Did you know that 66% of adults in the developed world get less than 8 hours of sleep each night? In fact The World Health Organisation has declared a global epidemic of sleeplessness! And there is strong evidence now pointing to the fact that ‘short sleep = short life’. There are even very rare cases of a disorder that means a lack of sleep can be the direct cause of death, within 12-18 months of diagnosis. Sleep is serious business, so why does the menopause mess it up so badly?!

Why do we sleep?

It’s not wholly understood why the body shuts down and renders us paralysed every night, but we do know that whilst we sleep our bodies and our brains go through a kind of recovery process:

During REM sleep

  • We dream
  • We experience time dilation, meaning 2 minutes can feel like two hours
  • We learn and log experiences

During Non-REM sleep

  • We do not dream
  • We experience slow, synchronised delta brainwaves at 3Hz
  • Our memories filter out the unnecessary and log the necessary
  • The plaques that build up are cleaned and flushed out*

*plaques that build up around our neurons are thought to be a leading cause of dementia. Studies are currently looking into the direct correlation between poor sleep and dementia.

Interestingly, our brains function on one level of Hz when we are in Non-REM sleep. Ordinarily our brains function at many varied and quickly changing levels during the day, which means we can remember how to walk at the same time as talk, drink, read signposts and hold a bag. Complicated tasks and new tasks are even more varied and hit our brain with a myriad of brainwaves all at once. No wonder we get overwhelmed at times!

TIP: Some meditation based apps play a sound at 3 Hz to help our brains calm itself on a sub-conscious level aka binaural beats.

Hormones, daylight, brain receptors and rhythms…

The circadian rhythm can be described as communication system between the endocrine (hormonal network) system and the body. The hormone melatonin plays a big part of these comms. Contrary to popular belief the circadian rhythm does not rely on daylight to release melatonin and signal the feelings of ‘awake’ or ‘sleepy’, but uses a combination of light, and regular cues such as eating or exercise. This could be how people who work nights can still cope. When a reduction in light, and body temperature is detected by the brain, melatonin is released which begins the process of becoming sleepy.

Within the brain are receptors of hormones. Picture the receptors as a lock, and the hormone as the key. There are many different shapes of locks and keys which means they work in very specific ways.

A second system that helps us sleep is the release of adenosine while we are awake. Adenosine is one key that when it fills the receptors, you feel sleepy. Caffeine is a similar shape to adenosine, so it can fill the receptors but acts as a ‘blank’, stopping the adenosine sending the sleepy signals from the brain to the body! Once caffeine wears off (after around 7 hours), the adenosine rushes in to the vacated receptors and you experience a ‘crash’.

Hormones through our ages

Ever tried to dig a teenager out of bed at 10am on a Saturday? It’s not their fault! Their hormones and brainwaves are functioning differently from when they small, and from us facing the menopause. Teens have a high proportion of Non-REM sleep as their brains are attempting to create the ‘finished’ adult version of itself, organise their learning and experiences at a high levelandtheir Circadian Rhythm slips too, turning them into ‘Night Owls’.

Adults of course, know it all already, so we don’t need as much non-REM sleep!

That is actually a false perception. Adults and seniors DO need as much sleep as anyone else, we just tend to have a higher proportion of REM sleep, which is sometimes disturbed by external factors such as light, pain or discomfort in our muscles and joints, the need to visit the loo, body temperature fluctuations, teenagers coming home in the wee hours and all sorts of other things going on! As we age, our Circadian Rhythm tends to shift back, turning us into ‘Larks’ who struggle to stay awake in the evening. Put that on top of dropping oestrogen, progesterone (which helps you sleep), and for the gents, dropping testosterone, good quality sleep can become hard to come by!

Why lack of sleep is bad for us

Not allowing our brains and hormones the time to do their night-time jobs can lead to many health conditions, some more dangerous than others. Continued poor sleep will result in reduced health and ultimately reduced life through related disorders:

  • Anxiety/Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Poor weight control and diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Dementia/Alzheimer’s

There is a way to regain control though. I’ve been working through a sleep protocol, designed by Stephanie Romiszewski, Sleep Insomnia Expert (UK) and delivered by the Sleepyhead Program. This is no quick fix believe me! It takes weeks of gruelling effort, but after 3 weeks, despite struggling, it’s got me waking up at night only ONCE, as opposed to 5-6 times.

 In the meantime there are some small things you can do that should help with short-term sleep issues. You should try these good ‘sleep hygiene’ tactics before attempting the retraining protocol.

Take a look at our quick blog, ’12 ways to get better sleep’, for more detail on this.

If you’re struggling with sleep, you’re not alone. It’s been a great centre for discussion within my yoga and Pilates classes and I myself am going through the peri-menopause, hence the sleep training to rewire my brain! If you’d like to join in the discussion, get real life practical tips from others in the same situation, or message me for advice, look us up on our Ad Astra Yoga and Pilates Facebook page.