Menopause and sleep: How to manage both better

“Though sleep is called our best friend, it is a friend who often keeps us waiting!”
-- Jules Verne

Remember how, when you were a kid, you hated to take naps? Yeah, me neither.

It’s a chronic problem in much of the 21st Century world—too much work, too many distractions, and not enough sleep.

But sleep is one of the most natural and necessary of our human processes. Adequate sleep helps us maintain a healthy immune system, control our weight, ward off some serious issues like heart disease and diabetes, have a better outlook and mood, and generally function at our best during the day.

We need good sleep, and enough of it.

But for perimenopausal and menopausal women, good sleep can be frustratingly elusive. Why?

According to sleep expert Els Van Der Helm, in a video on the Huffington Post, there are several reasons sleep becomes that “friend who keeps you waiting” during and after menopause:

  1. Hormonal rhythms change. Van Der Helm says our body’s natural clock can shift an hour during and after menopause, meaning many of us start waking up an hour earlier than we’re accustomed to. If you’re still going to bed at the time you’ve always gone to bed, you may be losing a whole hour of sleep. Keep a sleep journal to see if you’re naturally waking at an earlier time, then decide if you need to shift bedtime too.
  2. Body temperature is harder to regulate. Ordinarily, says Van Der Helm, sleep happens when our core temperature drops, aided by heat loss through our extremities (hands, feet). But when hormones start causing hot flashes, suddenly the core is too warm. And many women report cold hands and feet, meaning they’re not shedding heat as effectively. That can make it harder to fall and stay asleep.
  3. Increased risk of disordered breathing. Sleep apnea or interruptions to normal breathing, Van Der Helm says, becomes more of a risk after menopause. We may not even notice it happening, but we can feel it in increased tiredness on waking and during the day.

Insomnia and interrupted sleep are, at best, annoying, and at worst, potentially dangerous; however, there are ways to improve your sleep success:

  1. Ditch the distractions. Many of us close our laptops, only to fire up an eBook or an app on our cell phone when we should be getting ready to sleep. Not only does watching the latest episode of Orange is the New Black wake us up, there’s evidence that the blue lights of our devices interrupt our sleep hormone, melatonin. We have enough hormonal confusion going on; let’s not add to it!
  2. Create a routine. Gentle exercise like walking or stretching can help ease us into sleep, though a vigorous workout might have the opposite effect. Go to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends when you might be tempted to let bedtimes drift. Doing the same activities in the same order (floss, brush, wash face, put on moisturizer) can help train your body to know when it’s time for sleep.
  3. Watch what you drink. Cut the caffeine earlier in the day or even (the horror!) entirely. Alcohol might help us fall asleep sooner, but it doesn’t last; in fact, alcohol can disrupt sleep and decrease the quality of your night’s rest overall.
  4. Prep for hot flashes and night sweats. Have a change of clothes nearby and easily accessible, should you need to change out of damp pjs. Put a glass of ice by your bed so you can have cold water handy. Breathing deeply and rhythmically at the onset of a hot flash may lessen the length and severity and help you have a calmer response.

If you’re having severely interrupted sleep that impairs your quality of life and ability to function, take it up with your doctor. Yes, menopause is a natural part of life, but that doesn’t mean you have to endure sleepless nights and exhausting days.  

If you’ve discovered remedies that help you fall and stay asleep, please share in the comments!  

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