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Waking at 3am? Tossing and Turning? Read about the science of your menopause insomnia …. & why not sleeping might make you gain fat.

What do you think about when you are lying awake at 2am, or 3am or 4am? Do you plan your day ahead or are you just despairing because night after night you aren’t sleeping and you can feel your energy being sucked out of you? You know that the day ahead is another busy one and your brain will be fuzzy and fatigued. You won’t be functioning at your best will you?

If you feel like this, then you aren’t alone. I was like that too, so please keep reading.

What you may not realise is that wakefulness, light sleeping and insomnia (not being able to get back to sleep) is linked to yoSo ur changing reproductive hormones during menopause and of even more concern, is that the longer you lie awake night after night, the more your body-fat increases and your hot flushes can become worse too. For many women, as I found too, the HRT kicks in for a while, but eventually doesn’t work well either.

Insufficient sleep can make you too tired to work efficiently, to exercise, or to eat healthfully (Harvard Health Sleep Report, 2017) – but I think those of us transitioning through menopause already know that don’t we? Perhaps what’s even more scary is that the Harvard Report says that 1 in 20 American drivers admit to falling asleep while driving in the previous month – I’m wondering how many of these drivers are exhausted women going through menopause?

Although we kind-of get by on a day-to-day basis without sleep, the issue for me and millions of women, is more about the accumulation of loss of sleep and the effect this has on our weight and our health in mid-life. Not sleeping leads to ongoing inflammation in our muscles, joints, pancreas and heart. This inflammation then sends us into the cascade of chronic health changes that hit us in our post-menopause years, including auto-immune health problems.

I still remember when I couldn’t sleep night after night. I was up and down like a yo-yo and it didn’t help that hubbie was lying there snoring blissfully unaware of my despair. The supplements didn’t help nor did the HRT. Although I knew that not sleeping is the slippery slope to fibromyalgia and other auto-immune diseases, the one I was most concerned about, was the weight gain. This is because when we don’t get our deep, healing sleep, our hormones that help us to burn fat overnight become disrupted too.

Un-raveling the science of not sleeping as we transition into our new hormonal environment in menopause took me hundreds of hours of study, but I was so determined to understand why I wasn’t sleeping. Nobody told me it was all to do with the clash between my changing hormones in menopause and the lifestyle I was still trying to lead whilst my hormones were changing.

Why your Sleep is Important to Conquer in Menopause: 

Scientists divide sleep into two major types: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep or dreaming sleep, and non-REM or quiet, healing sleep. Sleep specialists have called non-REM sleep “an idling brain in a movable body.” During this phase, thinking and most bodily functions slow down, but movement can still occur, and a person often shifts position while sinking into deeper stages of sleep. When we go to bed and start to fall asleep, both phases last around 4 hours or more.

After your REM sleep, comes your deeper sleep, or your non-REM sleep. This is characterised by slow brain waves called delta waves. When your brain slows down, you allow your body to enter deep sleep. Breathing becomes more regular. Blood pressure falls, and the pulse slows to about 20% to 30% below the waking rate. The brain is less responsive to external stimuli, making it difficult to wake up. It’s this deep sleep that is really important for us to have during menopause because this is the time that your body heals, renews and repairs cells and tissues. 

But there’s more to the sleep story for us girls’ during menopause. We need to have deep sleep in order to activate our immune system. so for those of you doing lots of higher intensity exercise or you are weight training, then not sleeping may be causing your performance to drop and your muscles and joints to remain sore for longer after training.

Just as deep sleep restores your body, scientists also know that REM or dreaming sleep restores your mind, perhaps in part by helping clear out irrelevant information. A very important task for a generation of women with a lot going on in their lives still! When we get this deep, restorative sleep (between 2-4am), blood flow is directed less toward your brain, which cools measurably. At the beginning of this stage, the pituitary gland releases a pulse of growth hormone that stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair.

But if we are lying awake between 2 and 4am, then this release of growth hormone does not reach the threshold it needs to for healing and repairing our body. As I mentioned above, this is why I hear from so many women who are avid exercisers and they don’t understand that their sore muscles and joints are due to not just low oestrogen, but also not sleeping!

We need sleep to build and retain muscle or allow your body to recover from your bouts of exercise. The other concern is that when we aren’t sleeping well and growth hormone is low, our blood sugar hormone called insulin remains high. So too, does our chronic stress hormone called cortisol. This powerful combination of high insulin and high cortisol competes with your sleep hormone, called melatonin which is already low not only due to changing levels of oestrogen in menopause, but because we are ageing! The lower that melatonin is before you go to bed and the lower it stays overnight, the more awake you feel. The more awake you feel, the busier your brain  and the more hot flushes you have …. night after night, it happens … and over time, your brain and your hormones are now reading this as your ‘new normal’.

As many of you already know – the result is daily fatigue, exhaustion, irritability and with  your insulin levels all mixed up overnight, the weight starts to increase around our belly too. That’s why in the MyMT ‘Transform Me’ weight loss programme and the MyMT Circuit Breaker symptom-reduction programme, the first module you listen to is simply called ‘Sleep All Night’. Without this precious sleep, your body doesn’t burn fat. 

If you are putting on weight or you are feeling constantly cranky, irritable and exhausted, then please let me help you turn this around. Women on my 12 week programmes love their learning in the first online module they receive, which is simply called ‘SLEEP ALL NIGHT‘. For those with poor gut health, they also love discovering that our gut is also on a 24 hour night/day rhythm, so as they learn to sleep all night, their gut health starts to improve too.

One of the strategies that women on my programmes discover is the importance of our Circadian Rhythms and how to adjust these to specifically match their changing hormonal levels during menopause. The term ‘Circadian’ means “about a day”  so our circadian rhythms  are daily fluctuations in our biology that can become messed up as we transition through menopause. This internal clock, which gradually becomes established during the first months of life, controls the daily ups and downs of biological patterns, including body temperature, blood pressure, and the release of hormones.

Circadian rhythms make people’s desire for sleep strongest between midnight and dawn, and to a lesser extent in mid-afternoon. But our changing menopause hormones cause disruption to our normal circadian rhythms, so as we transition into or through menopause, then it’s really important to restore this biological rhythm and make adjustments to get us back sleeping all night. If we don’t, then over time, our brain and body start to read this 2-3am ‘awake’ period as ‘normal’.

But here’s the thing – because hormones in the body all work in harmony with each other, when your reproductive hormones change as you go into menopause, your other hormones start to adjust to re-balance the body. Especially hormones that control your blood pressure, heat regulation, stress levels and moods.

It’s no wonder that during our menopause transition we begin to experience more fatigue, muscle soreness, headaches, weight gain and our hot flushes become worse as the body starts to over-heat.

Certain brain structures and chemicals produce the states of sleeping and waking. Levels of melatonin begin climbing after dark and ebb after dawn. The hormone induces drowsiness, and scientists believe its daily light-sensitive cycles help keep the sleep/wake cycle on track. As we enter our mid-life years, these levels of melatonin decline as oestrogen starts to decline. This means that our deep sleep continues to diminish. Nighttime awakenings become more frequent and last longer. Waking after about three hours of sleep is particularly common and many women experience hot flushes, night sweats or want to get up and have a pee (yes, we have oestrogen receptors in our bladder as well). But the other main issue is weight gain.

Not getting enough sleep makes you more likely to gain weight, according to a review article in the journal Obesity that analyzed findings from 36 studies. The link appears to be especially strong among women during menopause and children. Lack of sufficient sleep tends to disrupt hormones that control hunger and appetite, and the resulting daytime fatigue often discourages you from exercising or eating healthily. How I remember those days so well!

When I began to look into our menopause symptoms as part of my women’s healthy ageing studies, I began to understand that our menopause transition is a natural transition that all women go through. But for millions of women, this stage of their lives can result in all sorts of mayhem, and it all starts with not sleeping well. 

This is why, I want to help you turn all of this around. I’ve untangled menopause and over 12 weeks, I teach you (in your private online learning hub which is accessible to you any time that suits you) how to turn around your sleep, liver health, nutrition, and improve your energy again. Hundreds of women are experiencing the excitement and renewed energy from sleeping all night and getting rid of their hot flushes and night sweats without resorting to hormonal medications. And if you need to lose weight, then you must get your sleep sorted. Menopause is the transition into the next phase of our lives – our ageing. And when oestrogen is low, there are numerous changes that occur in our body, from our pituitary hormones which control sleep, to our muscles to our blood sugar regulation. I’ve pulled all the scientifically-evidenced solutions together in one fabulous programme which not only helped me,  but is now ‘life-changing’ for other women too. 

If you would like to join me on either of my 12 week online programmes then come on board when you can. If you are thinner you might like to look at the Circuit-Breaker’ programme and if you are overweight, then look at the ‘Transform Me’ programme. Both programmes are $99NZ a month for 3 months, which includes my private coaching as well.  I would love you to discover how to sleep all night, reduce your symptoms in menopause and get back to feeling like the ‘old-you’ again.

Wendy Sweet, PhD/ MyMT Creator and Lifestyle Coach/ Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine.

References:

Davis, S., Castelo-Branco, C. et.al. (2012). Understanding weight gain at menopause. Climacteric, 15: 419–429.

Harvard Health Report (2017). Improving Sleep. Harvard Health Publication

Geddes, L. (2019). Chasing the Sun: The new science of sunlight and how it shapes our bodies and minds. London: Profile Books.

Reinke H. & Asher G. (2017). Circadian clock control of liver metabolic functions. Gastroenterology, 150: 574–580.

Rizzi, M. et al. (2016). Sleep Disorders in Fibromyalgia Syndrome.  Journal of Pain Relief, 5:2, 1-5

Sharma, S. & Kavuru, M. (2010). Sleep and Metabolism: An Overview. Int. Journal of Endocrinology, Article ID 270832, 1-12.

Woods, N. et al. (2009). Cortisol Levels during the Menopausal Transition and Early Postmenopause: Observations from the Seattle Midlife Women’s Health Study. Menopause, 16(4): 708–718.

“If you have ever wondered if there was a clear easy plan to follow to sleep all night, reduce hot flushes and prevent or reduce your weight gain during menopause, then ‘welcome’ – you’re in the right place now.”

Discover how either of my two Menopause Transformation programmes might help you too or take my Symptoms Quiz below… 

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