Researchers are finding more and more proof of what women have known all along - that their sleep is influenced by the phases of their lifecycle. Hormonal
fluctuations during menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause cause many women to wake though the night - often leaving them sleepy during the day.
Getting too little sleep may even increase your risk of developing a myriad of health problems including:
- heart attack
- menstrual irregularities
- breast cancer
Research has found that female hormones affect a woman's ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Many women report fragmented sleep due to cramping, bloating, headaches and tender breasts during their periods. Sixty-eight percent of menstruating women polled by the National Sleep foundation reported feeling sleepiest the week before or during the first few days of their period.
'There is no doubt that women's sleep habits are affected by their hormones,' said Murray. In general terms, doctors do know that 'progesterone acts as a sedative to induce sleep, while estrogen energizes and increases wakefulness.'
In fact, many women suffer fragmented sleep before or during their period. Women often report sleeplessness before their period, as this is when they experience a rapid drop in progesterone levels.
'It's like coming off or withdrawing from a sleeping pill,' Murray said.
He says the low progesterone levels at the beginning of the menstrual cycle reduces deep sleep. But when ovulation starts, progesterone levels rise and women may feel sleepy during the day.
'As menstruation begins, levels of progesterone drop which can cause women to be wakeful at night.'
Expectant mothers may be the sleepiest of all. According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 60 percent of pregnant women found that their sleep was less refreshing during pregnancy than when they weren't pregnant.
Mothers-to-be often report daytime sleepiness and longer sleep hours at night during the first few months of their pregnancy, Murray said. This is the time when the body is hard at work forming the baby's body systems and progesterone levels are on the rise.
Later in pregnancy, many women report poor sleep quality due to leg cramps, backache, heartburn, fetal kicks and the need to visit the bathroom.
Murray added that iron loss during pregnancy may be responsible for restless leg syndrome. Restless leg syndrome is characterized by a creepy-crawly sensation primarily in the legs, but occasionally in the arms and trunk. These sensations are more severe at night and cause difficulty with falling and staying asleep.
Snoring also increases in pregnancy, and sleep disordered breathing can fragment sleep. This may be particularly problematic for expectant mothers with high blood pressure.
During the transition to menopause, fluctuating hormone levels and hot flashes may disrupt a woman's ability to sleep. Hot flashes during sleep (night sweats) are caused by widening of the blood vessels near the skin's surface and are associated with decreased levels of estrogen. Some experts estimate that a woman may wake up many times a night due to hot flashes. Her heart rate may also increase and she may feel anxious.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, menopausal women report experiencing hot flashes during sleep about three nights a week, and have sleeping difficulties due to hot flashes an average of five nights a month.
Hormone replacement therapy may improve a woman's sleep quality during this time,' said Murray. 'But why is works is still not clear.'
Postmenopausal women often experience increased problems breathing and a significant increase in sleep apnea,' Murray continued. Again, the culprit is a decreased level of estrogen. Therefore, younger women who have undergone surgical menopause are also at risk of developing apnea. Being overweight and sedentary are risk factors for this syndrome as well.
Sleep apnea is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat closes during sleep. It may be caused by the brain's failure to signal the muscles to breathe. With each apnea event, the brain briefly arouses the sleeper to resume breathing, making sleep extremely fragmented and of poor quality. Signs of sleep apnea include loud snoring during sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness.
There is no simple remedy for women who need help falling and staying asleep.
'Everybody's sleep story is different,' said Murray. If you have problems getting adequate sleep, he recommends that you consult with your doctor so he or she can rule out any medical problems that could be affecting your ability to sleep.
If you experience restless or sleepless nights only from time to time, don't despair. There is a lot you can do to help you achieve a good night's sleep.
Here are a few tips from one Canadian sleep disorder organization that may help:
- Sleep to feel refreshed and healthy - too much time in bed is related to shallow sleep.
- Get up at the same time every day. The sleep/wake rhythm you establish will help you feel sleepy at the same time each night.
- Exercise regularly. Try to exercise no later than late afternoon or early evening.
- Keep your bedroom dark and quiet.
- Avoid napping. Naps make you less sleepy when you want to sleep.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but your sleep will be fragmented.
- Avoid heavy meals and spicy foods before bedtime.
- Try muscle relaxation techniques.
- Use light cotton bed linens if you suffer from hot flashes.