From our first days as newborns all the way to our old age, sleep changes throughout our lifetimes. Sleep is a dynamic process, one that affects (and is affected by) every other aspect of our lives and our biology. Bio rhythms shift, sleep architecture changes, hormone production rises and falls, all of which deeply affect how, whenand how wellwe rest. Throughout it all, the demands of daily life affect the amount—and the quality—of our nightly sleep.
There are some challenges to sleep that are perennial: inconsistent sleep routines, overconsumption of stimulants such as caffeine, over-exposure to artificial light—especially blue light. (I just wrote about blue light blocking glasses, how important they are and how to pick the right ones for you.)
But some important aspects of sleep change as we grow older—and those changes need to be met with new and different attention to sleeping well.
Wondering what sleep looks like at your age? Read on to find out the most common sleep challenges we face throughout every stage of life, and how to navigate them.
What sleep is like in your . . . 20s
Think back to your 20s, how the decade started and how it ended. A lot of us spent our early 20s up for almost anything, no matter what the hour—in fact, the later the better. (Party starts at 10 or 11? Great!) By late 20s, things probably felt different. For many of us, by the time we got close to 30, leaving a party before midnight suddenly seemed like a pretty decent idea.
We have a major bio rhythm change to thank for that. The most common sleep-related change that occurs during our first full decade of adulthood is this: a shift away from a strong preference for evenings over mornings.In adolescence, changes to bio time make nearly every one of us into Wolves—up and alert at night, struggling to function in the morning. That bio time shift happens with the onset of puberty and lasts until sometime in our mid-20s. When it does, those changing bio rhythms shift many people into another bio type—one you’ll likely have for most, if not all, of the rest of your adult life. Some people become early-rising Lions. Many settle in to the middle-of-the-road Bear bio type. Some smaller number of people will shift into a short-sleeping Dolphin bio type, that’s characterized more by their insomnia-like sleep habits than a distinct preference for mornings or evenings. And some of us (including me) will stay Wolves—continuing to prefer evenings to mornings, in perhaps slightly less pronounced ways.
Don’t know your bio type yet? Take my quiz: http://www.chronoquiz.com/
These late nights are one big reason that sleep deprivation catches young adults in their 20s unprepared. Social jet lag—the difference between the social schedule you’re pressured to keep and both the amountand timing of your body’s sleep needs—is a big issue for young adults. Feeling healthy, resilient, and full of energy, it can be tempting to think you can skimp on sleep without consequences. It’s true that a typical 20-something has a lot of sleep-related biological advantages going for them. Hormones that enable healthy sleep—including estrogen, testosterone, and human growth hormone, among others—are naturally high. While deep sleep amounts are lower than during childhood and adolescence, they’re also still running high, compared to where they’ll be in a few decades. But there really is no free ride when it comes to the impact of sleep loss. An abundant and ever-growing body of research shows how deeply the effects sleep deprivation—including on cognitive function,mood and emotional regulation, appetite, metabolismand weight gain—affect children and young adults, with consequences that can extend long into adulthood.
In their 20s and throughout their pre-menopausal lives, women regularly experience sleep problems that directly relate to their menstrual cycle. Fluctuations of the hormones estrogen and progesterone shortly before and during menstruation cause difficulty sleeping, as well as headaches, cramping, anxiety, and low mood—all symptoms that can compound sleep problems. I see patients in their 20s experience insomnia and other sleep troubles linked to menstruation. Recent research from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that about a third of pre-menopausal women sleep an average of less than 7 hours a night, and roughly 17% have routine trouble falling sleep.
What to watch for:Irregular sleep routines, and not making enough time for sleep. Most people in their 20s have the discretionary time and freedom to get the sleep they need, but their social schedules don’t allow for it.
What sleep is like in your . . . 30s to mid-40s
So many life changes take place during these years—and all of them have a major impact on sleep and sleep cycles. New and more demanding jobs, marriages, buying homes and having children. Our bodies in our 30s and early 40s remain naturally poised to sleep well—but the demands of work and family often make that difficult.
At a biological level, there are a number of important things happening during these years. By the 30s, you’ve settled in to the adult bio type that you’re likely to keep for decades—and maybe for the rest of your life. That makes this period an ideal time to identify the sleep routine and sleep amounts that meet your individual needs—and to start doing all you can to set daily routines that allow you to meet those needs.
Some bio types have an easier time than others in meeting sleep needs in the real world. Lions (early to rise, early to bed) and Bears (who fall right in the middle of a morning-evening preference scale) are more naturally aligned with society’s daily clock than night-wired Wolves and restless-sleeping Dolphins. Social jet lag continues to be a big issue for most sleepers—and by our 30s and early 40s, some bio types are feeling its impact more than others.
To learn about how bio type affects sleep and nearly every part of your waking life, check out my book, The Power of When.
Changes to sleep architecture also continue, and it’s during these years people may begin to notice. As we age, our sleep cycles contain less deep, slow-wave sleep. We spend more time in the lighter stages of non-REM sleep. This is a gradual shift—research indicates that we lose deep sleep at a rate of about 2% a decade, up to age 60. In our 30s and early 40s, people often begin to experience restlessness in their sleep, find themselves waking more easily and often at night, and feel less refreshed in the morning. It’s a good time to take a look at the natural supplements that promote sound sleep—many of which also help reduce stress and sharpen cognitive performance during the day. Here are 10 of the most effective natural sleep aids.
In addition to the ongoing sleep challenges that come with menstruation, women who go through pregnancy are likely face sleep problems that include significant sleeplessness—even if they’ve been sound sleepers in their pre-pregnant lives. Nearly 4 in 5 pregnant women report experiencing new problems with sleep. Changes to the body and intensely shifting hormone levels lead to many pregnant women feeling sleepy during the day, and restless and uncomfortably awake throughout the night. Pregnant women are at significantly higher risk for developing sleep disorders, including obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome.
Men who might think they can skate through these years on too little sleep without consequences: think again. Men’s risks for sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, are higher than women’s risks at this age. And shortchanging sleep can directly hurt male fertility. There’s a growing body of research showing that poor sleep reduces sperm healthand makes it harder to conceive. For example, this 2017 study found that both too little sleep and too much sleep—as well as late bedtimes—were linked to reduced sperm counts and diminished sperm motility, as well as an increase of production of an antibody that targets and destroys healthy sperm.
What to watch for:De-prioritizing your sleep. Suddenly, demands from your time are coming from everywhere—kids, spouses, work, community. It’s common for both men and women to flag their own sleep needs as low importance. Think of your sleep for what it is: an investment in the health, success, and happiness of all you’re working to build.
Next week, I’ll talk about the changes that happen for sleep as we head into middle age and beyond.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™