A good night’s sleep - between seven and nine hours for most adults - is essential for our physical and mental wellbeing. It gives us energy, boosts our memory, allows us to process information and ensures that we’re productive in our work and home lives.
Shift work, work or family-related stress and even coronasomnia – sleeplessness made worse by the challenges of COVID-19 – can all affect the amount of sleep we get. However, it’s not just about the amount of sleep you get. Quality of sleep is as important and female health issues are a key reason why women often wake up feeling tired and continue to suffer from fatigue during the day.
How does a lack of sleep affect women?
Women experience insomnia - an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep - for many reasons, but most are associated with changes in hormone levels during menstruation, pregnancy and menopause. These can affect your circadian rhythm and cause sleeplessness.
Chronic insomnia can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure and other long-term physical, mental and psychiatric conditions so it’s important to address any sleep issues as soon as they arise.
Periods and poor sleep
Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) can affect your sleep, especially if you’re more sensitive to hormonal changes. Physical symptoms, such as breast tenderness, cramping and bloating associated with your period can keep you awake – as can feelings of depression, anxiety or irritability commonly associated with PMS.
It’s common to feel tired during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy as hormone changes can make you feel emotional and nauseous and interrupt your sleep. In later pregnancy you might experience restless legs, pain and incontinence as well as strange dreams which leave you anxious.
These sleep problems can continue even after the baby is born when hormone levels drop and - alongside getting up in the night to see to childcare, which leads to disturbed sleep – you can be left feeling exhausted.
Menopause and beyond
Fatigue is a common experience during menopause and postmenopause. Menopausal women are more likely to experience night sweats and hot flushes at night, both of which disrupt sleep.
Women are also more likely to suffer with conditions such as sleep apnoea as they get older. Plus, some conditions associated with chronic pain (such as migraine, arthritis and restless legs syndrome) or those affected by ageing (such as incontinence and joint pain) are more likely to be experienced by women and can also keep you awake at night.
How can I improve my sleep?
Lead a healthy lifestyle
As well as ensuring you have a healthy diet, stay hydrated and do regular exercise, setting a regular sleep habit can help you fall asleep and stay asleep.
Time naps right
If you enjoy an afternoon nap, try to take it early enough that it won’t interfere with your night-time sleep. Having a quick ‘power nap’ before 3pm can help with the feelings of tiredness but won’t keep you awake at night.
Take time for yourself throughout the day
If you’re not able to take a siesta, because you work or you have childcare responsibilities, take ten minutes out of your schedule for yourself. Take a walk around the block, walk up and down the stairs or meditate. Your health professional can recommend relaxation techniques, or there are plenty of apps and website with exercises to try.
Avoid eating late
Leave plenty of time between your last meal and your bedtime to reduce the risk of acid reflux during the night and avoid spicy food, caffeine and alcohol after about 6pm.
Go to bed and wake up at the same time everyday
You might be tempted to stay up late sometimes, but it’s important that you keep a consistent bedtime – even on a weekend. Set your alarm for the same time everyday and try to go to sleep at the same time every night.
Create a relaxing sleep routine
Try to relax before bedtime, avoid any stressful activities and only go to bed when you’re tired, so you’re not trying to sleep when you’re wide awake. Avoid spending time in front of your phone or computer an hour before going to sleep as blue light can keep you awake.
Continue your relaxation techniques until you fall asleep. If you find that you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, don’t lie there worrying about being unable to sleep; try restarting your routine to give yourself another chance to wind down.
When you get into bed, wear breathable cotton pyjamas or a nightshirt to help keep you cool and ensure the temperature of the room is low and comfortable.
Lack of sleep is affecting my work
A lack of sleep can affect your performance and productivity at work and sour relationships with colleagues – all of which can end up making you unhappy in your job. Don’t be afraid to approach your manager, HR department or occupational health adviser who can offer help and support.
Lack of sleep is affecting my mental health
If sleeplessness is affecting your mental health and stopping you from enjoying your usual activities, don’t suffer in silence. Talk with a partner or friend or find out whether there’s an online or face-to-face group in your area. And make an appointment with your health professional – a GP or midwife – who will be able to recommend lifestyle changes and/or medication.
Healthy sleeping habits for women
Consultant Gynaecologist, Miss Ana Zakaryan, talks about the importance of a good night's sleep and how women can develop good sleeping habits during all stages of their life.
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Published on 21 November 2022