Lack of sleep: A living “nightmare”

Simple steps to improve sleep and BOOST your health

Enjoying a refreshing, restorative night of sleep is one of life’s most important things.

But let’s be honest: Getting a full night’s sleep (especially as an older adult) can be hard.

Aging can alter sleep patterns—including falling and staying asleep—and sleep quality often declines.

The reasons why are complex…influenced by a combination of factors (and the structure of the brain itself). But the upshot is that, as you age, you may not be getting enough sleep for tip-top mental and physical health.

Now, we all know the perils of too little sleep. Study after study shows our brains can’t function properly. And an entire range of physical diseases or disorders can be attributed to lack of sleep.

Not to mention the havoc sleeplessness plays on our emotional and mental health.

So, how much sleep is enough? And how can you achieve better quality sleep?

Well, researchers conducted a large, new international study to try answer the former.

Ultimately, they found you may not need as much sleep as you thought! In fact, TOO MUCH sleep may be as detrimental to your cognitive and emotional health as TOO LITTLE.

Let’s take a closer look at those findings. Then, I’ll dive into my insiders’ tips for achieving sounder sleep…

The link between sleeplessness and cognitive disorders

Scientists from Fudan University in China and Cambridge University in the U.K. analyzed data from nearly 500,000 British men and women, ages 38 to 75.1

Study participants were asked questions about their sleeping patterns, as well as their mental health and well-being. They also took a series of cognitive tests analyzing brain functions. About 40,000 of the participants underwent brain imaging studies.

Not surprisingly, researchers found that people who didn’t sleep long enough had impaired cognitive function, including issues with memory, mental processing speed, problem-solving, and visual attention.

This dovetails with prior studies which found a link between lack of sleep and cognitive issues like Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and dementia.

In fact, Professor Barbara Sahakian, one of the study co-authors, said: “Getting a good night’s sleep is important at all stages of life, but particularly as we age. Finding ways to improve sleep for older people could be crucial for helping them maintain good mental health and well-being and avoiding cognitive decline, particularly for patients with psychiatric disorders and dementia.”2

That all makes sense.

But the surprising part is that researchers found sleeping too much was also associated with impaired cognitive function.

So, what was the “sleep sweet spot”?

Seven hours per night was linked to the best cognitive performance—and overall health.

In fact, when researchers looked at connections between the amount of sleep and differences in the structure of regions of the brain involved in cognitive function and memory, they observed greater changes in the brains of people who slept either more or less than seven hours a night.

Sleeping more or less than seven hours a night was also associated with more anxiety and depression, and worse overall well-being.

Quality of sleep is as important as quantity

Of course, duration of sleep wasn’t the only factor influencing the study participants’ mental and emotional health. Consistency (or quality) of sleep also contributed.

Study results showed that regularly getting seven hours of sleep AND avoiding fluctuations in the amounts of sleep from one day to the next was important for cognitive performance, mental health, and overall well-being.

(Prior studies have also shown that interruptions in sleep patterns is associated with increased inflammation—which, in turn, is linked to an increased risk of age-related diseases.)

The researchers said the link between insufficient sleep and cognitive decline may tie back to the disruption of “deep sleep” (technically called “slow-wave” sleep, based on the appearance of brain waves).

Disruption of slow-wave deep sleep influences the formation of memories. There are also links between lack of deep sleep and formation of protein biomarkers in the brain that are associated with some forms of dementia.

Plus, inadequate sleep can hamper the brain’s ability to clear toxins and other cellular waste products—which can lead to both mental and physical disease.

Too much of a good thing?

These findings certainly help us understand why insufficient or poor-quality sleep is a problem for brain function.

But it’s less clear—and somewhat puzzling—why getting “too much” sleep is also a problem. (The reason wasn’t discussed in the reports I analyzed.)

In my view, there could be a “cause-and-effect” explanation for the link between excess sleep and mental and emotional health.

That is, feelings of low mood and depression can influence people to get more sleep. This could create a Catch-22 effect in which too much sleep is associated with worse overall well-being.

Meanwhile, another new study looked closely at the association between inadequate sleep and the inability to sleep (insomnia) with stress and mental health…

The stress and sleep correlation

This study included 40 men and women with an average age of 39 years. All participants underwent tests that showed they each had at least moderate stress and poor sleep quality.3

Researchers noted that lab experiments found that natural, herbal remedies—like lemon verbena—reduce anxiety and promote sleep in mice. So, they decided to conduct the first clinical study in humans to examine these effects.

Participants were divided into two groups. Twenty participants took 400 mg of lemon verbena supplements once a day, one to two hours before bedtime. The other 20 participants took a  placebo. All wore a “Fitbit” wristband tracker to monitor their sleep quality.

After two months, the lemon verbena group had significant improvements in their stress tests. (The average decline in stress was 11 percent.)  And one month after that, the average decrease jumped to 21 percent.

The researchers also measured both groups’ cortisol levels (a key indicator of stress). The lemon verbena group experienced a 16 percent drop after two months. But the placebo group had no significant changes in their stress levels.

Meanwhile, the lemon verbena group also had a 12 percent improvement in their sleep quality scores after two months. Yet another month later, they had an average of 26 percent improvement in sleep.

This group also reported waking up fewer times during the night compared to the placebo group. Tests showed they had an increase in deep, slow-wave sleep and REM sleep—the most restorative type of sleep, when short-term memory is processed.

The safe, natural, botanical way to improve sleep

So, what does all of this mean for you?

First of all, it appears that higher stress levels are linked to lower amount and quality of sleep. And this study shows that lemon verbena improves both stress AND sleep.

Of course, lemon verbena isn’t the only botanical linked to better sleep quality and quantity…

Aromatherapy, which involves inhaling essential plant oils or applying them to the skin, has shown, in a variety of studies, to induce relaxation and sleep.

Extensive research reveals that the most potent plant oils for aromatherapy (to promote restful sleep) are chamomile, lavender, orange, and peppermint. You can even find all of these plant oils in the right doses and combinations in an easy-to-use roll-on applicator.

Along with plant-based sleep remedies, the following lifestyle changes have also been found to be beneficial for boosting both the quality and length of your nightly shuteye…

Four Insider tips for sleeping sounder…and longer

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can focus on changing poor sleep habits, inconsistent sleep schedules, and the ways people think about and experience poor sleep. CBT for sleep issues typically involves six to eight weekly sessions with a trained specialist.

Recent research shows this method can be highly effective, with 70 to 80 percent of patients reporting they spent less time falling asleep, more time sleeping, and woke up fewer times during the night.4 And, unlike dangerous sleep medications, most people tend to sleep better even after CBT treatment ends.

Scaling back on screen time has shown to have a direct effect on sleep. Researchers report that the blue light emitted from a TV, computer, phone, or other electronic screen interferes with the body’s production of melatonin—a hormone that helps you sleep.

So, try turning off your electronic devices at least a couple hours before bedtime. Instead, read a book, listen to music, take a bath, or do something else restful and relaxing in preparation for sleep.

Watching your diet can have a direct impact on how well you sleep. For example, research shows you should wait at least two to three hours after your last meal before going to bed, to allow your digestive system to slow down and prepare for sleep.

It’s also a good idea to stop drinking both alcohol and caffeine a few hours before bedtime (for more about caffeine, see page 3).

Research shows higher blood alcohol levels can disturb the restorative REM sleep cycle. And caffeine can metabolically block biochemicals that are important for inducing sleep. Depending on your sensitivity to caffeine, wait up to six hours after consuming coffee or tea before bedtime.

And, of course, always stay away from sugar—it will delay your sleep (after a quick boost in energy). This sets off a vicious cycle…lack of sleep leads to increased production of a hormone called ghrelin—which stimulates appetite and cravings for sugar and calories.

In other words, sugar is the ultimate metabolic disrupter, which is why I recommend avoiding it. But if you do succumb, avoid sugary foods or drinks at least two to three hours before turning in for the night.

Meditation and (surprisingly!) exercise can also boost your sleep quality and duration.

Research shows that moderate exercise during the day can help you sleep better at night.

A good form of exercise to reap these rewards is yoga, which naturally helps reduce stress and promotes relaxation. Plus, simple yoga poses can get you back to sleep if you wake up during the night. Just don’t overdo it—strenuous exercise can rev you up rather than slow you down.

Meditation and other stress-reduction approaches during the day can also help you fall asleep at night.

The bottom line is that even if you find your sleep quality decreasing with age, that doesn’t mean you’re relegated to a future of tossing and turning—and making yourself more susceptible to chronic disease.

Follow my simple steps outlined here to get seven hours of quality sleep each night, and eventually you’ll find that bedtime doesn’t have to be a nightmare after all.


1“The brain structure and genetic mechanisms underlying the nonlinear association between sleep duration, cognition and mental health.” Nat Aging 2, 425–437 (2022).


3“Anxiolytic Effect and Improved Sleep Quality in Individuals Taking Lippia citriodora Extract.” Nutrients. Jan 4 2022;14(1)doi:10.3390/nu14010218

4“Multiple lifestyle factors and depressed mood: a cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis of the UK Biobank (N = 84,860).” BMC Med 18354 (2020).