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Are You Over 40 And Constantly Tired?

A Gen-X sleep whisperer reveals the secrets to getting a good night's sleep.

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Madison Ketcham
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When people in their 40s find out what Sara Mednick does for a living — she’s a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in sleep — she usually gets the same response: “groans.”

“They’re either getting too little sleep or waking up at 3 a.m. every night stuck in thinking mode, both of which they are beginning to suspect might be contributing to their brain fog the next day … BINGO!” says Mednick, who treats many Gen X women whose sleep has been wrecked by stress, caretaking (of kids and aging parents), career pressure, technology overuse, the pandemic and more. She says basically everyone in their late 30s, 40s and 50s has subpar sleep.

At 49 herself, she feels it, too. One of the biggest reasons that Gen Xers are dealing with inadequate shut-eye: a lack of slow wave sleep (SWS), which Mednick calls “the Fountain of Youth” in terms of its regenerative powers — including its ability to heal tissues, strengthen the immune system, and clear the brain of toxic byproducts that naturally build up every day as we go about the business of living.

These toxins dull memory and are what doctors believe eventually build up over time, leading to dementia. In our 20s or 30s, SWS was abundant. Plus, most of us engaged in several other daytime activities that were equally rejuvenating, like exercise; spending time with girlfriends; lots of sex; and time spent in nature, whether we were strolling across a college campus, hiking with friends or going for a jog followed by outdoor brunch.

All of these, along with restful sleep, are what Mednick calls “Downstate activities,” meaning they give the brain and body a much-needed reprieve and chance to replenish their resources. Now, though, we slog through week after week of Blursdays, living in a chronically stressed-out state and all but abandoning the much-needed breaks — and sleep — we so desperately need.

Enter your new Sleep Whisperer. Mednick, who is the director of the University of California, Irvine Sleep and Cognition Lab and author of a new book called The Power of the Downstate: Recharge Your Life Using Your Body’s Own Restorative Systems, says your day and night are actually ripe with opportunities to recharge. She shared five favorites with us.

Fall asleep by 10 p.m.

SWS is the third of the four stages of sleep, and while it occurs throughout the night, the most concentrated stretches of SWS happen between 10 p.m. and 1a.m. The further you push your bedtime past 10 p.m., the less time you’ll spend in the richest SWS “because around 1 or 2 a.m. your brain flips into a different rhythm that pushes away SWS and increases another sleep stage called REM [rapid eye movement] sleep,” she explains.

That means that if you stay up watching Don’t Look Up until 11 p.m., then fold some laundry and doomscroll on your phone until midnight, you’ll get just a fraction of the SWS you otherwise would. Yes, 10 p.m. sounds early for many of us, desperate as we are for a little Me Time at night, but the return on investment — less brain fog, more energy, better health — is pretty motivating.

Getting to bed earlyish, Mednick adds, also organically reduces alcohol intake, snacking and screen time, and will make it easier to wake up at 6 a.m. and squeeze in a workout before the chaos of another day begins.

Stop all alcohol and most liquids three hours before bedtime

Remember when you were 26 and could drink three cocktails, chug a glass of water before bedtime, and not wake up even once to pee? Those nights are long gone, thanks to a deteriorating circadian system (the set of 24-hour rhythms that govern nearly all bodily processes, including the kidneys’ ability to hold it in all night long) and the fact that women’s pelvic floors and urethras weaken and thin, respectively, with age, making it harder to sleep through the night.

Circumvent the problem by putting the lid on most or all liquids three hours before bedtime. If you usually have a glass of wine or a beer after dinner, try moving it up earlier. Many people feel it helps them conk out “but it totally disrupts the second half of your night by reducing REM sleep,” Mednick says. “And once your brain learns to wake up in the middle of the night, it can be very hard to convince it otherwise. This makes alcohol a potentially disastrous sleep aid in the long term.”

Get down … tonight

Mednick’s wife calls her orgasms “blow darts,” thanks to their ability to send the sleep whisperer straight to la-la land. There’s a physiological reason why this happens: sex revs up the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” branch of your nervous system that’s responsible for regulating your brain and body as you engage in all things active, exciting, stressful and scary. Post-orgasm, the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) system, which is all about rest and replenishment, takes charge. A well-timed Big O, then, can give your sleep the jumpstart it deserves. Satisfying sex with a partner works well, as does masturbation.

Take action to avoid Sleep Divorce Court

One in three Americans say their partner negatively affects their sleep, per the Better Sleep Council. Maybe you’re an Early Bird and he’s a Night Owl, constantly waking you up hours after you’ve drifted off. Maybe your bed buddy is a light sleeper and your snoring is becoming a dealbreaker. Whatever the problem, if one partner’s sleep habits interfere with the other’s, it can cause trouble in your relationship as well as with your health.

Lighter sleepers snoozing next to Mr./Ms. Toss-N-Turn can easily be woken up every time they change positions. Investing in separate comforters cuts back on that because you don’t feel the sensation of the blanket every time they move. “It also allows you to regulate your own body's temperature, which is very important for maintaining sleep,” Mednick says. “Use a lighter comforter if you run hot.” Speaking of temperature, keep it low — between 60 and 67 degrees F — to make your bedroom as sleep friendly as possible. Earplugs can help, too. They’re cheap and easy, and block out snoring, sleep-mumbling and the inexplicably loud sound of the house alarm being set as you attempt to doze.

Read paper books before bed

Staring into a tablet late at night issues a very clear directive to your brain: “Stay awake.” That’s because screens emit blue light, which mimics the blue rays of the morning sun. Paper trumps screens for more reasons, including the fact that reading comprehension is greater with physical books; a recent Nature study suggests this may have to do with the fact that we don’t breathe as deeply when screen-reading, and deep-breathing positively influences memory. Skip murder mysteries and upsetting nonfiction, and Mednick suggests turning to “something a little dense and not too emotionally arousing for the best sleeping pill.”