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For women in menopause, sleeping better* IS possible with a few lifestyle adjustments.
The hard truth is that as we age, falling and staying asleep becomes much more difficult than when we were young. Until recently, we accepted that it is normal to sleep less and sleep poorly as we get older. However, sleep scientists are discovering, contrary to our past beliefs, older women (and men too) need as much sleep as when they were younger – it’s just harder to achieve.
A good sleep is essential for good mental and physical health in the short term and long term.
Sleep is a conundrum to many of us. It used to be easy. Its purpose is to refresh and rejuvenate us. When we were young, we could study all night, or go to a party, or the gym, or whatever, and fall asleep within 5 minutes or less and stay asleep until it was time to go to work or school.
As we age, certain activities, responsibilities and chemical changes in our brain affect how we sleep. It seems as if all the stars to need to be aligned for us to have that perfect, refreshing, and rejuvenating night’s sleep. The bottom line is that most of us have to work a lot harder to achieve a good night's sleep.
Estrogen decline: a big one for many of us since estrogen controls so many aspects of sleep from core body temperature to a calm mind.
Sedentary life: a sedentary life leads to poorer sleep as we aren’t able to exercise enough to build up the “sleep pressure.”
Staying indoors: Our circadian rhythm is affected by being indoors all the time. We need exposure to natural daylight for approximately two hours every day in order to reset our circadian clocks.
Increasing responsibilities: On top of all that, as we get older we become the “sandwich generation,” caring for our children and our parents, on top of increasing work demands. These responsibilities can cause our minds to run wild the minute our head hits the pillow and we settle in for the night.
All of these issues can affect our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
The good news is that you can get your sleep back on track and there are even certified sleep specialists out there who can help you if you can't do it on your own.
One of the biggest problems is a racing mind.
You can seek help from a psychologist to learn techniques (called cognitive behavioural therapy) to help you calm your racing mind so you don't become dependent on sleep aids (sleep aids are not recommended to use over the long term), or you can learn to meditate to clear and calm your mind.
Learning these techniques takes time and practice. Patience and diligence is necessary but you're persistent you will see a noticeable improvement in your sleep - or at least your ability to control your racing mind.
In the short term, you can try some other techniques that may improve your sleep right away. The suggestions below are meant to be practiced every night, not just until your sleep "gets fixed." Your body will tell you what works best - you may not need to include all of them.
Results the very next morning?
You may see results tomorrow morning, or in a few days, or weeks. Everyone's body reacts differently and will respond to some actions better than others.
Your goal is to aim for 7-9 hours per night of solid sleep per night. The idea is to lower your core body temperature, and keep it low until it’s close to waking up.
To implement these strategies successfully, a consistent bedtime and wake-up time is important, including on weekends or your days off.
What and when you eat and drink play a big part in the mechanics of sleep, especially as we age. This is a much more involved subject which we can get into another time.
One the biggest factors to a poor sleep is caffeine consumption. Try cutting back on caffeine and have your last cup before noon. If you're really sensitive to it, you may have to cut it out altogether.
If possible, switch your big meal to lunch and eat lighter at night. Digesting a large, heavy meal a few hours before bed will get your body working overtime, just when it’s time for you to wind down. Try eating your bigger meal at lunch and eating a smaller, lighter meal at dinner such as soup and salad.
You may be familiar with the research showing how alcohol interferes with sleep. The bottom line is that your last alcoholic drink should be no more than 3 hours before bed. Cut it out completely if possible and you will start seeing a noticeable improvement within 3-6 weeks. In the long run you will see a vastly improved sleep.
If you suffer from night sweats and enjoy a soothing herbal tea or moon milk at night, drink it about an hour before bed as the hot drink can trigger night sweats.
While exercise is beneficial to your overall health and wellbeing, exercising too close to bedtime will put your body back into alert mode, instead of telling it it's time to wind down. Intense exercise should be done no more than 3 hours before bed.
Take a warm shower or soak in a hot tub for 20 minutes before bed. Open those blood vessels and get the blood moving to the surface. It helps lower your core body temperature and signals to your brain that it’s time to sleep.
Keep your room as cold. Sleep scientists recommend 60-72F/18-22C. I like a room that’s about 60F/15C - 22 is way too warm for me.
When it’s time to sleep, cold is great for both your brain and your body temperature. The cold signals that it’s time to go to sleep, but it also keeps the night sweats at bay. I sleep so much better in the winter than in the summer because of the cold temperature (I can’t say my husband is all that thrilled about sleeping in a room the temperature of a refrigerator, but what can you do?).
It may be surprising to discover that fabric can influence how well you sleep, but, in fact, it can have a significant impact on your sleep quality. Non-breathable, non-moisture and heat-managing fabric will lock in any heat your body produces during the night and keep it next to you.
If you suffer from night sweats, this means that your body gives off bursts of heat and sweat erratically, throughout the night. If your sleepwear and sheets can’t manage all that activity, you will be waking up often and soaked, or cover-flipping all night long and not getting a quality sleep.
Ideally, your sleepwear and sheets should be made from a fabric that’s actively moisture and heat managing. If you prefer sleeping in the nude, your sheets become your sleepwear, so you really want them to respond to your body temperature changes.
For sleepwear, we like our own hemp/organic cotton night dress (naturally 😉), but sleepwear made from linen and lyocell is also acceptable. Just look at the labels on the side of the garment to see what the fabric is (hangtags aren't always accurate).
For bedding, high-quality cotton with a lower thread count (250-300 is best), hemp/cotton, linen or lyocell sheets are ideal. Use a breathable duvet in the winter or a breathable blanket in the summer.
Turn off all electronics and get them out of your room. Unplug your TV if you have one in your room to get rid of the little red light. Lower your lighting in your bedroom. Extra lighting stimulates your brain and tells it it’s not bedtime yet.
Experts recommend that you reserve your bed for two functions: sleep and sex. Resist bringing work to bed or watching TV or playing video games. All of those activities can be stimulating and signal to your brain that it’s time to play, not time to sleep.
You’re not supposed to read, either – however, in my own experience, reading is a signal to my brain that it’s bedtime. I’ve been doing it all my life. I barely get through 3 to 4 pages before I can’t keep my eyes open. So, yes, it takes me about 7 months to read a book….unless I get to an exciting part – and then it stimulates my brain and I need to keep reading into the night. Reading in bed is a double-edged sword. Choose really boring books for a better chance at falling asleep.
A good night’s sleep is important for our overall health and well-being. Good sleep leads to better decisions during the day, a better diet, better exercise and better heart health. Long term it can help us avoid dementia, maintain healthy blood pressure and cardiac health.
Getting a good sleep as we age is essential but more challenging. If you sleep poorly, commit yourself to sleeping better starting tonight.
We hope our tips will help you on your journey.
Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker
The Wisdom of Menopause by Christiane Northup
*We are NOT a medical site. Please use the tips we provide for reference only and use your own judgement if any of these actions don’t feel right to you. Consult with sleep professionals and/or your healthcare practitioner if you have chronic sleep deprivation - it is a situation that should not be ignored.