- The Anti-aging Power of Sleep and Its Impact on Longevity - July 1, 2022
In this overview, Dr. Farah Sultan, MD, a functional medicine doctor who specializes in anti-aging medicine, dives into the connection between sleep, lifespan and healthspan. Learn about the importance of sleep to your health, common mistakes that disrupt sleep, and practical evidence-based tools that can help optimize your sleep quality and longevity.
Why sleep is a key factor for longevity
Even though we spend a third of our lives sleeping, sleep doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. For many people, sleep remains at the bottom of their priority list. With modern-day life praising productivity and performance, we often let other things encroach on our sleep. This means we end up sleeping fewer hours than we need.
Ironically, sleep is essential for us to perform our best in every aspect of life. Sleep is the time when most of the rejuvenation and restoration of our bodies occurs. It is the body’s natural maintenance plan, a comprehensive execution of hundreds of critical processes, all designed to support a long and healthy life.
In fact, according to the data, sleep quality is linked to healthspan. Lack of sleep is a major risk factor for many chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, dementia, insulin resistance, and obesity.
The anti-aging benefits of sleep
Here are some of the key processes the body takes care of during sleep, along with risk factors associated with inadequate sleep:
The rejuvenation qualities of sleep are due to sleep-induced autophagy, a powerful anti-aging process where the body cleans out and recycles damaged cells. This allows newer, healthier cells to take their place.
During sleep the body regulates many hormones, such as our stress and sex hormones. Having a stressful work schedule may tempt you to sleep less to get things done. However, your body may need more sleep to properly clear these stress hormones. Lack of sleep can also dysregulates insulin levels, an important hormone that plays a role in a healthy metabolism and blood sugar. Chronic lack of sleep can lead to insulin resistance or metabolic disorders.
Sleep is also housecleaning time for the brain. It is when memories are reorganized and consolidated. Plenty of studies have highlighted the neuroprotective aspects of sleep and the risks of lack of sleep. In fact, non-restorative sleep has been linked to impaired arithmetic ability, weakened memory, inability to concentrate, and cognitive deterioration. Sleep deprivation hinders both simple and complex cognitive functions.
Lean muscle mass preservation
Inadequate sleep is a potent catabolic stressor. This type of stress increases the risk of metabolic dysfunction and the loss of muscle mass, which often occurs as we age. Muscle loss with aging is referred to as sarcopenia. According to the evidence, you can lose up to 50% of your muscle mass by the time you are 80, unless you actively work to maintain lean muscle.. Sleep is one factor that can help you preserve the muscle you have.
Central nervous system
The glymphatic system is a network of vessels that clears waste from the central nervous system and distributes essential nutrients to the brain, mostly during sleep.
8 Evidence based principles to optimize sleep
Simple lifestyle changes can go a long way to help you improve your sleep quality and get the rest you need. Here are 8 simple, yet effective tips to help you catch those zzz’s:
1 – Optimize your daily and nightly activities
While your evening routine can directly affect the quality of your sleep, what you do during the day matters too. In fact, in some cases, it is what happens during the day that disrupts your sleep hours later at night.
Here are some of the top lifestyle activities that can help improve sleep:
- Start your day with natural light exposure. Stepping outside before 10AM, even on a cloudy day, is essential to regulating your circadian rhythm.
- After sunset on the other hand, I often recommend my patients wear blue light blocking glasses. These inexpensive glasses help turn down the intensity and brightness coming from indoor lights and electronic devices that can suppress your natural melatonin production.
- Exercise. Study after study has confirmed what we all know: physical activity is essential to health, especially as we age. It is one of the most potent natural “anti-aging” tools. It is very important, however, to consider the type of exercise, the intensity, and the time of day. Overtraining or working out too late at night can significantly disrupt your sleep.
- Allow some time to unwind. Take a break from the daily hustle and bustle. Sit at the table with your family and have dinner at the end of a long day, away from other distractions.
- Avoid eating too late. Eating a big meal close to bedtime can interrupt your sleep. Aim to eat your last meal at least three hours before bedtime. If you have blood sugar issues however, work with your doctor on the best approach for you. Also, try to include enough protein with your evening meal, as it can help support restful sleep.
- Be mindful about your evening activities. Try to avoid stimulating movies, books, or intense music as they can trigger your “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system and release chemicals that can disrupt your sleep. On the flip side, deep breathing, meditation, and other relaxing techniques are well known for their ability to activate the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system and vagal tone. When we are in rest mode, our heart rate is reduced and other systems are down regulated, which can help improve sleep.
2 – Have a consistent sleep time
Partying on the weekend and trying to make it up with more sleep during the week? Unfortunately, the body doesn’t work this way. We are creatures of habit, and having your body used to consistent sleep-wake times can help regulate your circadian rhythm.
Also, it’s important to consider the time you go to bed. While the ideal time can vary from one person to another, we already know that certain sleep behaviors are linked with longevity, while others increase the risk for chronic disease.
People in blue zones regions, known to have the world’s longest lifespan, typically rise with sun and sleep at dark. This helps maintain the body’s natural circadian rhythm.
Those working the graveyard shift, on the other hand, such as healthcare providers, have some of the worst sleep patterns and circadian rhythms. The disruption of the circadian rhythm has been found to lead to significant adverse health outcomes.
3 – Consider intermittent fasting
I’m a big proponent of intermittent fasting for at least 12 hours and depending on the person, up to 15 to 16 hours. Fasting offers numerous benefits for anti-aging, many of which, also occur during sleep.
Sleep is the time where your body starts to induce autophagy. As we mentioned earlier, it is the process where your damaged cells are recycled, allowing for rejuvenation of healthy cells. You can think about it as the body cleansing itself of aging, dying cells in order to nourish and promote younger, healthier cells.
When you pair fasting, which also induces autophagy with quality sleep, you can synergize the benefits of both. With that in mind, watching what and when you eat at night, can help support this wonderful process.
4 – Optimize your bedroom for better sleep
Use the bedroom only for sleeping. No work and other stressful activities are allowed in the bedroom. Others things to be mindful of:
Keep the bedroom dark at night
Even moonlight or streetlight can impact your melatonin production. So, try to wear a night mask or install blackout curtains. The goal is to keep the room as dark as possible. Also, if you get up to go to the bathroom at night, make sure to avoid turning on bright lights. Even a short exposure to light during the night can affect your sleep.
Temperature & sleep
Studies have shown that a lower ambient temperature is correlated with better sleep quality. While everyone is different, an ambient temperature of 68 °F (20°C) is a good place to start. Taking a hot shower before bed can also help drop your body’s temperature by a couple of degrees. Initially, the hot water will increase your core temperature, but will also cause vasodilation (widening of blood vessels) which will cool your body. You can also experiment with certain technologies such as ChiliPAD that are designed to keep the bed temperature consistent throughout the night.
Be mindful about your sleep posture
Is laying down comfortable, or do you wake up with stiffness, aches, and pain? Besides the mattress, even the pillows that you use can make a big difference. If you’re a back sleeper, try putting a pillow underneath your knees. If you’re a side sleeper, put the pillow between your knees. Positioning your pillows in different ways can help prevent and release any strain on your spine and improve your sleep.
5 – Supplements for better sleep
I find that certain supplements can offer a safe and effective natural alternative to support sleep. However, they may not be for everyone. In my practice, we often tailor supplements to the individual.
An essential mineral needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body, but often becomes depleted because of stress and other factors. I do prefer chelated forms of magnesium such as magnesium glycinate and magnesium malate, on their own or in combination. Magnesium L-threonate (Magtein) is also a great form that crosses the blood brain barrier and reaches the hippocampal area of the brain. This means it can support cognitive function as well. Keep in mind, not all magnesium products offer the same benefits for sleep. I would personally avoid the salt forms of magnesium.
Natural plants that improve the body’s ability to cope with stress. Some of my favorite ones to help with stress and sleep include ashwagandha, Rhodiola rosea, and skullcap.
A naturally occurring fatty substance that accounts for 13–15 % of the phospholipids in the human cerebral cortex. Studies have found PS may help support healthy cortisol levels and cognitive function.
A study that compared Valium and lavender essential oil, found that lavender had more relaxing characteristics. Keep in mind, however, that when it comes to ingredients that have calming properties, even natural ones, more is not better. Ideally, you would like a mild relaxation effect, as going too strong can work against you and disrupt your sleep.
6 – Be mindful about your stress levels
Chronic stress and high cortisol levels are ones of the major reasons people don’t sleep well. Most people give in to stress instead of managing it more mindfully. Certain practices such as meditation, yoga, breath work and others have shown to be very helpful.
7 – Foods & drinks that keep you awake at night
Many common foods and beverages you consume during the day, can disrupt your sleep hours later at night. In addition to caffeinated beverages and other stimulants found in coffee, tea, and energy bars or drinks, you may also want to watch for packaged foods and beverages, in particular:
- Refined sugars and processed carbs. Often cause insulin spikes making your blood sugar levels to drop later during the night, which can interrupt your sleep.
- Artificial coloring and food additives. May cause neuroexcitatory effect that stimulate the brain.
8 – Know the risks of sleep medications
You may find yourself feeling desperate for a good night sleep and be tempted to take sleep medication. Frankly, we have all being there, and I see this a lot in my medical practice.
Personally, I do not recommend sleep medication. Some of these medications mechanism of action doesn’t even aim to induce restorative sleep. Instead, they work on your perception of sleep, making you forget you had a poor night’s sleep!
Also, these drugs can be highly addictive. They may initially work, but over time your body develops tolerance, and they stop working. You then need a higher dose, and eventually you find yourself at a worse place than you started. Now you need something else, but many of these drugs are addictive and it can be very hard to get off them.
Unfortunately, this vicious cycle is quite common and often overlooked. Even more, recent studies have shown that certain prescription sleep medications have been linked to increased risk of dementia and even cancer[16,17].
It is very important to be aware of these risks. Always consult with your doctor before taking this type of medication, prescription, or over the counter.
Enjoy the anti-aging benefits of high-quality sleep
To support health and longevity, sleep needs to be a priority. With so many anti-aging strategies to choose from, a good night’s sleep sometimes seems less-than-glamorous. Yet, it is an essential element of any anti-aging protocol. You simply can’t take enough supplements or hormones to reverse the damage caused by lack of sleep.
Additionally, lifestyle factors such as stress and light exposure can make it difficult to get a good night’s rest. The eight tips we discussed can help you get started improving your sleep quality. If you are still struggling with poor sleep, consider working with a functional medicine provider that can help identify and address underlying causes of poor sleep.