Getting older is often considered a disease, rather than a normal physiological process in the body. It's true that the levels of hormones, enzymes, and other substances in the body decline with age, and that these can lead to a host of health issues: poor vision, reduced hearing, forgetfulness, arthritis and osteoporosis.
However, every older adult is different. The body is an amazing machine, and how well one ages is determined in large part by nutrition, exercise and sleep. While one octogenarian may use a walker to get around, another may be preparing for a marathon.
Sleep in particular is involved with the activation of certain substances in the body, like melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that's released by a gland in the brain; the hormone plays an important role in regulating the circadian rhythm, which is the body’s internal 24-hour clock that controls the sleep-wake cycle. Since melatonin is a light-induced hormone, when it's bright the body secretes less melatonin, and when it’s dark, more melatonin.
This is why working late nights in a brightly lit environment, or experiencing jet lag, can disrupt normal melatonin levels. Even a simple task like drawing your curtains when it’s daytime may expose you to minimal light, which can also affect melatonin.
Various health problems, such as osteoporosis, can come as a result of inadequate shut-eye. Osteoporosis is the breakdown of bone, and it occurs most frequently in aging people. Certain bone cells are involved in building bone up and breaking it down, called osteoblasts and osteoclasts, respectively.
Interestingly, their activities also follow a circadian pattern: Osteoblasts are active in the daytime, but osteoclasts work at night. So if our sleep cycle is disrupted, as it tends to be in aging adults, then osteoclasts' activity is revved up in sleepless states. With less sleep at night, osteoclasts accelerate the activity of bone breakdown, which leads to the porosity of bone commonly seen in osteoporosis. In turn, weak and brittle bones place older adults at risk for fractures from falls.
Fortunately, physical activity, proper nutrition, and high-quality pharmaceutical supplements can help to protect many older adults from age-associated health problems like osteoporosis. In one animal study, researchers found that melatonin supplements helped to improve bone strength in old rats.
The study used 22-month-old rats (the equivalent of a 60-year-old person) and divided the rodents into a melatonin-supplemented group and a placebo group. After 10 weeks, the researchers compared the two groups by evaluating the femur bones for bone strength and density. The researchers found that bone density and volume were greater in the melatonin-supplemented rats than the rats that didn’t receive the supplement.
Although the study is relatively new, it provides great insight into how melatonin-regulated sleep cycle can improve bone health. The researchers plan to conduct further research to determine whether melatonin is preventing or reversing the effects of osteoclasts on bone.
To prevent bone breakdown or to improve bone health, I suggest you give your bones a boost through physical activity such as walking briskly or tai chi, which helps with balance, too.
I also have plenty of tips in my new book to help you achieve healthy aging. Consume foods like milk, cheese, yogurt, almonds and green leafy vegetables because they contain loads of calcium. Make getting adequate sleep a priority — restful nights help maintain a good balance between daytime and nighttime melatonin. Don't use bright lights a few hours before bedtime, don’t bring your cellphone, tablet, or laptop to bed with you, and lie down in your bed only when you’re feeling sleepy.
These nutritional, workout, and sleep-promoting tips will help you to keep your circadian rhythm and bone health in check.