The answer is ‘Yes, of course!’ In fact, hormones affect every aspect of your health, both positively and negatively.
Put simply, hormones are the chemical messengers in our bodies. They help to inform and regulate a bunch of different processes, from blood sugar to adrenaline, and sex function to energy levels. And of course, they regulate sleep.
So as our bodies age, and our hormones change, it affects all of these processes. We asked sleep specialist, Dr David Cunnington, to shed some light on the topic.
What we know about hormones and sleep
Dr David starts by acknowledging that there’s still a lot we don’t know about sleep. Sure, we know that it's an important restorative process. And we know what happens when we don't get enough of it too.
But the purpose of it, and the exact effects of different hormone balances? That's where the science is still a bit light on the detail.
“When someone asks me why we sleep, I often reply, ‘So we don't bang into things walking around in the dark’,” he jokes.
But seriously, he agrees that we do know that sleep is important.
“We know it’s a key part of maintaining good physical and mental health. And we also know that, when it comes to the effects of hormonal imbalances, it’s normal for hormone levels to vary at different stages of life. When they do, they affect several of our body’s processes – including sleep.”
Why do menopausal women often have sleep issues like night sweats?
Both oestrogen and progesterone can help to promote sleep. So as women approach peri-menopause and their oestrogen and progesterone levels gradually reduce, it’s normal for their sleep to get lighter.
Then, once women reach menopause (usually defined as 12 months after the last period), those hormone levels hit their all-time low. At that point, sleep becomes even lighter again.
For women, menopause often also brings sleep disturbance and night sweats, which can seriously affect their sleep quality. The poor sleep can then leave them with that ‘always tired’ feeling, in addition to all the other menopausal symptoms.
What can we do to sleep better as we age?
Contrary to popular belief, naps are actually a great way to get more sleep.
Dr David suggests that the first thing we do is change our expectations. “Sleep is a biological process,” he says.
“Like anything else, it gets wobblier as we get older. Few of us expect to run as fast as we did as teenagers, but we still want to sleep as well as we used to. It’s irrational.”
Beyond changing expectations, however, he also had 6 great tips to share.
1. Sleep isn’t our only restorative process
“Too often, we think of sleep as the only way to rest, and any waking hours as ‘busy time’,” comments Dr David.
He says it’s healthier to take some guilt-free time away from your tasks during the day. Use this time to do something relaxing that you enjoy. That will then help you take the pressure off yourself in terms of how well you need to sleep at night.
2. Your job is just to create the opportunity for sleep
Learn what good sleep hygiene is for your body. If caffeine and blue light from screens affect your sleep, avoid them before bed. If you have a partner who snores and you need the room to be quiet - create that environment.
Your job is to simply give yourself the best opportunity to sleep well. Your body can then choose to take that opportunity or not.
“And remember,” Dr David says, “Almost nobody falls asleep the minute their head hits the pillow.” He adds that average sleep efficiency (the proportion of the time you’re in bed that you’re actually asleep) is only around 85%. So, in an eight-hour window, it’s totally normal to be awake for around 40 minutes.
3. Your night reflects your day
Dr David also believes that our sleep mirrors our waking life. “We aren’t robots that can just switch on and off,” he says. “We need balance during the day to sleep well at night.”
He suggests that getting into the proper physical and mental state for sleep is a 24-hour process. It’s not something you can suddenly start to do an hour before bed.
So if your sleep is consistently bad, you may need to build in more rest and relaxation during your day. Consider making time for some regular five-minute meditation or mindfulness practices at a bare minimum.
Stress-related fatigue and changing hormones aren’t a good recipe for sleep.
4. Embrace naps
Busting a common sleep myth, Dr David says that, contrary to popular belief, naps are actually a great way to get more sleep. Unless you suffer from acute insomnia, he believes there’s no reason to avoid napping if your lifestyle allows it.
5. Forget the eight-hour rule
The idea that humans need eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is a relatively recent social construct. Before the industrial revolution and the introduction of artificial lighting, humans rested from when the sun went down and got up when it came up.
(And during those hours, sleep wasn’t the only focus!)
So if you find you function well and feel good on less than eight hours each night, there’s no reason to try to force yourself to get more.
6. Try to get up at the same time every day
When it comes to consistency, Dr David says it’s best to focus on the time we get up. So, rather than concentrating on what time you go to bed at night, focus on getting up at the same time every day. Then simply follow your body’s tiredness cues in the evening.
Most importantly, treat yourself with compassion
At the end of the day (both figuratively and literally), acceptance may be the answer to a lot of our sleep questions. It’s a simple fact that, at different times of our lives, we’ll experience different sleep patterns and quality.
Just remember that solid blocks of night-time sleep aren’t the only restorative options available to you. Short naps during the day are your friend too!
Plus, if you build regular guilt-free rest, replenishment, and energy restoration into your day, the number of hours you sleep at night becomes much less important.
- What causes stress and how do you deal with it?
- Is sugar really that bad for us?
- Why is mental wellbeing important, and how can I improve mine?
- How to overcome challenges when life hits a speed bump
Dr David Cunnington is a specialist sleep physician who helps his clients to treat their complex sleep problems while also promoting sleep health through education, research and advocacy.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board June 2021