Ask any woman over a certain age, and they’ll tell you: menopause is no joke. While the experience is different for every woman, the hormonal, physical, and psychological changes can be staggering, and all of this occurs at a time in life when many other events are waxing mercurial as well: You might be caring for aging parents, supporting children as they move into adulthood, or contemplating big career choices.
Getting a good night’s sleep is an important coping mechanism during these changes. Therein lies Mother Nature’s cruel trick: Menopause is notorious for robbing women of their restorative REMs. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 61% of perimenopausal and postmenopausal women report frequent bouts of insomnia. Thankfully, some options exist to help you get a better — read restorative — night’s rest.
How Does Menopause Affect Sleep?
The most obvious — and notorious — sleep thief associated with menopause is the hot flash. If you’re unfamiliar, a hot flash feels as if you’ve been suddenly thrust into the tropics at midday at the height of summer, and there’s no recourse whatsoever. Almost 85% of menopausal women experience nighttime hot flashes, which can last between three and six minutes. (Or an eternity, which is how it feels at 3 a.m.) Although six minutes isn’t actually a long time, it’s long enough to fully wake someone up and make it difficult for them to fall back asleep, especially if their sheets are now drenched in sweat.
Hot flashes aren’t the only sleep disrupter associated with menopause, either. Melatonin production decreases as we age, which makes it harder to fall and stay asleep. The hormonal and physical changes that occur during menopause can also lead to weight gain, depression, insomnia, snoring, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea, which all understandably impact sleep and sleep quality.
Once your sleep is disrupted, it becomes a vicious cycle. Not getting enough sleep can lead to irritability, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and the abeyance of healthy life habits like exercise.
What Can I Do for Better Sleep?
Establish Good Sleep Hygiene
Your brain has an easier time shutting down for sleep when certain qualifications are met. The best way to do this is to:
- Have a predictable night time schedule — the brain thrives on routine
- Avoid exercise for at least three hours before bedtime
- Put away all electronic devices (there have been too many studies done about the disruptive effect blue light has one our sleep cycles to ignore.)
- Try to maintain a dark, quiet, and cool bedroom climate
- Avoid napping in the late afternoon or evening
- Invest in quality cotton bedding and nightwear, as it is more breathable than synthetic fabrics
Consider Some Lifestyle Changes
It’s no secret that our diet and lifestyle choices play a huge role in how we sleep at night. One Northwestern University study explored how regular aerobic exercise can improve the quality of your sleep, mood, and vitality. The study included 23 sedentary people, most of which were women aged 55 and older with insomnia. Half the group began doing moderate aerobic exercise four times a week, and at the end of the study they reported significant improvements of sleep. Pro Tip: To kill two birds with one stone, try to get that exercise outdoors. Soaking up about 30 minutes of sunshine can translate to better sleep patterns.
In addition to making sure you’re getting plenty of exercise, pay close attention to what you eat — and drink — as well. Obviously, caffeine at night is a no-no because it’s a stimulant, and it can also trigger hot flashes in some women. And even though a glass of wine is a lovely way to wind down at the end of a long day, if you’re suffering from sleep issues you should avoid alcohol as well. It may help you fall asleep quicker, but even small amounts of alcohol make it harder for your brain to stay asleep, and it will prevent you from getting the deep, restorative stages of sleep that you need.
Self-Help, or Seek Help?
Depression and anxiety are also common side-effects of menopause that can rob you of rest. For minor symptoms, various techniques might help alleviate some of the awfulness: Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing can help you destress, and can be easily incorporated into your nighttime routine. If you’re not having hot flashes, a warm bath can be soothing, too. Some alternative therapies have had success with menopause-related insomnia, like acupuncture and herbal supplements, but be sure to ask a doctor before embarking on that journey. You could also try to distract a racing mind by playing soothing music or ambient noise throughout the night.
If you find that depression and anxiety are preventing you from sleeping — or from doing the things that would help you sleep — then it may be time to seek help from a doctor. (I’ll never forget the time I went to the doctor asking for sleep aids and he prescribed an antidepressant instead. I scoffed at him, filled the script, and lo and behold, I started sleeping much better.) Some options the doctor might recommend are cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, hormone replacement therapy, low-dose antidepressants, or supplements such as melatonin.
Why Good Sleep is So Important
Many women are quick to shrug off menopausal symptoms because they were taught from an early age that discomfort due to our bodily functions is to be expected. (We can discuss the problematic societal implications of ignoring female pain another time.) However, chronic insomnia can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, and other lasting medical conditions. It also affects job performance, your safety, and your overall quality of life. You don’t have to just deal with the discomforts of menopause; if you’re regularly losing sleep, seek help from a specialist.