March is Sleep Awareness Month.
Do you toss and turn all night? Do you wake up before dawn and can’t fall back to sleep? Do you have trouble drifting off?
As women age and experience different phases of life, hormonal changes can disrupt both sleep quantity and quality, impacting mental and physical health. The good news? There’s a lot you can do to improve your sleep with just a few tweaks to your lifestyle.
According to a recent study, midlife women should aim to get seven hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night. Just like eating healthy and exercising regularly, getting enough sleep should top your list of healthy habits. But with the stresses of daily life — and physical curveballs, including menopause — how can you boost your chance of getting adequate, quality sleep on a consistent basis?
It starts with healthy sleep habits. If you’re struggling to fall asleep — or stay asleep — bad sleep habits might be the culprit. If so, consider giving your sleep hygiene habits a reboot.
We asked The Sleep Doctor, Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, to share his top healthy sleep habits for catching quality ZZZs.
Forget about “weekend catch-up sleep.” Quality sleep is all about consistency. “If possible, wake up based on your chronotype — your internal genetic sleep schedule,” Breus said. Keep in mind that you don’t choose your chronotype. It chooses you. “Your body has a preferred time it likes to wake up and go to bed,” Breus said, such as an early bird or night owl. (Take this quiz to discover your chronotype.) But your chronotype changes over time. “As women approach and enter menopause, they start waking up slightly earlier than they normally would,” Breus said. This affects both sleep quantity and quality.
Breus pointed out that, compared to younger women who typically experience the highest sleep quality, older women tend to sleep fewer hours per night. Meaning, because of physical changes in the body as women age, they naturally start waking up earlier — even if they don’t want to. That’s why Breus stresses the importance of keeping to a consistent wake-up time, even if this wake-up time changes as women age. For example, if, in your 50s, you’re now automatically waking up at 6 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. (like you did in your 40s), don’t try to “sleep in” on the weekend to play catch-up. The 6 a.m. becomes your “new normal.”
What you do during the day sets the stage for better sleep at night, and it starts with your morning wake-up habits. Simple things like getting exposure to light, moving your body and taking deep breaths help your body transition from feeling sleepy to feeling awake. And, according to the National Sleep Foundation, healthy daytime habits also lead to lower stress levels and better overall health. And the National Alliance of Mental Illness says that a good morning routine can increase your energy, productivity and positivity.
Sit up, swing your legs over the side of the bed and take 15 slow, deep breaths. This wakes up the respiratory system and helps bring you to the present.Drink a glass of water to help replace the full liter of water you lose during sleep through your breath, sweat and oils from your skin. Walk over to a window or (ideally, walk outside) and get 15 minutes of direct sunlight without sunglasses. (But don’t stare directly at the sun!) This helps turn off the melatonin faucet in your head and helps erase brain fog in the morning.
Caffeine has a half-life of between six and eight hours, meaning half of it remains in your system after that period of time. For example, if you drink three cups of coffee throughout the day (the last one at 2 p.m.), roughly 50% of that caffeine is still in your body at 10 p.m. Breus said caffeine significantly affects your ability to enter slow-wave sleep, or deep sleep, so not only can you not fall asleep, but you’ll have poor sleep quality. “Women going through menopause tend to feel exhausted, so they might over-caffeinate,” Breus said. Stopping caffeine by 2 p.m. at least gives you a fighting chance. This holds true for any caffeinated food or drink, including coffee, tea, soda and especially energy drinks.
Ditto for alcohol. Stop alcohol three hours before bed and limit yourself to two drinks. “Alcohol is the number-one sleep aid in the world,” Breus said, citing how more people drink themselves to sleep than anything else they do to help them fall asleep. This is problematic because alcohol negatively affects sleep. “Alcohol initially gives you some slow-wave sleep, but then it bottoms out and you lose a lot of REM [rapid eye movement] sleep,” he said. REM sleep plays an important role in learning, storing memories and stabilizing your mood.
You should exercise daily for many reasons, and Breus said that it’s one of the easiest ways to improve sleep quality. Why? Because exercise helps you fall asleep faster, enjoy more restorative sleep and wake up less frequently. “However, if it’s too close to bedtime — within four hours — it increases core body temperature,” Breus said. To fall asleep, your core body temperature must go down, not up — hence the fitness cut-off point.
Shifting estrogen levels during perimenopause can contribute to a range of symptoms (think hot flashes, night sweats and mood changes), all of which can interfere with sleep. To alleviate sleep-disrupting hot flashes, Breus suggested keeping the bedroom temperature cool, turning on fans and using lightweight bedding. Other cool tips: Avoid taking a hot bath or shower right before bedtime, wear loose clothing made of natural fiber to bed, and avoid eating spicy foods (they might trigger sweating).
According to Harvard Medical School, exposure to any light stops your body from producing melatonin, a hormone that affects your sleep/wake cycle, which is known as the circadian rhythm. But the blue light emitted from electronic devices (such as cell phones, tablets and TVs) affects the production of melatonin even more. Aim to put away your devices about two to three hours before bedtime to limit your blue light exposure.
Just like a morning routine helps you wake up, a nighttime routine helps your body and brain transition to sleep. Incorporate some personal hygiene habits (like brushing your teeth and washing your face) with some relaxing self-care habits. Some people enjoy meditating, reading a book, practicing gentle yoga or stretching, or listening to calming music. Find what works best for your needs.
Following this sleep hygiene checklist can help improve your ability to drift off to get a good night’s sleep and wake up feeling refreshed the next morning.