By Shalini Hitkari
As women enter midlife, they are met with a magnitude of new health-related challenges and changes. The most disruptive of these can be long, sleepless nights.
Even though women entering this transitional period of life often require more sleep, many suffer from insomnia: difficulty falling asleep, trouble staying asleep or inadequate quality of sleep.
This lack of restorative sleep brings with it a significant change in quality of life as it creates a compounding effect on the other symptoms of menopause.
As most of us have experienced before in our lives, lack of sleep can lead us to become more moody and fatigued. We find ourselves suffering from diminished concentration, lack of motivation, errors in judgment, anxiety, and we may even experience depression.
Menopausal women commonly find themselves in dire need of assistance in achieving quality sleep and turn to prescription and over-the-counter medications. These sleep aids are usually addictive. Also, over time, we build up a tolerance for them and they begin to lose their effectiveness. Many prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids have numerous side effects which include, but are not limited to, drowsiness, confusion, and forgetfulness.
They also have the potential to have serious interactions with other prescription medications. There are many alternatives to prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids, including natural sleep aids, healthier lifestyle choices and managing menopausal symptoms.
In order to treat insomnia effectively, the contributing factors have to be addressed. Changes in hormone levels, body temperature fluctuations, decreased level of activity, and stress all have the potential to alter sleep patterns.
Insomnia experienced during menopause is often related to hot flashes and night sweats, as well as depression and anxiety. Sleep is very dependent on body temperature.
As our body temperature falls, we become less active and drowsy. As it rises, we become more alert and wakeful. This explains why hot flashes and night sweats are so disruptive to sleep.
Even though the exact physiology behind why women are prone to night sweats during menopause is still unknown, many effective treatments have been found to lessen them including the use of bioflavonoids, evening primrose oil, vitamin E and soy isoflavones.
Another factor that may contribute to insomnia is blood sugar. Our brain’s main source of energy is the sugar floating around in our blood and, when our blood sugar level drops, the body responds by releasing adrenaline from our adrenal glands to push the blood sugar level back up.
With the release of adrenaline come sensations of anxiety and wakefulness. Ways to help ensure your blood sugar is not a contributing factor to your sleep disturbance is to eat frequent meals during the day, not go to bed hungry, and to avoid consuming a simple carbohydrate snack just before bed.
Here are some tips to help you start to improve the quality of your sleep. Create an environment in your room that is soothing and conducive to sleep. Try to eliminate any natural and artificial sources of light in order to sleep in complete darkness.
Establish a relaxing bedtime routine and go to bed at the same time every night. Avoid watching television, working on the computer, playing electronic games or using your cell phone during the thirty minutes prior to commencing your bedtime routine. Avoid stimulants such as sugar and caffeine and make sure to get regular physical activity.
Insomnia is a serious health issue that should be addressed. Work alongside with your healthcare practitioner to address factors contributing to your insomnia and to establish an individualized treatment protocol.
Dr. Shalini Hitkari is a Naturopathic Physician at the Vancouver Island Naturopathic Clinic and Integrated Health in Victoria, B.C. This article was first published in the Sept/Oct'10 issue of the Herbal Collective magazine.