Getting better sleep is probably the most underrated strategy we can adopt for better health. Research scientists are spending many waking hours learning more about the critical importance of sleep to our mental and physical health.
Many factors, hormonal and otherwise, influence sleep quality, but if you’re a woman who suffers from insomnia, you might be encouraged to know there are a number of natural health strategies to improve sleep quality.
What exactly is insomnia?
According to the Merck Manual, insomnia is defined as “difficulty falling or staying asleep, early awakening, or a sensation of unrefreshing sleep.” It’s a common problem, and even more so for women.
Insomnia by the numbers
Statistics Canada reported recently on “nighttime insomnia” rates (difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep most of the time or all of the time) among men and women (18 years and older):
- 46.6 percent of men
- 69.9 percent of women
What might cause insomnia?
A number of factors that more frequently affect women may lead to alterations in sleep patterns and reduced melatonin production, leading to insomnia.
- anxiety and depression
- shift work (health care and emergency workers, for example)
- hormonal changes (menstruation, pregnancy, perimenopause/menopause)
- restless leg syndrome (more common in women and with increasing age)
Other frequent causes of sleep disturbances in either sex include
- obstructive sleep apnea (often underdiagnosed in women)
- use of substances such as caffeine and alcohol
How does aging affect sleep?
Sleep changes associated with aging include sleep fragmentation, lighter sleep, increased waking, alterations in circadian rhythms, and reduced nocturnal melatonin secretion, among other things.
Postmenopausal women experience “desynchronized” circadian rhythms affecting the normal drop in core temperature at night, possibly causing night sweats, and the early rise of cortisol, causing earlier awakening in the morning.
In addition to insomnia, many women endure chronic sleep deprivation, such as during postpartum when adjusting to an infant’s erratic sleep/wake schedule, as well as later in life, with sleep getting sliced as women juggle work and home-life responsibilities.
What role do hormones play in sleep?
Sex hormones appear to have a direct effect on sleep patterns. Due to hormonal fluctuations during a woman’s life cycle—from puberty to menopause—women’s sleep quality can be dramatically altered.
Estrogen and progesterone receptors are found in the sleep/wake regulatory centres in the brain, so rapid changes in hormones such as those that occur during pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause may influence sleep quality.
The main female sex hormone, estrogen levels rise and fall during each menstrual period, being lowest just before each period, causing sleep disruptions for some women.
During perimenopause, estrogen levels naturally begin to decrease, often causing hot flashes and more sleep disruptions.
And after menopause, when estrogen is at its lowest, sleep problems are common and may include obstructive sleep apnea.
The other main female hormone, progesterone, known as the “relaxing hormone,” has a mildly sedative effect. Its levels are usually lowest during the week before a woman’s menstrual period, rising toward the end; highest during the first trimester of pregnancy; and lowered again during peri- and post-menopause.
Progesterone is a ventilatory stimulant that also stimulates the muscles maintaining the upper airways, so it’s thought to have protective effects against sleep apnea. Indeed, airway resistance during sleep is lower during the luteal (final) phase of the menstrual cycle, which is characterized by high progesterone levels.
How does insomnia affect our health?
Reduced sleep is associated with glucose intolerance, insulin resistance, reduced acute insulin response to glucose, and increased hunger signals, “thus predisposing individuals to type 2 diabetes,” according to a 2017 review.
In a large cohort of more than 22,000 women with an average age of 72 years, sleep debt (defined as a self-reported difference of at least two hours between weekday and weekend sleep duration) was associated with significantly increased risk of obesity and hypertension.
The inevitable health implications of insomnia and chronic sleep deprivation are vast. Growing data has documented associations between sleep deprivation and risk of cancer, especially breast cancer; heart disease and stroke; obesity; diabetes; and depression.
Sleepless by the numbers
- 54% of adult Canadians report one or more symptoms of nighttime insomnia.
- 42% more Canadians over 18 years old reported nighttime insomnia over the eight years from 2007 to 2015.
- 10% of Canadians report using prescription medication for insomnia within the last year.
- 5% of Canadians report using alcohol to self-treat insomnia within the last year.
- 31 to 42% of women develop chronic insomnia by the end of menopause.
Natural health products for sleep
Some natural products benefit healthy sleep by promoting relaxation, signalling sleep, and helping to reduce excessive activity of the central nervous system:
- passion flower
For hormonal symptoms
For women with menopausal sleep disturbance and/or hot flashes, herbs that regulate estrogen and progesterone may be helpful:
- chaste tree berry (Vitex angus-castus)
- black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
Women with severe menopausal symptoms may wish to consult a licensed health care practitioner about low-dose bioidentical hormone therapy.
“Due to hormonal fluctuations during a woman’s life cycle—from puberty to menopause—women’s sleep quality can be dramatically altered.”
For restless leg syndrome
Women with restless leg syndrome may benefit from an assessment of iron status (bloodwork) and magnesium.
For mental health
According to Dr. Philip Rouchotas, ND, whose practice focuses on mental health, insomnia that is associated with stress, anxiety, or depression is best addressed by better management of the mental health condition; however, some of the natural products discussed above, such as melatonin, may be helpful.
For obstructive sleep apnea
This should be addressed through diet and lifestyle changes to promote weight loss, and use of a CPAP machine, as prescribed.
Since sleep disturbances can arise from so many underlying factors, it is essential for women to discuss their concerns with a health care practitioner to determine the best treatment strategies.
Tips for sleep
Go to bed and get up in the morning at a consistent time. Allow for at least seven to eight hours of sleep.
- Engage in aerobic activity, such as walking, for at least 30 minutes a day.
- Exercise earlier in the day if possible, if you have trouble sleeping after vigorous activity before bed.
- Try gentle stretching exercises before bed, which may enhance relaxation.
Engage in daily practices of prayer, meditation, and peaceful music.
Avoid use of caffeine and alcohol. Enjoy camomile or passion flower tea at bedtime instead. Alcohol before bed may have a paradoxical effect, increasing anxiety, worsening insomnia, and decreasing sleep quality.
Avoid use of tablets, smartphones, or screens directly before or in bed.
Dr. Heidi Fritz, MA, ND, is a practising naturopathic doctor at the Bolton Naturopathic Clinic and the Springdale Medical Centre in Brampton, Ontario. boltonnaturopathic.ca
This article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of alive Canada, under the title “Sleeping for Better Health.”