It comes up on you suddenly doesn’t it? For years, you’ve slept all night – exhausted with all that you had to get done in your day, your head would hit the pillow and you’d sleep until your alarm went off in the morning. Now that you’re going through menopause, I bet you can only imagine what those blissful nights used to feel like.
Menopause-related insomnia starts slowly. At first you put it down to late nights, stress at work or in the home or whatever other excuse comes into your head. But then after a while, it dawns on your (excuse the pun), that it’s more than just a one-off nightly insomnia moment. It’s been going on for days, weeks, even months. Some of you blame having to get up and use the bathroom for your insomnia (and yes, you can turn this around too), but when you return to your bed you still can’t fall asleep. Every day becomes a battle of exhaustion, worsening muscle pain and brain fog. Not many of you may relate it to menopause. Some of you are only in your early 40’s as well – “it can’t be menopause” you think.
There’s a common belief among many sport and fitness enthusiasts that regular exercise helps them to sleep better. After all, the late James Fixx, in his book, ‘The Complete Book of Running’, which helped to foster the running revolution in the 1980’s stated, “After a run, you’ll sleep more soundly, lose weight if you need to and feel better than you have for years.” If James Fixx was still alive, I would tell him, that no, if you are in peri-menopause or menopause, not even an invigorating run will help you to sleep all night. You see, I tried that too.
Insomnia is defined by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) as “the perception or complaint of inadequate or poor-quality sleep”. Characteristics include –
- difficulty falling asleep
- waking up frequently during the night with difficulty returning to sleep
- waking up too early in the morning
- un-refreshing sleep.
Unfortunately, many of these characteristics have become normalised for people the world over. Including women in menopause and post-menopause.
But here’s the thing. Menopause is not the issue. All women go through this life-stage. As I often say to women attending my live events, “Menopause is the biological gateway to our ageing. The issue with our symptoms is that we have been forgotten about in terms of understanding how to change our lifestyle to allow our body to accommodate hormonal changes as we move through mid-life.”
Menopause is the transition into our normal biological ageing and as such, our sleepless nights are not being examined in the context of our changing hormones AND the changes that are occurring around our cells and tissues as a normal part of ageing. As I found myself, if we don’t examine our lifestyle in the context of menopause hormonal changes, then this time of life fast becomes a ticking time-bomb for changing health as we age.
For example, women going through menopause are the highest group to develop the condition called Fibromyalgia – a disorder characterised by widespread muscle-pain. As well, many women find that despite eating well and exercising daily, they continue to put on belly-fat in mid-life. But most fail to understand that when we don’t sleep, we don’t fat-burn overnight. This is why in the MyMT™ 12 week online programmes, I don’t encourage women to do too much heavy exercise if they aren’t sleeping. Because if they aren’t sleeping, they aren’t recovering.
A night’s sleep consists of four or five cycles, each of which progresses through several stages. Each stage produces specific brain patterns that alternate between between non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The entire cycle of NREM and REM sleep takes around 90 minutes. In an ideal world healthy adult women are biologically programmed to go through around five full cycles of sleep which should take between 7-8 hours with around 20% of this being in REM sleep. ‘Oh how nice that would be’, I hear you think! And for those of you concerned about your sleep quality during the pandemic, then yes, this is a concern, because deep sleep activates our immune system. That’s also why for those of you doing lots of higher intensity exercise or if you are weight training as Tineke was, then not sleeping may be causing your performance to drop and your muscles and joints to remain sore for longer after training.
By age 70 years, the total sleep time decreases to around 6 hours with an increased number of awakenings. This is why my goal with all the women on the MyMT™ programmes, is to restore their sleep before it gets worse as they get older. Women in post-menopause, please take note! You can turn around your sleep as well. This is from Iris – she is 72 years old and said she hadn’t had a good sleep for over 20 years!
The Connection between Menopause and Not Sleeping:
When oestrogen starts to decline, so too does our beautiful sleep hormone called Melatonin. This occurs as a natural transition into our ageing years. However, if we don’t try to improve our natural melatonin production, then because all of our hormones ‘talk’ to each other, there is a spin-off effect between our thyroid, stress and gut hormones too. If you have developed an irritable gut or you are feeling more anxious, then you can blame not sleeping on these symptoms as well.
For millions of women around the world, not sleeping during their menopause transition, sends them spiraling into more health chaos as they age. Not sleeping leads to ongoing inflammation in our muscles, joints, pancreas and heart. It’s partly why women end up with sore joints, aching muscles, more hot flushes and feeling bad tempered too. But you can turn all this health chaos around and I explain more about how to do this in my online Masterclass on Menopause, which I tell you about in the short video below.
Un-raveling the science of not sleeping specific to our menopause transition, took me hundreds of hours of study, but I was so determined to understand why I wasn’t sleeping, despite the endless supplements and HRT. 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.
Getting deep, restorative sleep (between 2-4am), is also important to reduce our night sweats as well. When we sleep more deeply, blood flow is directed less toward your brain, which cools measurably. Your temperature regulation mechanisms are situated in your brain too. But the main thing about our deep sleep is that during this time of the night, the pituitary gland releases a pulse of growth hormone that stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair. That’s why, when we are lying awake between 2 and 4am, this release of growth hormone does not reach the threshold it needs to for healing and repairing our body. This is why I hear from so many women who don’t understand that their sore muscles and joints are due to not just low oestrogen, but also to not sleeping!
But there’s more to this story too – and that’s to do with our menopause weight gain. There are hundreds of diets for women in menopause, that only focus on food, but it’s not about food! 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. This is one of the main causes of insomnia and weight gain in menopause too because when insulin remains higher than normal, we don’t fat-burn overnight – we also wake up!
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. Lack of sufficient sleep disrupts 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!
If you are struggling with your sleep, then please don’t despair! Because I want to share with you my 3 top reasons why you aren’t sleeping in menopause:
- Your Circadian Rhythm is out of balance. 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.
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’.
2. Your thyroid hormones are out of balance. Because of the powerful link between your pituitary hormones in your brain and your thyroid hormones, and 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 your thyroid hormones that control your blood pressure, heat regulation, stress levels and moods. These get out of balance too and it’s why, when you address your circadian rhythm and you ensure that you get adequate iodine and folate in your diet, from leafy greens, fish, salmon, seaweed products and other food sources, your thyroid re-balances too. Iodine-rich foods help to balance your thyroid as you move through menopause too.
3. Inflammation builds up as we age, including in our nervous system. When we all lead such busy lives, it’s so important to get our sleep sorted as we move into menopause. I can’t reiterate this enough. As I often mention in my seminars, when we have been waking up night after night, then our brain and body reads this as our ‘new normal’. But this is what leads us down the path towards the build-up of inflammation in our cells and tissues. Not sleeping is now recognised as one of the main contributing factors to changing health as we move into our post-menopause years and for women going into post-menopause, the concern is the rising statistics for heart disease. The United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have some of the highest incidence of post-menopause heart disease globally. America is up there too. But here’s the thing – if we aren’t sleeping, our heart and immune system stay under stress all day long, particularly, when we are regular exercisers or we have busy, stressful jobs or home environments.
We all know the great energy and vitality we feel when we sleep all night. We do indeed “feel like a different person.”
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. This starts with not sleeping well.
With another 20-30 years of living ahead of us, I am passionate that women turn around their sleep, weight and other symptoms as they go through menopause.
How to achieve this as well as learning how to restore your liver health, change your nutrition to suit your menopause transition and improve your energy, is all in two fabulous 12 week online step-by-step coaching programmes that you do in your time, at your pace, with my support. The Circuit Breaker programme is for you if you are thinner/ leaner and the Transform Me programme is for you if you are overweight and struggling to lose weight.
You also can contact me anytime if something needs to be adjusted to better suit your situation as I know that we are all different in terms of how we live our lives. My private coaching community on Facebook is part of your transformation too – there are hundreds of women just like you who now feel supported and more knowledgeable about what is really going on during our menopause transition.
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. During the pandemic, you can also use the promo code ATHOME20 to join me on savings of NZ$50. This makes any of the programmes, NZ$249 instead of $299.
Join me when you can. It would be my privilege to support you.
Wendy Sweet, PhD/ MyMT™ Founder and Lifestyle Coach/ Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine.
Normally these three programmes are available for NZ$299 each but as my way to support each and every one of you during your own personal coronavirus lock-down all programmes are now NZ$100 off so that’s NZ$199 (AU$195* or £99*) or 3 payments of NZ$71.67 each.
* exchange rate may differ on the day
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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.