Many of us midlifers suffer from occasional sleep problems. Among women, hot flashes is a common reason behind a bad night’s sleep, but there are other reasons, too.
There it comes again, right through your sleep and wakes you up again—a hot flash. By now you know the drill: You throw off the covers, get up and open the window (or go and stick your head in the fridge). And then you just wait. A few minutes later, the hot flash is gone and you can go back to bed.
Except that now, of course, you’re awake. Wide awake. It’s 2.30 AM, your alarm is set to go off at 6.30 AM so the pressure is on. “I must get to sleep right now, otherwise I’ll be a zombie all day,” you say to yourself and immediately feel yet another, all-too-familiar rush: adrenaline. And that’s it, now you know that you’ll probably fall asleep approximately 6.10—only to be woken up again 20 minutes later.
Sound familiar? Welcome to the world of a middle-aged woman.
Nearly 80% of women suffer from hot flashes
When discussing sleep disturbances among the middle-aged, night sweats and the havoc they wreak is the most obvious topic that is addressed, and quite understandably so: According to the National Sleep Foundation, up to 80% of menopausal women suffer from hot flashes, and approximately 25% have them for the duration of five years.
The bad news for some of us is that hot flashes can last much, much longer. According to a menopause study among 3302 women in the United States, hot flashes can persist as long as 14 years. Fourteen long years of bad sleep—what a nightmare!
Menopause, however, is not the only thing causing us to have poor-quality sleep. There are many other reasons why middle-aged women, as well as men, find themselves staring at their bedroom ceilings when the rest of the world sleeps.
Midlife changes in our sleep architecture
First of all, as we age, our sleep architecture changes. We go to bed earlier and wake up earlier. It takes us longer to go to sleep after turning in. We sleep fewer hours and the sleep is more broken than before. Our sleep cycles of non-REM And REM sleep become shorter and fewer.
Many say that older adults don’t even need as much sleep as younger ones, so what is the problem, you might think. The most current evidence, however, suggests otherwise. We need as much sleep as before but for various reasons we can’t.
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Health-related issues at midlife
Illness, of course, can ruin our sleep completely, and not all illnesses—or smaller aches and pains—are in our control. We might suffer from sleep apnea or restless legs. We might have heartburn or an overactive bladder. Or perhaps anxiety or depression is keeping us awake. The listed problems are among the most common sleep issues, but the list could, of course, go on forever.
So, not all problems are in our control, but fortunately, there still is a lot that we can do to improve our sleep. Alcohol, for instance, is famous for its ability to ruin the quality of our sleep. So, keep it under control and avoid drinking before bedtime.
Exercise is good for us and can greatly improve the quality of our sleep. We’ve been told, that we shouldn’t exercise too vigorously and too close to bedtime. That advice, however, could be dated. Many find that the time of day doesn’t make any difference.
Stay attuned to your circadian rhythms
Our melatonin levels rise at nights, signalling our bodies that it’s time to go to bed. We all have a bedtime window, an optimal time to go to sleep.
If at all possible, try to stay true to your window and go to bed when it’s open because if you miss it, cortisol (often referred to as stress hormone) could keep you awake until the early hours.
—And what about that menopause and those night sweats?
There is no shortage online of tips and tricks on how to manage those awful hot flashes: We are advised to turn off heating, open windows, wear less, not exercise too close to bedtime, avoid caffeine and spicy foods, quit smoking, meditate and reduce stress in general—the list goes on
It’s all good advice and a lot of it will benefit us whether we’re suffering from night sweats or not.
However, HRT, particularly estrogen, is by far the most effective treatment for hot flashes. Due to an elevated breast cancer risk, not all are willing to choose this option: A recent meta-analysis of 58 studies that included 500,000 postmenopausal women, states that In western countries there have been about 20 million breast cancers diagnosed since 1990, of which about 1 million would have been caused by MHT use.
Suggested reading: Let’s talk about midlife sexual desire
And if we don’t get enough sleep…
It’s not good news, according to a new piece of research on midlife sleep disturbances. The study that followed 3,400 people suggests that middle-aged people who have trouble getting a good night’s sleep, are more likely to develop cognitive impairment.
A lack of sleep can also make us more prone to colds and cases of flu as it disrupts our immune systems. If the sleep problems persist for a long time, we will risk developing even more serious issues, such as heart conditions, obesity and diabetes.
We also become more irritable and prone to accidents. At worst, long-lasting sleep deprivation can trigger anxiety and depression. And as anxiety and depression might also keep you awake, this would be a detrimental cycle.
Lastly, in an attempt to avoid finishing off on such a grim note:
There is a lot that we can do to improve our sleep by maintaining a healthy and regular lifestyle. There also are many ways that healthcare professionals can help us out if our own methods and remedies fail to provide sufficient improvement.