If ever there was a commonality among the senior crowd, lack of sound sleep is a top contender. An enigma of the twenty-first century—based on hustle and bustle, multiple job and social obligations, and harried family life—is that the definition of senior now includes fifty-year-olds. Some people contend that fifty is the new thirty; others hold that it’s the new seventy, largely based on inflammatory markers not visible from the outside. Looks like both ends are meeting in the middle, eh? Sleep, or rather the lack of it, seems not to have been much of an issue in the 50’s and 60’s. If getting there is half the fun of a journey, it’s doubly so with sleep. The problem is that it sometimes takes too long to reach the realm of Morpheus.
To encourage sleep there are things to do and not to do. Depending on your personal guru, some to-do’s might include getting comfortable, adjusting room temperature to the mid-sixties (Onen, 1994), picking the right position and wearing loose night clothes. If you happen to be one of those adults afraid of total darkness, use a night light if the moon has too few lumens, but keep it in the hallway. Go for the glow, not the glare. If you’re of the opposite persuasion, try a mask. In either case, be happy you don’t live in Alaska. If you need music, use it. White noise can be helpful, too. If your partner is bothered by your needs, move.
Tense muscles will keep you awake. So will pondering the exciting events of the day. Tensing and then relaxing muscles, working from bottom to top, while focusing on a muscle group, can help you to sink into the mattress until you feel ready to get into your desired position. The head and torso are somewhat stubborn, which explains why you start at the bottom. If it’s hard to get rid of the day’s stimuli, picture items and events as being black, considered the most tiresome color. A brand new black Porsche, on the other hand, might undo all this effort. You could try breathing exercises, guided imaginations, thinking of relaxing activities like fishing or woodworking, or even getting out of bed and watching a dull movie or reading.
Eating a carbohydrate snack or a protein that contains tryptophan might make you sleepy. Taking a magnesium supplement (Abassi, 2012) or an herbal such as valerian has been helpful in some instances (Salter, 2010). Chemicals are the last resort—after the lighting and temperature have been adjusted, after the aromatherapy has proven ineffective, and after everything else.
Some things you don’t want to do before bed include exercising, eating a sizeable feast, and drinking coffee or alcohol. Smoking also interrupts the drowse. And taking a fish oil supplement could amp your rpm’s past the red line. What’s that?? Is my high DHA fish oil keeping me awake? Yes, it is because it’s out of balance with EPA. While it’s true that DHA is needed by the brain and retina to stay at optimal function, like the gas tank in your car, once filled, you can turn off the pump. It appears that DHA stimulates brain neurons by impinging on receptors that react to the presence of glutamic acid, the non-essential amino acid abundant in the human body, most prominently in the brain, where it is the prime excitatory neurotransmitter. Glutamate receptors are implicated in excitotoxicity, a state linked to neurodegenerative diseases (Lau, 2010) (Heath, 2002) (Hynd, 2004).
There is more than one kind of glutamate receptor, but the one called NMDA-receptor is the trouble maker that opens calcium channels. Besides being found in bone, calcium is an electrolyte that turns things on and makes things happen. When these channels are kept open, calcium rushes into a cell and causes muscle contractions, excitation of neurons, and the release of hormones and neurotransmitters. This kind of physiological activity is exactly what you don’t need when you’re trying to go to sleep. DHA substantially potentiates the peak electrical activity of NMDA/glutamate receptors (Nishikawa, 1994).
The advancement of science has relied on the question, “why?” There comes a point where there is no answer because that’s just the way it is. Why do two hydrogens and one oxygen atom make water instead of something spendable? Long-term potentiation is initiated by the influence of DHA on NMDA/glutamate receptors. That’s just the way it is. At this time, magnesium offers a feasible blockade to the opening of the calcium channels. But you’d need lots of it. In the mean time, DHA is responsible for learning and memory. You don’t want to turn that off. You just want to tone it down at night.
NMDA is N-Methyl-D-aspartic acid, an amino acid derivative used to stimulate a receptor by mimicking glutamate, which is the normal visitor to that receptor. NMDA differs from glutamate in that it stimulates only the NMDA receptor, having no bearing on other glutamate receptors involved in synaptic transmissions. Sequestering NMDA/glutamate by avoiding high-DHA supplements prevents the opening of the calcium gates and the consequent stampede that disrupts sleep. That’s just the way it is.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.