As I write these words, it’s 5 a.m. I was up till 1:30 a.m. working on tax documents and college financial aid forms. Hmmm, 3 1/2 hours of sleep - sound familiar?
“How can you get by on so little sleep?” That’s the question many of my friends pose to me, friends who A) haven’t been through menopause, and B) are still in their 30s, that wonderful decade when the main thing disturbing your sleep is a hungry baby.
Me, I haven’t had a full eight hours of solid sleep in at least five years. And on the rare occasions when I sleep as long as three hours at a stretch, I awaken and think “Ah yes, a good night’s sleep - I remember it fondly!”
Menopause, Perimenopause and Sleeps Disorders
While one-quarter of Americans report having sleep issues, studies show that up to two-thirds of women going through menopause, especially perimenopause, have trouble sleeping.
And for some, that sleeplessness ultimately stretches way beyond the end of active menopause. Why are so many of us having so much trouble falling asleep, and staying asleep?
There are multiple answers. Grumpy and irritated by what’s still a new shift in our interior landscape, we stay up late chasing down leads on the Internet about cures for hot flashes and irritability and other menopause symptoms. Then we fall into restless sleep, only to awaken early, the challenges of the new day colliding with worries from the night before. Insomnia - the inability to fall asleep - keeps many of us awake deep into the night. Others of us fall asleep, only to awaken an hour or so later, then toss and turn the remainder of the night.
My pattern during the most intense part of menopause was to fall asleep, then wake up 15 minutes later; after a half-hour or so of reading, I could fall asleep again, sleep maybe 30 minutes, then be wide awake. This cycle would continue all night, for weeks on end. Looking back, I’m amazed I remained functional; living with sleeplessness is a testament to how tough and resilient our bodies really are.
Menopause is huge sleep-disrupter. Our hormones thrown out of whack, neurotransmitters in our brains have trouble sending out the right sleep signals at the right time.
So what about the fact that even post-menopause, many of us still aren’t sleeping well? It may be that patterns of sleeplessness “learned” during those days have become imprinted in our brains, replacing our previous “norm” of 8 hours of sleep. Or we may simply be experiencing the effects of a well-known physical fact: as we age, we need less sleep. Whatever the reason, too many of us are wide awake at 3 a.m., staring at the ceiling as we try to will our way into comfortable slumber.
Why, oh why, with everything else going on in our lives, can sleep be so difficult? Next time, I’ll focus on a couple of things that might make restful sleep a lot more attainable.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.