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Sleep is the the secret to good mental and physical health

It’s a big call, but we now know that good sleep quality and quantity are the key to good mental and physical health.

Have you hit “that age” where a good night’s sleep feels like a distant memory?

Disrupted sleep and insomnia are two of the most commonly reported symptoms by menopausal women.  Not only can hot flushes and night sweats disrupt sleep, but progesterone, the hormone that promotes sleep, drops too.

It can quickly become a vicious cycle – the less you sleep, the more irritable and anxious you become, and the more elusive sleep is.

Given that our hormone levels start changing from our early forties, through to our mid-fifties, that’s a long time to be to battling with sleep.

Health impacts – why we need good sleep

The link between sleep and mood disorders is well documented – if we get less than 7 hours of quality sleep a night, it can impact everything from physical wellbeing to motivation, emotions and even your weight.

Ideally, adults need 7 – 9 hours of good quality sleep a night.

Mild sleep deprivation can leave you feeling irritable, depressed, sad and depleted.  Studies have shown that people suffering insomnia are ten times more likely to experience depression and 17 times more likely to suffer anxiety.  All this can affect relationships at home and at work.  Not only that, lack of sleep increases the risk of chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and dementia.

Sleep used to be the ugly sister of the health world with many politicians and business leaders boasting about their ability to function on just a few hours sleep a night. 

However, scientists are now finding that sleep is one of the key, if not the most important, determinants of good health.  When we sleep our body gets busy with the tasks of repair, the mind deals with the occurrences of the day. 

Menopause and sleep

The hormonal changes that start to happen from peri-menopause through to menopause and beyond, are what cause the symptoms so many women report in this time.  A lack of progesterone can cause sleep issues, but so can a lack of vitamins and minerals and other lifestyle factors.

Women in their 40s and 50s typically lead busy, high stress lives as they juggle motherhood, looking after aging parents, a career and keeping a relationship alive.  All too often, they fall to the bottom of their own to-do list leaving them depleted both physically and mentally.  A lack of exercise and often poor nutritional choices all compound to leave women “tired and wired.”  They are physically exhausted, but the constant stress in their lives starts to have an effect, particularly on sleep.

Help is at hand

As terrible as that all sounds, take heart – there are ways to sleep peacefully again without resorting to medication.  Changes in environment, habits and diet can promote better sleep quality and quantity. 

But as with all things: your choices matter and if you are struggling with sleep, commitment and dedication will be the key to making changes and getting the rest you deserve and need.

Taking action

Improving your sleep quantity and quality won’t happen overnight, pardon the pun.    There are numerous techniques, foods and supplements you can try to help you sleep, but I am focussing here on the key areas to be addressed, they are available to everyone at minimal, if any, cost.

Once you have determined what techniques work for you, you’ll need to implement these consistently until they become habits and act as triggers to good sleep.

These are the key areas to consider:

  • Your bedroom
  • Technology
  • Diet & Alcohol
  • Exercise
  • Mindset
  • What to do if you still can’t sleep

Staring with your bedroom

Your bedroom should be a sanctuary to sleep.  Ideally your room is a cool, dark and quiet space.  It is worth investing in blackout curtains or blinds to keep out the light, but that’s not an option a sleep mask is very effective too.  If you have a restless partner, or live in a noisy area, ear plugs can be very effective in blocking out sounds.

Just as we do with babies, a soothing, relaxing routine in the evening helps the brain wind down in preparation for sleep.  You could try having a warm bath or shower, a warm drink (non caffeinated) or do gentle exercise. 

As with most things: you will need to see what works for you = some people are energised by a shower, others find it relaxing.

Screen time

This is a non-negotiable: NO screens in the bedroom.  None, at all, ever.  Not only does the blue light from the screen disrupt your sleep signals – blue light is a waking trigger, but waking up and checking social media in the middle of the night to see who else is awake is a sure fire way to fire up your brain. 

Ideally you should aim to switch your screens off an hour before you go to bed.

Diet and alcohol

Busy days and sleepless nights can lead to a vicious cycle of relying on caffeine to wake up and using alcohol to wind down a busy day.  Unfortunately neither are going to promote good sleep.

Caffeine stays in the body for up to 10 hours with a quarter  and alcohol might help you drop off to sleep but won’t allow you a restful night.

If either or both of these sound familiar, aim to have your last coffee of the day before lunchtime and have at least 5 alcohol free days.  If you do have a drink in the evening, stop a few hours before bed.

The same goes for food = don’t go to bed on a full stomach (nor on a grumbling tummy).  Digestion generates heat in the body which is not what you want if night sweats are a problem.  Aim to stop eating around 3 hours before bedtime.  That includes milky drinks (herbal tea and water are fine).

Ideally a 12 hour over night fast is recommended to allow the body time to rest and repair.

Move more, at the right time

Exercise should ideally form part of a daily routine and plays a vital role not only in strength and fitness, but also in stress release

but consider when you’re doing your exercise and what kind of exercise it is.  Generally speaking high intensity cardio and strength exercise is kept to the first half of the day with evenings reserved for mindful exercise like yoga, Pilates, stretching and meditation.  A mindful practice can help quieten the mind and help you sleep easy.  If you don’t exercise regularly, consider using a personal trainer to get you started to avoid injury.

There are lots of mindfulness and meditation apps available that can guide you through some relaxation practices

Warning: try not to think of these relaxation techniques as a solution to your problem or you’ll start asking yourself “is this working yet?” “do I feel more relaxed” “will I sleep better?”  all of which can lead to insomnia.

Brain dump:

Are you going to bed with a head full of thoughts of what happened during the day or what’s on the next day?  Do you find yourself waking up processing thoughts (and often catastrophising) in the middle of the night?

Spend a few minutes at the end of your work day making a list of tasks for the following day – this ensures you won’t forget anything and if you do wake during the mind, keep a pen and paper next to your bed to record your thoughts so your brain can switch off again.

Still can’t sleep?

If you don’t fall asleep within 10-20 minutes or wake in the night and don’t go back to sleep, get up and sit in a darkened room until you feel sleepy.  You can listen to soothing music or a boring podcast or a book.  Do NOT switch on any screens

Strategy check list:

Become intentional, strategic and consistent in your efforts

  • Tech/blue light/stimulus wind down
  • Epsom salt bath / shower before bed
  • Change mattress/bedding
  • Brain dump before bed
  • Essential oils
  • Commit to dealing with stressors that cause you to ruminate/think
  • Less social media – go outside
  • Less alcohol before bed
  • Less sugar before bed
  • Don’t go to bed dehydrated
  • Time restricted eating
  • Don’t go to bed angry
  • Remove baby sleep monitors unless absolutely crucial
  • Set age appropriate boundaries with children
  • Create a sanctuary
  • Create a light block – dark room!
  • Create a routine
  • Create a sound block – ear plugs?
  • Read a book
  • Keep a hot flush diary = apart from hormonal imbalance, there are a lot of habitual factors
  • Blood tests – deeper investigation into hormone status
  • Be OK with the odd sleepless night – have a positive attitude for when they occur
  • Meditation

Remember: the key to achieving a good night’s sleep is consistency.

For more information and help taking control of your menopausal journey, check out Unpause: the natural menopause program
Unpause is an 8 module program designed to take you through all the things you can do to build up your toolkit of strategies to manage your menopause.

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