Sleep affects us all differently at various stages in our life. We cycle through life in many ways from birth till the day we die. For the midlife woman, you may be stuck between raring children and caring for your own parents, working, cooking and household duties. This time in your life can get very complicated not to mention the addition of hormonal changes and sleepless nights.
As a young child, sleep is essential for brain development and growing and teenagers transition through puberty, they experience a shift in their circadian rhythm. Pregnancy and parenting brings it’s own host of fun, challenges and demands. Hitting mid-life, with peri-menopause and menopause is a transition many of us women experience as the most debilitating time in our lives, resulting in extreme bouts of sleep deprivation which exacerbate anxiety, depression and weight gain.
Our wellbeing depends on many things and losing precious sleep on a regular basis can stack up and result in metabolic, psychological and physiological problems that can impact nearly every aspect of life. And for many women, reaching mid-life can create a perfect storm for sleep disturbances.
As we move through the stages of life, our hormone levels fluctuate; ageing means that we produce more of some hormones and less of others. 70% of women have hormonal problems and symptoms throughout their life ranging from migraines to hair thinning, weight gain to brain fog.
Women in their 40s and 50s are also more likely to develop primary sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) and restless leg syndrome, both of which can be exacerbated by stress, weight gain and an unhealthy lifestyle.
Understanding what’s going on in our bodies and putting a few lifestyle changes and attitudes in place can make a big difference making this transition go more smoothly and easier.
Poor sleep affects your blood pressure which affects your body temperature. Your body temperature naturally fluctuates during the day and your sleep pattern is aligned with your body temperature. The circadian rhythm is a 24 cycle that ebbs and flows many functions in the body like blood pressure, hormonal production, digestion and body temperature. In order for the natural onset of sleep, body temperature is lower than normal. This is a very important cue for sleep.
The woman’s menstrual cycle also has it’s challenges with body temperature. In fact, daily body temperature increases right after ovulation. Your melatonin levels are lower as a result of higher body temperature which makes deep sleep challenging. This usually occurs in day 22 – 28 in a normal menstrual cycle.
Women have more problems sleeping than men do for two primary reasons: hormones and ageing. Women have more sleep disruptions during the premenstrual and menstrual times of the month.
Hormonal changes throughout a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle, primarily fluctuations of oestrogen and progesterone, can make falling asleep and staying asleep more difficult.
Menopause and peri-menopause bring their own set of hormone-related sleep challenges.
The most common age-related hormonal change is menopause. As you age, the reproductive cycle begins to slow down and prepares to stop. Physical changes can also happen as your body adapts to different levels of hormones. The symptoms you experience during each stage of menopause (perimenopause, menopause and postmenopause) are all part of your body’s adjustment to these changes.
Around age 50, women’s ovaries begin producing decreasing amounts of oestrogen and progesterone. Also, melatonin, the sleep hormone, decreases with age. Secretion of melatonin is partly influenced by oestrogen and progesterone and levels decrease during the perimenopause.
The menopausal decline of oestrogen contributes to disrupted sleep by causing menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and sweats. The drop in oestrogen is what is thought to confuse the hypothalamus (our temperature regulator/thermostat) into thinking the body is overheating which causes the sweat glands to turn on in order to cool the body down.
Approximately 75%-85% of menopausal women experience hot flashes, which can last on average for five years. This can make sleeping difficult when in turn can bring on a host of other problems and lead to problems for normal day to day functioning.
Tips to keep you cool at night:
- Wear clothing made of natural fibres, like cotton.
- Keep your bedroom cool and well-ventilated.
- Ensure you have a breathable mattress. Do not use memory foam as this holds heat.
- Avoid foods that may cause sweating (such as spicy foods), especially right before bed.
Depression, anxiety and a number of other mental health conditions can affect the quality of your sleep. Sleepless nights can cause anxiety and depressed mood; anxiety leading to difficulty getting to sleep, and depression leading to non-restorative sleep and early morning wakening.
Sleep acts like a master regulator of our hormones, helping to reduce stress and inflammation in the body. Make sleep a priority and support your sleep with a healthy lifestyle and stress reducing techniques.
Stress is the number one predictor of the level of rapid hormone fluctuations and hormonal imbalances. When stress creates a hormonal imbalance, it’s capable of negatively affecting your entire life.
Progesterone is the calming hormone and when we experience stress, the stress hormones come from progesterone. Stress exacerbates progesterone, sucking it dry, leaving not enough to balance oestrogen and other important hormones. This then also depletes magnesium which is natures natural tranquiliser helping to calm the nervous system and enable the natural onset of sleep.
Do want you can to manage stress in your life. This is the single biggest factor causing imbalances in our hormones and cannot be underestimated.
Some great ideas for reducing stress and reducing a hormone imbalance include:
- Exercise or move regularly
- Practicing daily meditation, mindfulness and/or deep breathing exercises
- Practice yoga or gentle stretching
- Create a healthy sleep hygiene routine
- Get support from friends or family
- Reduce caffeine and alcohol
- Eat healthy wholesome foods
- Take a magnesium supplement. Magnesium bisglycinate is very effective for migraine headaches in particular.
Note: This magnesium is bonded to the amino acid, glycine. Glycine elevates levels of serotonin, promoting relaxation, supporting cognitive function, and improving sleep quality
Oestrogen and progesterone are two of the primary female hormones that balance each other in the body. The liver detoxifies excess oestrogen. Good bacteria bind to the oestrogen helping to transport it out of the body as a waste product. When this is not functioning optimally, it is typically because the good bacteria are not binding to the oestrogen. As a result, the oestrogen is recycled and becomes more potent in the body and therefore more dangerous.
Oestrogen helps the body use serotonin and other neurochemicals that assist sleep. Oestrogen contributes to higher-quality sleep, with fewer awakenings throughout the night, and less time needed to fall asleep.
Low oestrogen is associated with anxiety and low mood, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, physical pain including headache and migraine, weight gain, and disrupted sleep.
Progesterone increases production of GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps sleep. Low progesterone can bring about anxiety and restlessness, and trouble sleeping, including a tendency to wake frequently during the night.
Many women gain weight, especially in the midsection during menopause. This extra fat can lead to inflammation and drive insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Oestrogen, which decreases during menopause, is an insulin activator. When oestrogen levels fall, the body becomes more insulin resistant, leading to weight gain and an increased risk for type 2 diabetes.
3 Ways to Help Balance Your Hormones
Treating hormone-related health issues isn’t always one-size-fits all, however here are three things that can be useful.
1. Eat real whole food and avoid refined foods. Healthy fats, nuts and seeds are important. What you eat or don’t eat has a profound effect on your hormonal health.
- Calcium, magnesium and Vitamin D. Increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables. The decline in oestrogen as women go through menopause obviously increases their risk for certain things like osteoporosis, so getting foods rich in calcium is very important,
- Increase Omega 3’s. Onega 3’s can help with brain and heart health and help balance hormones. Good sources are salmon, mackerel, flax seeds and chia seeds.
- Add foods containing plant estrogens, or phytoestrogens. Broccoli, cauliflower, dark berries, chickpeas, and soybeans can help mimic estrogen and reduce some menopausal symptoms.
2. Reset your body clock daily. Keep your body synchronised to the daily rhythms. Your female hormones are deeply entrained to your circadian timing system. Get daylight first thing in the morning and keep to a routine going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. Do not use electronic devices 1-2 before bed as this confuses your body clock thinking it is still daytime from the blue light.
3. Manage Your Stress. This is probably the single most important factor when it comes to keeping your hormones in balance. The excess cortisol plays havoc on every physiological aspect of your body from negatively impacting your sleep to gaining weight.
- Processed foods/Refined foods
- Spicy Foods
Eat well and move your body regularly. Reduces stress and prioritise your sleep. You must take care of yourself, in order to reduce stress. Prioritising a healthy lifestyle will reduce your stress which means you will reduce cortisol levels which will reduce some menopausal symptoms and weight gain.
Menopause can certainly be a positive time of life and often a time of celebration leaving behind behind the shame and silence and celebrate the start of something great! Too often, there are many misconceptions about this normal process of aging. Although menopause can cause some noticeable and uncomfortable changes, these can be effectively managed helping you transition with passion and purpose into a new chapter in your life! Acknowledge and celebrate yourself. I know I will!
If you liked this article and would like to know more, register for my upcoming webinar masterclass ‘Midlife and Sleep’ 5th May, 2022 at 7pm (UK/Irish). You will also receive a recording following the live event. https://event.webinarjam.com/register/11/34806s3