How many times have you heard this: “You’re getting older now, so you can’t do the same things you did in your twenties?” Getting older is often considered a disease, rather than a normal physiologic process in the body. Yes, it is true that the levels of hormones, enzymes, and other substances in the body decline with age, which lead to a host of health issues: poor vision, reduced hearing, forgetfulness, arthritis, and osteoporosis.
However, every older adult is different, 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. The body is an amazing machine, but its longevity and health is determined by taking measures to prevent accelerated wear and tear by making healthy food choices, remaining physically fit, and getting adequate sleep.
Sleep, in particular, is involved with the activation of certain chemicals like melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that is 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. Melatonin is a light-induced hormone. So when it’s light, the body secretes less melatonin; when it’s dark, more melatonin.
Melatonin’s release from the pineal gland is determined largely in part by the amount of light exposure — natural or artificial. So 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. Well, what does this have to do with aging? A lot. Because melatonin decreases with age, the lower amount contributes to sleep problems among older adults.
Various health problems such as osteoporosis ensue with inadequate shut-eye. Osteoporosis is the breakdown of bone that occurs most frequently as we age. Certain bone cells are involved in building bone up and breaking it down, 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. Weak and brittle bones place older adults at risk for fractures from falls. Statistics from the National Institute of Health (NIH) has indicated that approximately 34 million Americans have been diagnosed with osteoporosis.
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 to a 60-year-old person) and divided the rodents into the melatonin-supplemented group and the placebo group. After 10 weeks, the researchers compared the two groups by evaluating the femur bones of the rats using various tests that measured 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.
This study 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 also helps with balance.
In my new book, The Gene Therapy Plan, I recommend foods to promote healthy aging. Consume foods like milk, cheese, yogurt, almonds and green leafy vegetables because they contain loads of calcium that is good for building bones. Make getting adequate sleep a priority — restful nights help to maintain a good balance between daytime and nighttime melatonin. Some tips include not using 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.
Tresguerres IF, Tamimi F, Eimar H, et al. Melatonin dietary supplement as an anti-aging therapy for age-related bone loss. Rejuvenation Res. 2014 Aug;17(4):341-6.
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