It isn’t solely a problem for women in middle age, and nor is it solely a problem for women. Insomnia, sleep deprivation, and the need to improve sleeping habits are all part of a nationwide dilemma, as you have no doubt read many times.
However, adequate sleep is definitely a challenge for women, in particular as we hit midlife. Attempting to revise my own sleeping routines to improve both quality and quantity of sleep is — and has been — an ongoing drama. Consequently, I thought a “sleep makeover” would make a worthy topic.
Some of the recommendations that follow are the usual suspects — bed at a regular hour, reducing caffeine — along with research you may find informative.
And, I hope to solicit your input relative to how you score your much needed Vitamin Zzzs, especially if, like me, you’re juggling an overfilled plate when it comes to commitments.
Women and Sleep
The point above about women and sleep?
Some sources say that women are twice as likely as men to have trouble getting to sleep, and the National Sleep Foundation reminds us of some of the reasons that more women report symptoms of insomnia than men:
Certain phases of the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause can all contribute uniquely to women’s sleep troubles. Sometimes, these biological changes disrupt sleep, but then unhealthy sleep habits maintain the pattern.
This same article points out that sleep disturbances can also be the result of depression, which raises the issue of the work-life balance concerns that women bear to a disproportionate degree. How many work-for-pay mothers and stay-at-home mothers are cutting dangerously into their night’s sleep? How often do women lie awake at night worrying about children and grandchildren? How often are we rising extra early to get a “jump” on the day — in part because of the nature and extensiveness of responsibilities we’re carrying?
How Many Ways Can We All Count Sheep?
eMedicine.net provides baseline information on women and sleeping problems, noting that:
The most common sleep problem in women is insomnia. This includes trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or early awakening, and inability to resume sleep. Other common sleep disorders are sleep-disordered breathing, restless legs syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, and narcolepsy.
I will also refer you to Web MD’s definition of REM and non-REM sleep, and this snippet on why adequate sleep is so critical:
During the deep stages of NREM sleep, the body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system… As you get older, you sleep more lightly and get less deep sleep. Aging is also linked to shorter time spans of sleep, although studies show you still need as much sleep as when you were younger.
(I’m making mental notes as the enormity of the challenge grows clearer. We have a harder time getting to sleep and staying asleep, but we need our sleep as much as ever.)
Chronic Sleep Deprivation = Bad News
Shall we add that prolonged periods of insufficient sleep leave our cognitive abilities scrambled?
Specifically, sleep deprivation impairs memory and concentration, along with mood, sex drive, and more. In fact, a 2013 New York Times article on chronic sleep deprivation pulls no punches, pointing out that “Chronic sleep deficiency has the potential to impact nearly all of our physiologic systems…”
As for menopausal and post-menopausal women, we know that lowered levels of estrogen can mean hot flashes and night sweats, neither of which are a recipe for sweet dreams.
eMedicineHealth.com tells us:
After menopause, women get less deep sleep and are more likely to awaken at night… There is also an increase on obstructive sleep apnea in post-menopausal women… Pain, grief, worry, certain medical conditions, medications, and breathing disorders may disturb sleep in menopausal and postmenopausal women.
Aging and Sleep Challenges
According to this article on changing sleep patterns as we age, it’s clear that we need to adjust expectations and possibly routines to achieve our much needed rest.
Compared to younger people, older adults: sleep fewer hours and take longer to fall asleep; sleep less deeply and wake up more often during the night; have more trouble adjusting to changes in sleeping conditions, such as a different bed; have changes in their sleep cycle; spend less time in the most restful stages of sleep.
As we grow a little older, we may also be grappling with bodily systems that don’t work the way they once did. Spicy wings at night? Fine at 35, but not so much 10 years later.
Tougher to adjust to — we may be dealing with concerns at middle age that include emergent or worsening sleep disorders, an unanticipated set of “life event” concerns, and obstructions to falling asleep and staying asleep like pain or depression. I will add that a partner who snores, however much you may love him, can be a significant impediment to a much needed night’s sleep. Solving that one may require delicate handling.
AARP on the “Worry” Factor
This AARP health article addresses reasons that women in their 50s in particular struggle to get sufficient sleep.
… For women in their 50s, it [insufficient sleep] could be a result of hormonal changes combined with the stress of work and family that may be disrupting sleep patterns.
I’m glad to see that AARP doesn’t shortchange this factor, which I believe deserves to be fully fleshed out. It’s damn difficult to find yourself caring for people on both ends of the spectrum — people you love — and caught in the consequences of a constant juggle that eats up your time both day and evening, and requires that you sacrifice a chunk of your sleep.
AARP goes on to describe women in their 50s as:
… a sandwiched group who has family, not only children but also probably elderly parents, but still you’re likely to be in the workforce, so you get squeezed at both ends in terms of family responsibility and job responsibility…
Worries about keeping our jobs if we still have them; our spouses, relationships or dating lives; changes in sexual desire and sexual marketability; physical changes that cause us psychological distress; issues to do with money…
Exercise and Sleep
Personally, I’ve always found that I sleep better when I’m getting regular exercise. But it never occurred to me that the timing of that exercise could be critical. I was surprised when I came upon this little nugget in another article on women and insomnia, also from the National Sleep Foundation:
One recent study found that overweight, post-menopausal women who exercise in the morning experience less difficulty falling asleep and better quality sleep than evening exercisers.
Before children, I did my daily walking at 5, 6, or 7 a.m. before my workday began. Once I was a working mother, the only time of day with the flexibility to exercise was typically in the evening, if at all. That habit stuck. I may need to reconsider walking that I usually do at 6 or 7pm that is good for my overall health, but lousy for my ability to sleep.
My Sleep Improvement Initiative
WebMD offers recommendations on coping with changing sleep patterns, many of which I’m sure you’ve heard, including:
Get regular exercise… Keep the bedroom cool, quiet, and dark… Get out of bed if you are unable to sleep, and do a quiet or boring activity until you feel sleepy… Follow the same evening and bedtime routines…
As I take those suggestions into account along with knowledge of my own opportunities and constraints, I’m working on a Sleep Improvement Initiative that I hope will bear fruit. My plan is as follows:
- Create a more relaxing atmosphere in my bedroom
- Be diligent about a new med that should ease pain and help with sleep
- Reduce caffeine (yet again); no coffee after 2pm
- Change the timing of my exercise to morning or midday
- Introduce a “regular” sleeping hour into my routine
- Do a better job of boundaries around work time and personal time
That first? A topic for another day.
Those last two items?
Sure to be the toughest for me, as I still have difficulty with “no” to competing demands for my time, and likewise when a client needs something from me.
A Note on the Societal Component
We shouldn’t ignore the societal elements or implications in this discussion. Sleep deprivation is a known problem, and one we typically slough off until the cumulative impacts have had their way with us in our culture of competing responsibilities, do more with less, job insecurity, and too few affordable options when it comes to childcare and eldercare.
For myself, I will simply say that I am frequently called upon to work long hours with little notice and across multiple time zones. As an independent worker, there is no such thing as paid time off or for that matter, a sick day. The result is the proverbial burning of the candle at both ends, and I can feel and see the negative impacts.
And the collective societal consequences?
How about the eventual increased burden on our healthcare system? How about the higher risk of accidents when sleep-deprived? How about the deleterious effects on quality of life?
Somehow, we must find a way to move sleep closer to the top of the priority list. I, for one, am going to try.
- Do you have problems falling asleep? Do you have problems staying asleep?
- What changes in habits to improve your sleep have worked for you? Do you have a bedtime routine?
- Are you using sleep aids — Over-The-Counter or prescribed — and do they help?
Enjoy more of the Makeover Series here.
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