Are you groggy morning after morning, reaching for the snooze button until it runs out of repeats? Most afternoons when 4 o’clock rolls around, would you give away your first born for a nap? Does each thing you see and do feel as if it has downshifted from clear and sparkling and really fun to dull and obligatory? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are likely suffering from sleep deprivation.
Sleep is one of the three most important elements humans need to function properly, food and water being the other two.
In our busy-valued world, sleep deprivation has become a national crisis. Research at the Department of Psychiatry, College of Medicine, University of Arizona, found not getting enough sleep is linked to a number of adverse health reactions including:
- weight gain and obesity
- cardiovascular disease
- accidents and injuries
- neurocognitive dysfunction
- greater amyloid deposition which has a direct link to Alzheimer’s
- psychiatric symptoms
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults sixty-five and older get 7-8 hours of sleep per night for better cognition, mental and physical health. Seniors, especially women, often have trouble falling asleep which leads to sleep deprivation according to the NIH Senior Health website. Women often sleep less deeply and have less slow wave activity—that body restoring and rebuilding phase of sleep. Women also wake up more often throughout the night, resulting in daytime tiredness and the perchance for napping. Sleep issues affect at least 25% of senior women on a regular basis.
Since 1976, the Nurses’ Health Study I & II, among the largest studies focusing on risk factors for major chronic diseases in women, have been compiling data on more than a quarter million women. Using the benchmark of 7 hours of sleep per night, the NHS found that shorter and longer sleepers share some similar characteristics. Both contained groups that were less physically active, and who had higher body mass indices. The women who averaged less than 5 hours sleep a night scored significantly lower on cognitive tests. The shortest sleepers experienced the worst cognitive decline later in life. Just two hours a night less over time was enough to accelerate this decline.
What causes women over fifty-five to have more disruptive, fragmented, less restorative sleep as they age?
This happens because we lose our protective (hormone) armor at menopause and hormone levels play an integral part in how well we sleep. At all stages of women’s lives, the hormone progesterone affects brain functions. When in balance, progesterone produces a sense of calmness, and its sedating and anti-anxiety qualities help promote rejuvenating sleep. Our brains are highly sensitive to progesterone. Sadly, our progesterone levels drop precipitously after menopause.
Another hormone, Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, helps maintain normal sleep patterns. DHEA peaks when we are young adults and then begins to decline. By the time we reach seventy, our DHEA levels may be less than one-fifth of what we had at age twenty. Our thyroid glands also impact every system in our bodies. These glands influence our energy levels, mental focus and functions, sleep cycles, hearts rates, digestion, and more. About 25% of women develop thyroid problems by their early forties.
Get your thyroid tested
This is one of the most under diagnosed issues facing American women. Only by requesting special and specific tests which drill into the thyroid profile, can we get an accurate read on our thyroid hormone levels. Those tests, in addition to the minimal testing is TSH and T4. A panel testing would include TSH, free T3, and free T4, reverse T3 and both thyroglobulin Ab and EPO Ab, according to ob-gyn Dr. Claudia Harsh, MD, DABOG, DABIHM formally part of the team at Texas Oncology at Baylor Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas, Texas.
Stress and high cortisol levels wreck sleep. At night, if we are stressed out our cortisol levels rise just as we need to wind down. We then feel more alert and awake at bedtime, making sleeping impossible. We sleep lightly and wake often, then toss and turn or get up and spend those precious “sleep hours” watching reruns of Rachel Ray making dinner.
The cycle of sleep deprivation
This cycle of exhaustion repeats itself each night, never allowing us to get the restorative sleep that would help bring our levels back to normal. To add to the problem, a lack of sleep raises our cortisol levels even more—levels which are already imbalances since cortisol is made in the adrenal cortex from progesterone. High cortisol levels also cause women to awaken in the middle of the night and be unable to fall back to sleep.
So how can women at midlife and beyond get the healing slow wave activity and REM sleep they need to take over the world—I mean optimally function in the world?
What can we do?
Bio-identical hormone replacement therapy is one option, if started within one year of entering post-menopause. This therapy received bad press fifteen years ago, but subsequent research assessing the flawed Women’s Health Initiative Study has proved bio-identical hormones, those biologically identical to the hormones our bodies produce, are a safe and effective way to even out hormone depletion and keep women’s bodies firing on all cylinders.
Maintaining an interesting and mentally stimulating life also promotes good sleep noted Dr. Chiara Cirelli, MD, PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Cirelli says that our “need for sleep is strongly modulated by the amount of brain plasticity during our day. The more we learn and adapt the more we need to sleep. A chronic decrease in sleep need could be due to reduced opportunity to learn and be exposed to novel experience, rather than, or in addition to, problems in the neural circuits responsible for sleep regulation.” In other words the more stimulating our life is, the more sleep we need.
Research also supports ingesting certain vitamins, minerals, and supplements to aid restorative sleep. Vitamin D, Vitamin E, the amino acids Glycine and taurine, magnesium, valerian root, hops, and melatonin all have good science behind them. And, gelatin is showing promise in several Japanese studies. These supplements can be added to a woman’s daily regimen by working with an experienced complementary medicine nutritional counselor.
Practicing good sleep hygiene cannot be overlooked. The NIH suggests:
- Limiting naps
- Eliminating caffeine after 2pm
- Exercising regularly
- Steering clear of spicy, heavy, or rich foods at dinner
- Finishing dinner by 7:30pm
- Getting adequate sunlight—for that all important vitamin D
- Creating a pleasantly quiet, dark, and cool sleeping environment
- Establishing a regular, relaxing bedtime routine
- Stopping all electronics 2 hours before bed
Sleep is one of our most necessary and sometimes, most elusive, parts of being alive. Following the suggestions above can go a long way towards eliminating sleep issues. If after adopting these changes you are still suffering from sleep deprivation or broken and unrefreshing sleep, see your doctor and consider a visit with a sleep specialist. Remember the cliché, “With sleep, I can do anything!”
Until next time…Be Vibrant!