Senior Health

11/12/2020 | By Seniors Guide Staff

In these uncertain times, sleep can be evasive for folks of any age. In addition to daily stressors that affect sleep quality, many seniors experience additional issues – such as pain, nighttime urination, and sleep apnea – that impact sleep health. It is important to maintain healthy sleep habits, since poor sleep quality can not only cause fatigue, but also contribute to other health problems.

Many of the changes in sleep felt by seniors happen because of changes in the body’s circadian rhythms (also known as our daily internal clock.) This part of the brain (the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN) can deteriorate with age, disrupting those rhythms. The SCN receives information about the time of the day through the light seen by our eyes. As exposure to daylight is limited, the SCN receives fewer of the body’s natural cues to sleep. This can be an even bigger problem for seniors with mobility issues who are unable to spend regular time outdoors, or for seniors living in nursing homes.

Millions of people, in an effort to avoid stronger prescription sleep medications, have turned to melatonin supplements to boost the naturally occurring hormone that participates in the body’s sleep cycle. Melatonin is released in the brain in response to darkness. Conversely, exposure to light (such as TV screens or lights left on while sleeping) can limit the natural release of melatonin. 

But Is Melatonin Safe?

Melatonin is generally considered safe for short-term use, when taken at a dose similar to what the body normally produces. Unlike some stronger sleep aids, you are unlikely to become dependent on melatonin, or for the supplement to stop working after repeated use. There is limited information on the safety of using melatonin supplements for an extended period.

Are There Side Effects or Risks?

  • Side Effects

Mild headache, dizziness, nausea, and prolonged sleepiness are reported side effects of melatonin.

  • Supplement Quality

What is really in your supplement? Your health professional may have recommendations. Be sure to look for the “USP Verified” seal, which means that the supplement meets standards of the US Pharmacopeial Convention.

  • Adverse Reactions

It is important to note that Melatonin may interact poorly with other medications, and there is the risk of allergic reaction. As with any supplement, talk to your health professional before taking melatonin, and be sure to bring along a current list of medications. Melatonin may stay active in seniors longer than in younger people, causing daytime drowsiness and interrupting natural sleep cycles. Melatonin is also not recommended for those with dementia, depression, a seizure disorder, an autoimmune disorder, diabetes or high blood pressure levels.

Safe Alternatives for Healthy Sleep

Two common causes of insomnia and sleep issues in older adults are poor sleep habits and sleep environment.

Some examples of poor sleep habits may include:

  • Napping during the day
  • Keeping irregular sleep hours
  • Drinking alcohol or caffeine before bedtime
  • Maintaining a bedtime routine that does not promote sleep (for example, engaging in activity that raises your heart rate)

Examples of a poor sleep environment are:

  • A brightly or even partially lit room
  • TV or music playing
  • An uncomfortable or unsupportive bed or pillow

Although some patients may need sleep aids, dependence on them may be decreased by practicing good sleep habits and creating the best possible sleep environment. Be sure to maintain a regular schedule, even if your daily schedule doesn’t require you to wake up for a specific purpose.

Natural melatonin levels rise about two hours before bedtime, so do not eat, use tobacco, or drink alcohol in that window. Read, take a bath, or watch a relaxing show before bedtime to prepare your mind for sleep. Remove TVs from the bedroom, and maintain that space for sleeping only. Keep a cell phone nearby in case of emergency, but turn off all sounds, and place it face down to cover the light.

Finally, although larger doses (up to 10 milligrams) are easily accessible, do not take more than 1-3 milligrams, in order to maintain the amount your body produces. So – is melatonin safe? Although melatonin can typically be taken safely for a month or two, speak to your doctor before beginning, and if it does not seem to be effective.

Seniors Guide Staff

Seniors Guide has been addressing traditional topics and upcoming trends in the senior living industry since 1999. We strive to educate seniors and their loved ones in an approachable manner, and aim to provide them with the right information to make the best decisions possible.

Seniors Guide Staff