Ask An Expert: How Can I Stop Menopause From Ruining My Sleep?

Collage / Julia Gessler

Menopause specialist Dr Linda Dear helps a reader deal with mid-life insomnia.

Q: For the past few months I’ve been struggling with the symptoms of menopause — moodiness, difficulty concentrating at work and, worst of all, insomnia. The lack of sleep is really starting to compound everything else and I’ve

A: There are many unwanted gifts that menopause throws our way, and insomnia is one of the most common. Many women in this life phase find themselves wide awake in the middle of the night, either because of night sweats, needing to pee or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. It’s as though your brain has switched itself on and thinks it’s time to get up even though it’s only 2am.

Lack of sleep makes us tired, grumpy, less able to concentrate and also hungry! Research shows that poor sleep makes it harder to lose weight and weight gain itself is another common and unwanted menopause gift.

It’s tempting to reach for caffeine to wake us up and alcohol to wind us down but these are both false friends that make good sleep even less likely. So, stay away from them. They can also make bladder symptoms worse, so they’re particularly unhelpful if you’re waking up because of the totally unnecessary 2am pee.

What we eat can affect our sleep too research has shown that women who eat high-GI diets (foods high in fast-releasing sugars) are more likely to have insomnia. Eating a low-GI diet (which contains whole-grain carbs and slow-releasing sugars) means women are less likely to develop insomnia.

Exercise is also good for sleep. A big research review found that exercise helps reduce insomnia in menopausal women. We don’t yet know which particular types of exercise are best, but it’s likely that any type of movement, from yoga, running, walking or weight training will all be helpful.

And what about stress? This is bad for everything, including our beauty sleep. So finding ways to reduce stress, such as mindfulness, meditation, journaling or breathing techniques will all help you sleep better.

The other important thing to do is something called “good sleep hygiene”. This describes all the tools we can use to help our internal body clock. Our brain needs to know when it’s daytime and when it’s nighttime. Getting up at the same time every morning and getting outside in the sunshine tells your brain it’s morning and helps stimulate all the right chemicals to get moving. In the late afternoon/evening, we should do the opposite.

We need to have a consistent bedtime every night, so our brain gets the message it’s time for rest. Our brain also needs peace, quiet, not too much light (including the fake light from screens on phones and computers), as well as a cool bedroom so we don’t overheat.

And if all else fails and you still can’t get any decent shut-eye what do you do?

This is when supplements or medications can be helpful. Melatonin and magnesium can sometimes be effective in promoting better sleep. If it’s your hot flushes/night sweats keeping you awake, then you can talk to your doctor about taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Stabilising our hormones can work wonders for our sleep as well as improving many other menopausal symptoms.

And remember this for the vast majority of us, menopause symptoms do not last forever. Eventually, our bodies and brains adapt and all the unwanted gifts, including insomnia, go away and we start feeling (and sleeping) like our old selves again.

Dr Linda Dear is one of New Zealand’s leading menopause doctors and runs a specialist menopause clinic in Tauranga.

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