My friends call me ‘the dormouse’. I can fall asleep anywhere and anytime. As a baby, I’d nod off in the middle of the sitting room floor mid-crawl and my mother could hoover around me while I dozed. At university, fire alarms passed me by and it was only the next day that I’d find out I’d missed one.
And then there’s quantity. For many, eight hours is the sweet spot for ‘enough’ shuteye. For me, it’s more like ten. Plus a nap. In short, I need my rest.
How perimenopause ruined my sleep
When perimenopausal sleep issues hit me a year ago, they hit HARD. In what literally felt like overnight, I went from being knocked out from the minute my head hit the pillow to dreading what each night might hold.
Find out more in our symptoms library about menopause and sleep issues.
Causes and symptoms ranged. Sometimes I was too hot and couldn’t cool down, while other times my brain refused to switch off. Even worse were the nights I lay there wide awake for no discernible reason.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t tired, it was that my body and brain just wouldn’t cooperate”
For me, like for many, this bout of sleeplessness simply wasn’t sustainable. I had a full-time job and was about to start a part-time master’s degree. I had a family who needed me and friends I wanted to see. More pressing, perhaps, was that without proper rest I became a wreck.
It seemed that the ‘ness’ group of perimenopausal symptoms – clumsiness, forgetfulness, moodiness – increased tenfold when I was sleep-deprived. I needed to do something, and fast.
Like many aspects of perimenopause, the road to figuring out how to deal with the cause and effect of a range of symptoms was neither straightforward nor easy to fix. Solutions that worked one day failed the next. What I’ve learned is that setting oneself up for a good night’s rest is a process and it can be hit and miss.
However, I’ve learned that it’s about more than just what you do before bedtime – it’s about little choices made during the day and evening that can have a combined and overall impact.
While I want to stress that there is no single magic fix that will work for everyone, there were some things that worked for me”
My top ten tips for sleeping during menopause
1 Don’t eat too close to bedtime
I love a bedtime snack – cheese, biscuits, crisps, chocolate, you name it. However, these things set the digestive system going, which can make it hard to get comfortable in bed or even worse, trigger indigestion and heartburn once you lie down. While everyone is different, a good starting point is to try cutting yourself off from eating a few hours before you go to bed.
2. Move in the day, ideally in fresh air
When you’re tired, sometimes the last thing you want to do is exert yourself. But exercise in the fresh air is a special kind of magic. Think of times you’ve gone for a long walk in the countryside or stood outside for a concert or a game and how tired you were after. The Great Outdoors requires us to exert more energy than being at home and provides us with some Vitamin D, while exposure to sunlight helps our circadian rhythms for when the sun goes down.
3 A warm drink
Warm milk has a folkloric reputation for a reason, although I’d advocate for any caffeine-free warm drink in the hour before bed. For me, I reach a point in the day where I’d ‘tea’d out’ so I have taken to drinking hot water in a mug (but only one, otherwise I’m in the loo all night!). The feeling of warmth I get from the hot drink helps me feel calm and settled.
Some studies have linked sleep problems to magnesium deficiency (find out more here and here). While the effectiveness of magnesium cream is up for debate, rubbing it on my feet before bed is soothing. Over time, it starts to act like a ritual with the smell of the cream and rubbing your feet signalling that it is time to start winding down.
5 Get up and reset
Often, when you’re lying there begging sleep to come it can seem counterintuitive to solve the problem by getting up, but doing so can help you to stop associating your bed with the stress and anxiety of insomnia. It’s okay to hit a reset button. Get up, make a cup of hot water or tea (make sure it’s caffeine-free), watch an episode of The Golden Girls and try again.
I admit it – I have struggled with meditation for years. However, I finally found a way to do it that works for me (10 minutes in my favourite chair with a mantra of my choosing, acknowledging the thoughts that come unwarranted into my head and resolving to park them for another time). I now go through withdrawal if I miss a few days. In terms of how this relates to sleep, I find that emptying my head for ten minutes a day means my brain spins less when my head hits the pillow. It also means I’m less stressed overall.
7 Strategic napping
I say ‘strategic’ because timing is everything. Nap too early in the day and you can’t doze off. Nap too late and you’re up all night. Nap for too long and bedtime is ruined. For some, napping at all is game over. For me, I’ve learned that lying down after lunch for anywhere between a half-hour and an hour resets the post-lunch sleepies and makes me feel less wrecked in the day. It creates a sense of serenity that I can usually carry through to bedtime, which impacts my ability to drop off at night. My advice with naps – as with all the ideas listed here – is to listen to your body and see what works for you.
8 White noise
I love when it’s hot in the summer and I have the excuse to keep the fan running at a low hum. It blocks out the kids going to the loo in the night and the creaks that travel through the walls of my house. It is its own meditation and provides a barrier to other, more distracting sounds. It is a steady rhythm to tune into as I try to clear my head. White noise machines are an option, and – unsurprisingly – there’s an app for that as well.
9 Limit alcohol
I promise I’m not trying to suck all the joy out of your life. I love red wine, especially because it makes me feel that I can fall asleep more easily. But study after study has shown that alcohol prevents us from achieving REM sleep, which makes us more tired and groggy in the morning and the subsequent day.
10 Work out your optimal caffeine cut-off time
It’s hard to say what I live for more – red wine or coffee. But caffeine, like alcohol, loves to linger in our systems long after its tangible effects have worn off. I’ve learned that if I want to set myself up for a good night’s rest then I need to cut off my caffeine intake between 2pm and 4pm (although – again – everyone is different. I have a friend who doesn’t touch tea after lunchtime and another who knows to stop at 6pm.
Read more tips on how to reduce sleep issues.
Be gentle with yourself
As Andy Taylor sang, ‘Take it easy on yourself’, it’s a good one to keep in mind while we navigate new territory. Our bodies are playing games without telling us the rules. What works one day may not the next. Self-forgiveness is key.
This list is by no means comprehensive, nor is it meant to be taken as a checklist that, if followed, will guarantee immediate and blissful sleep. I certainly do not achieve all of the above each day and I’d go mad with anxiety if I tried. As with all things, it really is about balance. On days when I don’t manage to get outside to exercise, I cut off my caffeine intake a bit earlier. If I’ve missed a meditation session in the morning, I do it lying in bed.
My road to a good night’s slumber was bumpy, full of missed turns, and quite often I ran on fumes. Over time, I discovered that there was not one big solution to the problem. Instead, it was small, incremental and experimental changes where the sum was greater than the parts. As with all things at this stage in our lives, it is mainly about trying different things and finding what works best for you.