Better sleep in midlife starts with an hour or so to spare, tucking into a good book. The dinner dishes are washed and put away. I’ve cleaned my face and brushed my teeth. I have a glass of water on my nightstand.
My husband reads next to me. We’re no longer discussing the news because we have a rule—no politics or world events after 9 pm. I’m not checking email or opening my laptop because “just another few minutes” easily turns into an hour. Plus, going online revs me up when I should be slowing down. My body feels heavy. The house is quiet.
One of the first symptoms to show up in perimenopause and menopause is sleep disturbance, and I’ve had to dial in my nighttime routine because of it. A former night owl, I fell into bed at midnight and lived on six hours of sleep for most of my adult life—a habit I started in college. I felt fatigue but it wasn’t until my early 50s that I began to see other adverse effects. My weight crept up. I experienced night sweats that disturbed the little sleep I had, and this triggered anxiety. I’d lie awake in bed for a couple hours worrying about adult children, work, the state of the world.
According to our recent survey, 63% of symptomatic pre- and post-menopausal women want better sleep in midlife. There are roughly 32 million midlife women in our country, which means close to 20 million aren’t seeping well at night.
What’s happening to us?
I’d like to introduce you to the link between the “stress hormone” cortisol and better sleep in midlife.
According to certified midwife and author Susan Willson, sleep “is one of the first things to go” in midlife, and preparing for a good night’s rest actually begins as we start the day.
How often do we rush through the morning, sit in traffic, endure a packed work schedule, and get lunch on the run? We may be too tired to cook, get takeout for dinner, and watch Netflix instead of exercise. Some of us also have school-age children to care for, or aging parents. Or both.
Stress we might have “handled” at an earlier age becomes less tolerable in midlife. The adrenal glands, which sit on top of our kidneys, typically pump out cortisol to provide energy for moment-to-moment activities. They also regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, and assist with immunity and decreasing inflammation. But chronic stress prompts a flood of cortisol, which triggers our sympathetic nervous system—”the fight or flight” response—to kick into overdrive.
During menopause, when the ovaries slow the production of estrogen and progesterone, the adrenal glands (along with fat cells) take over hormone production. If your adrenals are fatigued by producing cortisol, your body doesn’t have access to other hormones (like estrogen) that you need to live and sleep well.
What can you do about it?
- Aspire to a human-scale life. All creatures—including humans—have instinctive, natural rhythms. We’re not built to work and worry all day. The sympathetic nervous system “fight or flight” should alternate with the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows us to “rest and digest.”
- Exercise in the morning. When you exercise at night, especially after a stressful day, cortisol rises in the body. Though it does decline eventually, more cortisol at the end of the day can interfere with circadian rhythms, possibly interrupting sleep.
- Question structures that demand more than you can give. Consider not only your habits, but your thoughts about what you can do in a day because menopause lowers our capacity for stress. Are you living at a speed that’s unsustainable? Do you have too much on your plate? Decide what’s important and drop (or share responsibility) for what isn’t.
- Shut down the electronics before 9 pm. Watching television with stressful scenes has been known to increase cortisol in viewers. Engaging in work by checking email can do the same.
- Get to sleep by 10 or 10:30 pm. When your body is healthy, cortisol rises naturally in the morning to give you energy to start the day. It also falls naturally around 10 pm, encouraging your body to sleep. If you stay up later, cortisol levels begin to rise again, making sleep lighter and more likely to be disturbed. Since the adrenals do their repair in the deepest stage of sleep, late nights hinder repair and throw off the body’s natural rhythm for wake and rest.
Eight uninterrupted hours can feel life changing. With enough sleep, I wake easily in the morning light and curl into my husband. I notice the spring breeze that moves the window shade, and the birdsong outside. I’m better able to pay better attention and tend to the things and people who matter, including myself, throughout the day.
Do you have health symptoms or beliefs about midlife that are sabotaging your happiness? Sign up for “30 Minutes to a Manageable (and Magical) Midlife,” an audio training and two guides that will deliver you from gloom to hope.