Why Women Can’t Sleep

Did you know that being female is a risk factor for insomnia? It’s not fair, but it’s also not inevitable. Here’s how to strike back and sleep well.

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Even if sleeping soundly was easy in your 20s and early 30s, many women find that as their hormones begin to shift in their mid-30s, nights become more restless. In fact, nearly half of all American women find it harder to get a good night’s sleep once they hit perimenopause and menopause. If you’ve been chalking your sleepless nights up to the stress of a busy life, it may be more likely that the culprit is your hormones. But the good news is that you can take simple steps to get a handle on them and get back to the deep sleeps of your youth.

What’s happening to me?

  • Your 20s Well before menopause is on the horizon, melatonin (the natural chemical that regulates our internal clocks to help us fall asleep at night) is already starting to decline and dip with your menstrual cycle. As you grow older it continues to slow production, making it harder and harder to fall asleep.
  • Perimenopause The first big biological shift hits around 40 (though it can happen anywhere from 40 to 55) when the ovaries start slowing down production of estrogen and progesterone, both of which are hormones that promote sleep. This is when the simple act of falling asleep may start to seem like a major life achievement.
  • Menopause Over three-quarters of women in true menopause (which also can hit anywhere from ages 40 to 55) have hot flashes caused by the spiking and falling of estrogen and progesterone levels that actually wake the brain during sleep and can be accompanied by night sweats. So, while you’re still losing the hormones that help you fall asleep, you’re also waking frequently and having a hard time falling back to sleep. In fact, having problems maintaining sleep is one of the early signs of menopause.
  • Post-menopause Unfortunately, once the hormones stop surging, sleep problems don’t. Imbalances in your hormones can continue to affect the quality of your sleep. And 10% of women experience hypothyroidism (inadequate production of thyroid hormone), after menopause. The decrease in thyroid hormone can lead to weight gain, which increases your risk for snoring and sleep apnea (a dangerous disruption of breathing during sleeping), and this hormone decrease can actually cause your airway to narrow, further increasing your chance of developing sleep apnea.

What can I do?

  • Create a healthy routine that includes melatonin-rich and sleep-promoting foods. Click here to see Dr. Oz’s cheat sheet of foods that help you snooze.
  • Try taking a melatonin supplement. You don’t need more than .5 milligrams, and you should take it about 2 hours before bed. Melatonin works like pulling the blinds in your bedroom – it signals to your body that the sun has gone away and it’s time to prepare for sleep.
  • Treat yourself to a pair (or 2) of lightweight pajamas and sheets that will wick moisture away from your skin and dry quickly.
  • Eat a plant-based, high-fiber, low-fat diet, which has been shown to lower estrogen levels and control hot flashes. The sooner you start eating that way (even in your 20s), the better control you will have over hot flashes later. But it’s never too late to start.
  • Take 40 milligrams of black cohosh (an herbal supplement) daily. It has been shown to help women weather menopause better.
  • Eat well and exercise to prevent or eliminate postmenopausal weight gain.
  • Try special pillows designed to help keep your airway open during sleep and eliminate snoring. 

If you experience symptoms of sleep apnea, including chronic, severe snoring, often accompanied by gasping, choking, or daytime sleepiness, find a sleep specialist in your area who can prescribe specific treatments such as a CPAP machine, which keeps your airway open during sleep.