How Diet Affects Senior Sleep Patterns (and what to do about it)

By Lisa Smalls

 At some point in life, we will have trouble falling asleep because of a malfunctioning tummy. Most of us will also experience being woken up by our stomachs. Too hungry or too full. Diarrhea. Constipation. Heartburn. Each of those can keep you awake or wake you up.

 Those troubles may worsen with age as seniors deal with health and lifestyle changes that come with getting older.

 Scientists at Harvard University say our guts and brains are intertwined. Disruptions in one affect the other. Dealing with one will help the other. Because our brains also determine how we sleep, good gastrointestinal health can aid sleep. Seniors should pay attention to it.



The National Council on Aging says 92 percent of seniors have at least one chronic condition. Any health-related stress can make it harder to sleep. The elderly are more likely to develop acid reflux. Constipation is common. Seniors don’t get as much exercise, aren’t drinking enough water and may be taking medications that cause constipation. 

Also, malnutrition is underdiagnosed among seniors. Seniors may not get around well enough to shop or cook and live on fixed incomes. They may also not be eating enough to nourish their bodies.



Some stomach distress is caused by what seniors eat. Alcohol and caffeine keep you up at night. Acidic food can cause heartburn. Eating infrequently, seniors may eat too much in one sitting. All of that exacerbates acid reflux. How do seniors fix that? 

  1. Eat healthier meals. If shopping weekly and hauling groceries back home stresses you out, consider hiring someone to cook for you. Chefs for Seniors is a company built on doing that for the 65+ set. Meals cost less than eating out. A chef comes to you home and cooks two weeks of reheatable meals in two hours. 

  2. Eat the right-sized portions: Hiring a chef service will also help seniors eat the right amount. Digestion slows as we age, so cutting back on portions will give the tummy time work properly.

  3. Consider probiotics. If we’re not getting enough nutrients in food, our digestion may slow. We need good bacteria in our stomachs for digestion. Probiotics introduce good bacteria, like those found in yogurt and kimchi. They can improve digestion. Use a type with multiple strains.



Again, digestion, cognitive functions and sleep are all intertwined. We can develop better sleep habits to help.

  1. Buy a new mattress. Because muscles weaken, seniors may develop poor posture. As they sleep, they are more likely to wake up with back pain. There are plenty of mattresses made specifically to help reduce back pain.

  2. Stick to a regular bedtime. Our bodies have an internal clock that wants to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. When those times vary each day, you thumb your nose at your own body. Science says that clock will change for seniors. They’ll want to go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier. Pick a bedtime. Stick to it.

  3. Skip the coffee after 5 p.m. When seniors don’t sleep well, staying awake during the day gets harder. We drink coffee because it keeps us alert and increases energy. Being too alert with too much energy thanks to caffeine also robs seniors of sleep. It takes five hours for one cup of coffee to leave our systems. Stop drinking them five hours before bedtime.

  4. Skip the nightcap. Alcohol won’t lull you to sleep. At best, it makes you super relaxed. At worst, it disturbs the part of your sleep cycle that allows your body to heal itself. The Sleep Foundation does a good job explaining the science of it. No one is trying to ruin a good time. We simply wish for you good, restful sleep.