Of all the strange new things your body experiences at midlife, many women find insomnia to be the most frustrating. Whether you have trouble falling asleep, or wake up in the wee hours and can't get back to dreamland, it can seem like a cruel joke that your body won't just rest and restore itself during the few precious hours when it has the chance. The solution to insomnia will be individual for everyone, but here is a collection of tips that help menopausal (and perimenopausal) ladies catch a few more zzz's:
- Exercise every day, but not within three hours before bedtime. Studies show that exercise improves sleep quality and that older people who are inactive suffer more from insomnia.
- Keep your bedroom cool.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine (okay, the first one might be a non-starter—how can you get through day without caffeine when you were tossing and turning the night before? But at least avoid it after noon.)
- Tempting though it may be, try not to nap during the day.
- Don't eat anything for a few hours before bed time.
- Spend the last hour or two before bed winding down—reading, taking a bath, snuggling (or more!) with your partner.
- Try to avoid watching television before bed, and never watch TV when you're actually in bed. Sleep experts emphasize that you shouldn't do anything in your bed except have sex and sleep.
- Keep a pad of paper and a pen on your bedside table—if you can't go to sleep because your mind is obsessing over all the things you have to remember to do the next day, writing them down can help.
- Consider buying a new mattress, or at least a new pillow. I was just talking to a 60something friend who said that she and her husband have been sleeping for an extra hour each night since they invested in nice new pillows.
- If you suffer from nighttime heartburn (and as many as one in four Americans do, according to a 2005 study) elevate the top end of your bed at least four inches. You can do this by placing equally sized books or blocks under the top two legs of the bed (no, you won't feel like you're going to tumble off the end—I've done it and it's really not noticeable). Also, sleeping on your left side may help with heartburn.
- Wear socks to bed—I swear I've always noticed that I sleep better when I do, and the Cleveland Clinic says that it's because socks "help control core body temperature."
- Talk to your doctor about an Rx. The New York Times Health blog explains that the new generation of sleeping pills, such as Ambien and Lunesta, are not physically addictive (as long as they're not abused), so that could be a good option for you if none of the above strategies work. Your doctor might also suggest low-dose hormone replacement therapy, or antidepressants, if he or she thinks depression could be contributing to your insomnia.
- When you wake up at 2 AM, just surrender to it. I was fascinated by this article in the Utne Reader when I first saw it last year. The author cites scientific studies and historical accounts that support the idea that we're not really supposed to sleep for eight hours straight, and that waking up for an hour or two in early morning is perfectly normal. I love this passage:
Before the 19th century, people in Western Europe frequently wrote of sleep intervals 'as if the prospect of awakening in the middle of the night was common knowledge that required no elaboration.' People might get up and do chores, smoke a pipe, engage in prayer or reading, converse, visit neighbors, make love, or simply lie there in contemplation and fantasy."
So try to remember that the next time you're counting sheep—the thought that your middle-of-the-night insomnia is perfectly normal might relax you so much that you slip off to sleep.