Menopause and insomnia
Menopause is a time of major change in a woman’s life. What’s to blame for these hormonal, physical, and emotional changes? Your ovaries.
You officially reach menopause once a full year has passed since your last menstrual period. The blocks of time before and after that one-year mark are known as peri- and post-menopause.
During perimenopause, your ovaries begin producing lower amounts of key hormones. This includes estrogen and progesterone. As these hormone levels fall, symptoms of menopause surge. One such symptom is insomnia.
Insomnia is a disorder that prevents you from getting adequate sleep. This may mean that you have a difficult time falling asleep. It can also mean that once you do fall asleep, you have a hard time staying asleep.
The symptoms of insomnia aren’t as clear-cut as not being able to fall asleep or to stay asleep. Although these are two of the biggest indicators, others do exist.
People with insomnia may:
- take 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep
- get fewer than six hours of sleep on three or more nights per week
- wake too early
- not feel rested or refreshed after sleeping
- feel sleepy or tired throughout the day
- worry about sleep continually
Over time, this loss of sleep can take a toll on your health and well-being. In addition to being tired, insomnia can affect your health in several ways.
- feel anxious
- feel irritable
- feel stressed
- have a hard time focusing or paying attention
- find it difficult to remember things or stay on task
- experience more errors or accidents
- experience an increase in headache frequency
- experience gastrointestinal issues, such as an upset stomach
For women transitioning into menopause, sleep problems are often par for the course. In fact, approximately 61 percent of women who are postmenopausal experience frequent bouts of insomnia.
Going through menopause can affect your sleep cycle on three different levels.
Your estrogen and progesterone levels decrease during menopause. This can trigger a number of changes in your lifestyle, particularly in your sleeping habits. This is partly because progesterone is a sleep-producing hormone. While your body copes with these dwindling hormone levels, you may find it harder to fall asleep and more difficult to stay asleep.
Hot flashes and night sweats are two of the most common side effects of menopause. As your hormone levels fluctuate, you may feel as if you’re having sudden surges and drops in your body temperature.
You’re actually experiencing a surge of adrenaline that’s caused by the rapid decrease of hormones. This is the same chemical responsible for your reaction to stress or a fight-or-flight scenario. Your body may have a hard time recovering from this sudden surge of energy, making it difficult for you to fall back asleep.
Just as natural chemical and hormonal changes can interfere with sleep, so can changes caused by any medicines or supplements you’re taking. Sleep disturbance is a side effect for many medications, so if you’re beginning a new medicine or using an over-the-counter supplement, that may contribute to your insomnia.
Sleepless nights aren’t uncommon for anyone. In fact, most people will face a night or two of restless sleep quite frequently. Common causes include:
- Stress. Work, family, and personal relationships can take their toll on more than just your mental health. They can affect your sleep, too.
- Mental health disorders. If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders, you’re at a greater risk for experiencing insomnia. Many of these disorders, in addition to emotional symptoms, can cause sleep disruption.
- Poor dietary habits. Eating too late in the evening can affect your digestion, and in turn, your body’s ability to sleep. Drinking stimulants such as coffee, tea, or alcohol can also disrupt your body’s sleep cycle.
- Travel for work. If you have more sky miles than car miles, your sleep schedule is likely affected. Jet lag and time zone changes can take a toll, both in the short term and in the long term.
Your risk for insomnia also increases as you age, especially if you’re over age 60. This is because of the natural changes in your body’s sleep cycle.
Your doctor will first ask you about your sleeping habits. This includes when you usually wake up, when you usually go to sleep, and how tired you are during the day. They may ask you to keep a sleep diary to track these behaviors over a period of time.
Your doctor will also perform a physical exam to check for any underlying conditions that may cause insomnia. In some cases, this means they will take a blood test.
If the cause can’t be determined, your doctor may recommend that you stay the night at a sleep center. This allows your doctor to monitor your body’s activity while you sleep.
Although many of the causes for your frequent insomnia don’t have true “cures” or treatments, there are a few things you can do to help invite better sleep.
Create a room that’s suited for sleep
Often times, the room you’re trying to get some shut-eye in is interfering with your ability to do just that. Three main components of a bedroom can affect your sleep.
This includes temperature, light, and noise. You can address this by:
- Keeping your bedroom temp as cool as you can handle. A solid recommendation is around 65°. Cooler rooms make you more likely to hibernate well.
- Shutting off any lights. This includes alarm clocks and cell phones. The buzzing and blinking lights of a cell phone can alert your brain even when you’re asleep, and you’ll be waking up at odd hours without any clear explanation.
- Stopping any unnecessary sounds. Turning off the radio, removing ticking clocks, and shutting down appliances before you tuck in can help lull you into a good night’s sleep.
A light snack or a glass of milk before bed probably won’t do any harm, but a big meal before you crawl between the sheets may be a recipe for a nighttime wake-up call. Going to sleep on a full stomach may cause heartburn and acid reflux, both of which may make you uncomfortable while you’re asleep.
Practice relaxation techniques
Finding a way to decompress and relax can help you ease into sleep. A bit of gentle yoga or mild stretching just before bed may help you calm your mind and feel more at ease while you sleep.
Ditch bad habits
Smokers and drinkers will likely find that sleep is even more elusive during your premenopausal and menopausal days. The nicotine in tobacco products is a stimulant, which may prevent your brain from powering down for sleep.
Although it’s true that alcohol is a sedative, the effect won’t last. Alcohol also prevents deep stages of restorative sleep, so the sleep you do get isn’t doing too much for your recovery.
If your insomnia is related to menopause, you may find relief through balancing your hormone levels. There are several options for this, including:
- Hormone replacement therapy. This therapy can supplement your estrogen levels while the natural levels decline during perimenopause and menopause.
- Low-dose birth control. A low dose may be able to stabilize hormone levels, which could ease insomnia.
- Low-dose antidepressants. Medications that alter your brain chemicals may help you find sleep.
You may also consider taking melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps control your sleep and wake cycles. It can help restore your sleep cycle.
If your doctor suspects that your recent insomnia is the result of a medication or a side effect of medication interactions, they will work with you to find better medication options that don’t affect your sleep.
Many people will experience bouts of insomnia from time to time, but menopause-related insomnia can stretch on for weeks and months if not properly treated. If you’re experiencing insomnia, you should meet with your doctor to discuss your options.
In the meantime, there are several things you can do to reduce or relieve your symptoms. They include:
- Taking frequent naps. Sure, you can’t exactly pop your head on your desk at work, but who’s to stop you from a power nap during your lunch hour? Nap on the weekends and any time you feel tired. If you’re sleepy and think you can get some shut-eye, take advantage of that.
- Staying hydrated. If you’re struggling to stay alert, reach for a glass of water. Water can help you keep your natural energy up.
- Listen to your body. As you age, your internal clock changes. You may not be able to stay up late and rise early like you once did. Moving your sleeping times around to what your body naturally wants to do may help.