Cairns was hot and humid. It was only 7am and already the temperature was hitting 25 degrees celcius. My walk along the beautiful esplanade was coming to an end and I headed into a cafe near my hotel to get a juice.
“Wendy, it’s you!” I heard coming from behind the counter. And that’s how I met Angela from Cairns. The previous night she had attended my Masterclass on Menopause seminar with her work colleague and the two of them were talking about it when I walked in. How funny!
So I said to her, “What was the number one thing you learnt last night, that you didn’t know, and you think will help you?”
Angela, didn’t pause a beat and immediately said, “The circadian rhythm! I had absolutely no idea about the connection between my symptoms and my circadian rhythm. I do lots of strength training and very little cardio, so the information about heart health was important too. I’ve been doing this for years, so no wonder I’m suffering with hot flushes and night sweats. Nobody has ever said this to me before, so I can’t thank you enough.”
It’s moments like these that I love. Pockets of knowledge that empower change in our understanding and hopefully, in our behaviour. It is always such a privilege to share my own story and journey with women attending these live-events, because, like Angela, I had no idea how powerful the connection is between our changing hormones in menopause and the things that we do every day in our normal routines. Things that we’ve done for years.
Just like Angela up in Cairns and millions of women around the world, I too didn’t fully understand how powerful our lifestyle is to our changing hormonal environment as we transition menopause. But determination to untangle my own symptoms, especially my sleep and weight gain (which are powerfully connected) as I moved through menopause, led me towards the realisation that many of us don’t understand that our routines need to change because our hormones are shifting us into a whole new stage of life.
Angela and her friend and the hundreds of women who turned out in Cairns and Mackay, now know that as well. As I also mentioned, when we don’t sleep, then it becomes a ticking time-bomb for our health as we age. Our mother’s generation already know this too.
When we don’t allow our hormones to adjust to menopause, then our hormones go into ‘distress’. Many of us experience this as a whole range of symptoms – hot flushes, night sweats, poor sleep, aching muscles, sore joints, anxiety, depression, anger, frustration. That’s when we seek out all sorts of medications and supplements to try and alleviate the symptoms.
But as I said to all the women attending in both Cairns and Mackay, up in beautiful Queensland this week, “this is how menopause gets placed in ‘sickness’ and it shouldn’t. It needs to be all about ‘wellness’ instead, because it’s the opposite life-stage to puberty and we didn’t need all those medications and supplements then either. Whilst these can help in the short-term, many of us find that they don’t last and there’s a reason for this … we aren’t changing our food, exercise, stress and daily routines to accommodate the changes that occur as we age. As well, too many of us are exhausted before we even go into menopause and many of us end up following diets and exercise regimes that don’t suit our changing hormonal environment. Over time, we just end up feeling worse and nothing works.”
One of the most important issues for women as they transition menopause is sleeping all night.
A good night’s sleep is fundamental to our health, our immunity, our ability to hold onto muscle, and it’s important for weight management too. When we don’t sleep, we suffer. Our hot flushes become worse and we experience night sweats and worsening joint health. Putting the puzzle together between our transition through menopause and how this affects our sleep hormone, melatonin, was an important one for me.
What do you think about when you are lying awake between 2am and 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.
Did you know that wakefulness, light sleeping and insomnia (not being able to get back to sleep) is linked to your changing reproductive hormones during menopause.
When oestrogen starts to decline, so too does our beautiful sleep hormone called Melatonin. But there’s also other reasons for your sleep hormones to decline and it’s not just to do with low oestrogen – it’s to do with your transition into the next phase of your life and the changes to your powerful circadian rhythm at this stage of life too and how it becomes affected by our lifestyle.
When we aren’t sleeping, our symptoms can become worse. When you lie awake night after night, expecially between 2-4am, your body doesn’t heal overnight.
Joints become sore, muscles ache, your gut plays up and for those of you putting on weight, you struggle to lose your belly-fat and your hot flushes can become worse too. Those of you trying to strength train as Angela does, find that performance can drop-off too. Menopause HRT and supplements might kick in for a while, but eventually many of these don’t work well either. It’s frustrating. You start to lose hope which is what happened to me as well.
However, through my studies, I learnt that changing sleep and worsening symptoms in menopause doesn’t happen to all women, and I became curious as to why.
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. Angela in Cairns, had no idea either.
Insomnia is a major issue for women in menopause. As a women approaches menopause, the levels of oestrogen sharply decrease but so too, do melatonin levels. Melatonin is the hormone that helps to send us off to sleep. There is a complex interaction between oestrogen and melatonin and it’s nothing to do with our ovaries, but all to do with the pituitary gland in the brain and how the hormones produced in this gland become disrupted as we age.
In a region of the brain called the hypothalamus, we all have a gland called the pineal gland. It’s tiny but powerful, because it acts as a central circadian (night/day) pacemaker. It regulates the circadian timing, including the sleep/ wake rhythm in humans. In mammals, the pineal gland is steered by our nervous system, which activates the release of melatonin. Light turns off the secretion of melatonin by the pineal gland and darkness turns on the secretion of melatonin. That’s how this powerful gland controls our sleep/ wake cycle and to ignore this during menopause can throw us into symptom chaos.
It’s so important to turn around our sleep habits specific to our menopause transition, that it’s why, the very first module that women listen to when they come onto either of the MyMT™ programmes is how to sleep all night again. If we aren’t sleeping, our hot flushes and night sweats become worse and so too does our weight and joint health.
Ageing is typically associated with impairments of the circadian rhythm and a natural decrease in melatonin secretion. And that’s what I tell women in my seminars – menopause is the natural transition into our ageing, but we still feel young! However, inside our body there are powerful changes occurring that affect us and understanding how to slow these changes down using lifestyle strategies is important. When we do, we can resolve our symptoms, lose weight, improve mood and feel fabulous in our fifties all without diving into worsening health in post-menopause!
Understanding that the lifestyle we’ve been leading for years affects our circadian rhythm and melatonin secretion is powerful knowledge to consider as we go through menopause.
Changes in melatonin levels and production can cause numerous effects around the body because melatonin is a regulator of numerous physiological, cell biological functions, not only via the circadian system, but also by direct stimulatory effects in practically every organ in the body. (Jehan, S, Giardin, J-, et al. 2017).
When we don’t sleep, we aren’t restoring and rejuvenating our body and mind. 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, our 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 and allow muscle to grow. So, for those of you doing lots of higher intensity exercise or you are weight training as Angela in Cairns has done for years, then not sleeping may be causing your performance to drop and your muscles and joints to remain sore for longer after training. Every day I see hundreds of messages on my facebook pages about sore joints and menopause. What women don’t understand is how this is connected to our changing sleep and low melatonin, not just our changing levels of oestrogen.
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, … and then over time, your brain and your hormones are now reading this as your ‘new normal’. The weeks and months of not sleeping, turn into years.
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. Then nothing we do to lose weight works.
If this is you, as it was with Jo, then the very first thing you need to focus on is your circadian rhythm. Because as you go through menopause and if this clashes with your lifestyle, your circadian rhythm gets out of balance too.
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. 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, your joints don’t heal, your muscles don’t repair, your hot flushes stay with you and your depression and hopelessness doesn’t go away.
Our changing menopause hormones cause disruption to our normal circadian rhythms, so as we transition into or through menopause, it’s really important to restore this biological rhythm and make adjustments to get us back sleeping all night. How to achieve this is in the 12 week online MyMT™ programmes as well as other powerful strategies that will help you to feel like your old-self again. Sleeping all night is the start. If we don’t, then over time, our brain and body start to read this 2-3am ‘awake’ period as ‘normal’.
When women restore their sleep, they restore their energy levels, their joints heal and their hot flushes and night sweats reduce too. Oh, and they also lose weight if they are overweight. They do indeed “feel like a different person.”
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 the fabulous MyMT™ programmes, which I originally designed for me, but they are now available for you too. I hope you can join me if you need to.
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. 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.
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