Source: Deposit photos
From our first days as newborns all the way to old age, our sleep changes. Sleep is a dynamic process, one that affects (and is affected by) every other aspect of our lives and biology. Bio rhythms shift, sleep architecture changes, and hormone production rises and falls, all of which deeply affect how, when, and how well we rest.
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, and how that decade started and ended. A lot of us spent our early 20s up for almost anything, no matter the hour—in fact, the later the better. By our 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.
The most common sleep-related change that occurs during our first full decade of adulthood is 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 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 characterized more by their insomnia-like sleep habits than a distinct preference for mornings or evenings. And some of us (like me) will stay Wolves—continuing to prefer evenings to mornings, in perhaps slightly less pronounced ways.
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 amount and 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 that 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 of sleep deprivation—including on cognitive function, mood and emotional regulation, appetite, metabolism and 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 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. Recent research from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that about a third of pre-menopausal women sleep an average of less than seven hours a night, and roughly 17% have routine trouble falling sleep.
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, including 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, a number of important things are 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 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.
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.
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, we often begin to experience restlessness, 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.
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.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™