall sleep patterns.
- Exercise: More exercise helps tire you out and sleep (though too much cardio before bed, getting the system racing, should be avoided). Even if you have joint or mobility issues, you can do exercises such as swimming, water exercises, walking, golf and lawn bowling.
- Melatonin supplements: As we age, we have less melatonin in our systems, which helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. A lack of sunlight during winter or pandemic shutdown can also lower melatonin levels. So a supplement to correct the balance makes sense.
- The right drinks: While caffeine and alcohol can interfere with sleep, other drinks can promote it, such as warm milk, chamomile tea and tart cherry juice. Chamomile tea, for example, is supposed to have flavonoids that interact with benzodiazepine receptors in the brain, which are involved with the sleep-wake transition.
- Staying dark: Light from smartphone screens, bathroom and lights left on, uncovered windows and so on can interfere with sleep. So make your bedroom as dark as possible.
- Magnesium supplements: This is a naturally occurring mineral that can help relax muscles and relieve stress, which may lead to better sleep.
Using Cannabis to Help with Sleep Issues
Cannabis has long played a role in helping people to sleep. Michael J. Breus, aka the “Sleep Doctor,” points out: “Studies show cannabis is already widely used by people in treating their insomnia and sleep issues. That’s not new. With its long history as a medicinal herb, cannabis has been employed for centuries to help with trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, to make sleep more refreshing, and to extend sleep’s duration.”
The sleep help that cannabis can provide is getting renewed interest among modern medical practitioners. “Marijuana is an effective sleep aid because it restores a person’s natural sleep cycle, which so often falls out of sync with our schedules in today’s modern lifestyle,” says Dr. Matt Roman, a medical marijuana physician](https://www.healthline.com/health/medical-marijuana/cannabis-for-sleeping), for example.
Research on how well cannabis helps sleep goes back to the 1970s, demonstrating that it has a broad effect on sleeping patterns, including the time it takes to get asleep. For example, a 2019 study revealed that among people who used cannabis to help with sleeping issues, 84% found it “very” or “extremely” helpful.
Or a 2018 study published in the journal Medicines looked at 409 people with insomnia. Users consumed cannabis whose THC (the psychoactive component in marijuana) potency on average was 20% and limited to 30%. CBD (a cannabinoid with fewer cognitive-impairment effects) potency was on average 5.7% and limited to 30%. The study participants noted a marked decrease in their insomnia symptoms.
If THC is the cannabis compound most noted for its sedentary effects, users who don’t want the associated cognitive impairment are using “microdosing” to get sleep help. That is, they use very low doses of a THC solution which provides therapeutic sleep benefits without associated psychoactive effects.
On its own, CBD has also shown promise as a sleep aid. The American Sleep Association points out that “CBD has been found to have potential health benefits for symptoms like insomnia.” CBD oil is extracted from both the marijuana and hemp plants, with hemp usually containing less THC than marijuana.
In this form, cannabis oil can be consumed as drops put under the tongue, or tinctures that could be added, say, to drinks. They are also taken as edibles, such as cannabis-infused cookies or gummies, and vaped.
Terpenes in cannabis have also been shown to have sedative effects. These are the unsaturated hydrocarbons that give taste and aroma to a variety of plants and vegetables, including cannabis. Myrcene, limonene, terpineol and terpinolene all have evidence showing they may help promote sleep. And the terpenes pinene and phytol have been shown to shorten the time it takes to fall asleep.
If you are having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or getting a restful sleep, Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacists and Senior Care representatives would be happy to discuss possible solutions for this health issue for you, including medical cannabis. Contact us today to find out more.