How are you sleeping, if it’s not too personal a question? If you’re juggling kids and their crazy sleep patterns plus paid work, a busy household and changing hormones, chances are that your sleep is suffering.
We’re all taught that sleep is important for our health. But according to sleep specialist Dr David Cunnington, “it’s just part of the restorative process that helps us to maintain good physical and mental health.”
Still, poor sleep can take a real toll on your daily life. And some people even wonder if not getting enough sleep can make them sick. So we asked Dr David to talk about how sleep and women’s health are linked, and some insights on how to get more rest.
It’s normal for women’s sleep patterns to change over time
Each new stage of life brings huge changes to our sleep (along with everything else). For parents, sleep can really suffer when children are young.
“Absolutely, women are tired,” Dr David acknowledges. “They've got a lot of stuff to do and fit into the day, which means finite opportunities for sleep.”
The natural aging process also plays a part in changing your sleep patterns. As you age, so do your bodily processes, along with your strength and stamina. As you get older, you probably don’t expect to be able to run the same distance, climb the same giant set of stairs, or even get out of a chair without grunting.
And sleep is no different, Dr David says. “It’s a biological process that changes as we get older. As we age, our sleep naturally gets wobblier and less robust.”
But even though we’ve physically aged, many of us still expect ourselves to function as though we were 20 years old.
“We have social beliefs and constructs around sleep, so we don't think of it as a biological process. Ideally, as we get older, we’d modify our behaviours around sleep to reflect these changes. But that’s hard to do because we're creatures of habit.”
He says that many of us yearn for the type of sleep we had as teenagers. But for women with young children, normal sleep involves waking up a few times during the night and being awake for a while each time.
The natural ageing process also plays a part in changing your sleep patterns.
Do hormones affect sleep?
If you’re wondering whether hormones affect our sleep, Dr David’s answer is “Absolutely!”
Our hormone levels also change as we age. “The hormones oestrogen and progesterone both help to promote sleep,” he says. “So if you’re getting close to peri-menopause, your sleep will probably get lighter as your levels of these hormones gradually drop.”
Then, once you reach menopause, those hormone levels fall to their lowest and your sleep gets even lighter. You might find you can’t get to sleep. Or you might wake up more often during the night or get the dreaded 3am insomnia.
“Those same variations in sleep depth during menopause also happen across the menstrual cycle,” Dr David adds. “So as hormonal levels drop in the premenstrual phase of the cycle, women who tend to get insomnia anyway will often find it gets worse during this time.”
How do you know if you’re sleeping enough?
“Are you sleeping enough?” can seem like a silly question if you’re always feeling tired.
But Dr David says that we often get caught up in trying to achieve ‘perfect sleep’. We can feel as though our sleep has to look or feel a certain way.
He tells his clients that their sleep is ‘good enough’ if they feel mentally and physically healthy. “So if that’s the case, try not to worry about how many hours you sleep,” he says.
“People ask me how well I sleep, and I always say ‘well enough’,” he continues. “Sleep just needs to fulfil that function of allowing me to do what I need to do during the day and maintain my physical and mental health.”
Self-compassion is important and a key concept in mindfulness.
How to get more rest (it’s not just about sleep)
Sleep and rest are both important for helping us to manage stress. But ‘rest’ doesn’t have to mean a daytime nap, Dr David says.
Just a quiet ten minutes, when nobody’s asking you for anything, can help you to feel refreshed and ready for the ‘second shift’ in the afternoon. Plus, resting every day will help you to avoid burnout, too.
“This is a much healthier way to manage life, compared to overdoing it for six months and then needing to go to a health retreat to recuperate from total overwhelm,” he adds.
Here are Dr David’s 3 top tips to keep in mind when it comes to rest.
1.Give yourself permission to do nothing
Let’s be honest. If you’re always busy, it can be really hard to slow down or stop. For many people, it’s simply not socially acceptable to take small breaks every day. And choosing to ‘do nothing’ during the day is almost impossible.
Dr David acknowledges that this is a major challenge for many women. “Often, sleep is the only socially acceptable time that working women give themselves permission to do nothing. So the first hurdle is taking guilt-free time off task.”
Taking time out a few times a day away from your to-do list or e-calendar will rest your mind and boost your energy.
“People regularly ask me how many hours of sleep women need. But if you build some guilt-free rest and restoration into your day, the number of hours you sleep becomes less important,” Dr David says.
“Doing that means there’s less riding on your night-time sleep. It stops you having just one shot at putting energy back in the tank.”
2.Set aside time to rest
That leads us to the next point: make rest a priority!
So many people wonder what happens if they don’t get enough sleep. But really, they should be wondering what happens if they don’t get enough rest.
That’s because taking time to rest during the day is really important for your physical and mental health, especially if you’re not getting enough sleep at night.
It’s essential to set aside time for rest. If you wait until everything else is done, you’ll never get the rest you need. That doesn’t have to mean a nap – although it’s fine if you want one.
Whatever you do, your rest doesn’t have to be productive! There are lots of benefits and ways of achieving a more joyful, meaningful life.
3.Be kind to yourself
Yes, you thought you were reading about sleep, not self-compassion. But the two are linked, says Dr David.
He believes that self-compassion is really important. “It’s one of the key concepts in mindfulness, but it’s something many women lack.”
He says that looking after yourself is vital. If you automatically put everyone else’s needs before your own – including the dog’s – remember that without proper rest, you can’t look after anyone.
How to get more rest without sleeping
- Meditate or practise mindfulness.
- Walk outside or into nature.
- Focus on your breathing.
- Lie down and close your eyes.
- Listen to music that makes you happy.
- Phone a friend.
- Dance around the living room.
- Do a hobby you love: draw, paint, bake a cake, play an instrument or do some messy craft.
If sleep is still a problem, help is available
If you feel like you’re too busy to rest during the day, that could be a sign that you really need it! Remember: it only takes a couple of ten-minute rests each day to recharge.
If you’re struggling to get good night-time sleep – especially if no children are waking you up – professional help is available. See your GP, who can give you some advice and can also refer you to a sleep specialist.
And if you – or someone next to you – snores, that could be a sign of an underlying medical problem, so it’s a good idea to mention that to your doctor.
Lastly, try to avoid any screens late at night too, because there’s evidence that blue light affects your sleep.
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- 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 Panel June 2021