Are you unable to fall asleep at night? Or perhaps you’re waking up at 2 or 3am, unable to go back to sleep? Maybe you used to sleep like a baby, but can’t remember what that even feels like anymore.
Sleep disturbances are a hot topic among the women I see in my practice, and in my online community. Many women, perhaps like you, struggle to control their thoughts, emotions and actions because they’re so freaking TIRED, and maybe even a little wired. Even I, who usually sleeps very well, had a bought of insomnia for months back in 2014 when I was under a lot of stress and in a bad job.
What Happens in Your Body When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep
Our quality of sleep is very much tied to our hormones, for better or for worse. In fact, some research has shown that upwards of 67% of menstruating women have experienced sleep problems, especially in the few days before their period arrives.
There are real problems that can develop and arise when we don’t get enough sleep.
Poor sleep can really pack on the pudge- especially in the belly area. Before that statement triggers you to start hating on your belly some more, take this in. You have two major appetite hormones, leptin and ghrelin. Poor sleep quality can increase your ghrelin (which makes you hungry) and decrease your leptin (which keeps you feeling full and satisfied). Basically, this means you’re more likely to overeat if you have chronically disrupted sleep. I remember eating constantly throughout the day just to try and keep myself awake when I was going through my sleep issues. I definitely gained weight and felt even worse about myself during this time.
Sex Hormones and Menstrual Cycle
As I mentioned above, many women experience sleep problems a few days or a week before their period arrives. Just when we WANT more sleep to rejuvenate and give the PMS monster a rest, we are deprived. What gives? Well, a few days before your period, both estrogen and progesterone (which have been high up until this point) dip (often drastically).
Progesterone is a calming hormone, one that helps us to sleep better at night, and reduces our depression and anxiety. When it comes to sleep and PMS, the problem is two-fold. First, progesterone is often super LOW in women who experience various symptoms of hormonal imbalance. Second, progesterone dips, often quite dramatically just before our period starts. So, if you have low progesterone to start with, you might experience poor sleep a lot more often, maybe throughout your whole luteal phase (second half of your cycle), and the drastic decline of what little progesterone you had worsens the problem right before Aunt Flo arrives.
If your estrogen is also low, or too high in comparison to your progesterone levels, this could increase the problem BIG TIME. Many women entering perimenopause and menopause note sleep difficulties because both their estrogen and progesterone are on a general decline, as the adrenal glands take over hormone production from the ovaries.
Lastly, if you experience irregular or absent menstrual cycles, there could be another factor influencing both your sleep quality and your cycle regularity. That is the hormone melatonin. Melatonin helps regulate our circadian rhythm (or sleep-wake cycle), and without adequate melatonin and a great circadian rhythm, your estrogen, progesterone, thyroid hormone and luteinizing hormone (LH) levels will be thrown out of whack- delaying or preventing ovulation. No ovulation = no period.
Everything Else in Your Body
Sleep isn’t just important for your waistline and hormones balance- it will essentially effect almost any other system in the body. As you may be aware, there are different stages to sleep. The deepest sleep stage is the time of real repair for your body. Cells are able to repair damage from stress and trauma, the immune system gets a boost and your metabolism stays on track. A lot of this healing is due to higher levels of growth hormone, which does trigger “growth” in kids, but is used for healing in us adult folk.
Long story short, not enough sleep will slow or halt your body’s critical repair time, will slow your metabolism to a crawl and isn’t doing you any favours when it comes to managing stress!
This is Why You Can’t Sleep
If you’re reading this, chances are you haven’t slept well through the night in a really long time. Maybe it’s because you can’t fall asleep, or perhaps you can’t stay asleep, or both. The interesting part is, regardless of what type of sleep issue you have, often there is a similar story to how you got to this point.
Your Brain Won’t Turn Off
Many of the women who come to see me as private clients tell me that they just can’t seem to turn their brain off at night. Often, they replay the day in their head, continue to worry about things happening tomorrow, or situations that are out of their control. They lie in bed and stew, ruminating over stuff that matters and stuff that doesn’t. Sometimes this is the ONLY time in the day these women have to have a thought of their own. Pretty scary. Is this you too?
You’re Incredibly Stressed
Yep, it’s official- we’re all STRESSED. Like, to the max. To the top. To the point of not being able to take it anymore. Maybe your stressed out way of living makes you embarrassed for yourself because you’re freaking out on innocents who really haven’t done anything earth shattering.
Chronic stress raises the stress hormone cortisol, which is produced in your adrenal glands. Cortisol, while healthy in normal amounts and rhythms, can really disrupt your sleep. Cortisol should be highest when you first wake up (part of that circadian rhythm) and then gradually decline until is becomes very low before you go to bed, leaving you sleepy and ready for slumber. However, in the chronically stressed woman, cortisol levels often become high all the time, or they REVERSE. Reversed cortisol will make it hard to get out of bed in the morning, but you’ll be so wired by bedtime that it’s nearly impossible to fall asleep.
You Don’t Take Time for YOU
This is really a continuation of the above. No time for you = poor stress management. Simple statement, simple truth. Are you taking time for yourself? No, not with a friend, or watching TV with your spouse. Just by yourself, for yourself. Like maybe a hot bath with a good book and a pice of dark chocolate. Or doing a facial mask and body scrub just because. OR going for a solo walk to listen to the sounds of nature and get grounded. If you don’t remember the last time you’ve done one of these, or have NEVER done it, it’s time to make a change. For the sake of your health, and your sleep.
What IS Healthy Sleep?
Yep, pretty sad, but often we don’t know. Should it be 9 hours? Should I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow? How do I know if I’ve gotten enough sleep? These are pretty common questions.
The truth is, the amount of sleep required varies for every individual. However, there are some great guidelines to move towards. Adults are recommended to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. Many women get only 5 or 6. This is the amount of time your body needs to really rejuvenate.
If you wake up NOT feeling rested, and you’re a moody and binge-eating mess for the rest of the day, chances are your sleep quality isn’t very good. If you’re waking up 3 times a night to pee, or just because your body jerks you awake for no good reason- your sleep quality isn’t up to par.
How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep – 6 Natural Sleep Hacks
There are endless strategies to getting a good night’s sleep in a holistic way, and I’ve outlined my favourite 6 below. I urge you to pick ONE and try it for 1 week. I bet it’ll make a big difference. Add in other techniques as necessary until you find a good balance.
#1 Laptop Curfew
Giving yourself a laptop curfew, or a time before bed when ALL screens are turned off is imperative for healthy, rejuvenating sleep. Whether you’re emailing, watching TV, flipping through Facebook on your phone or using any other device with a screen, turn it off at least one hour before going to sleep.
Why? Well, the simple reason is that these devices cognitively stimulating, making you feel more awake. Additionally, when your brain becomes revved up, it often puts our body into “fight or flight” mode, increasing stress and stress hormone output. What we want for good sleep is to be in “rest and digest” mode- and screen time won’t get you there. Lastly, the blue light emitted by these devices delays the production and release of your sleep hormone, melatonin because your hypothalamus (itty-bitty part of your brain) becomes stimulated.
#2 Bedtime Rituals
While a laptop curfew could be considered a bedtime ritual, I highly recommend that becomes only PART of what you do at night to prepare yourself for sleep. Having rituals that you do every single night really helps your body to have a sense of routine. Over time, your body will be signalled to move into that “rest and digest” mode simply through the actions of your rituals. If rituals sounds a little woo-woo to you, feel free to think of them as a bedtime routine.
Here are some examples of bedtime rituals. I urge you to try any or all of them, until you find what works best in your life. Then, commit to doing them nightly and you’ll be sleeping like a baby in no time!
- Laptop curfew (see instructions above)
- Brain dumping (see info below)
- Restorative, Gentle or Yin yoga
- Deep breathing or meditation
- An epsom salt bath (see more about using it’s main component Magnesium below)
- Reading a fluff novel- no true crime or other stimulating subjects
- Applying a lotion with calming scents like lavender, chamomile or sage
- Diffusing essential oils into the bedroom like lavender, chamomile, sage, vetiver, ylang ylang, sandalwood, cedarwood, bergamot or marjoram
- Having a cup of herbal tea- look in stores for a sleepytime blend or try lavender, chamomile, rose, passionflower, skullcap, or lemon balm
- Laying out your clothes for the next day and pre-packing your lunch
#3 Brain Dump
Brain dumping is often one of the most effective sleep remedies in my clinical experience. Many women simply can’t fall asleep because their minds are constantly running- with worries, to-dos, song lyrics, TV show outcomes- you name it. Being able to take all of that circling information out of your brain and onto paper can help to relax the mind and prepare for sleep.
To do a brain dump, get yourself a little notebook and a pen to keep by your bedside. Don’t do this in an app or on your phone, because you’re turning screens off before bed, right? Every night before bed, write down everything that’s running in your mind. It doesn’t have to make sense, and no one is going to read it, so let the words flow from your mind onto the paper. You never even have to read it again if you don’t want to, so don’t let this be a scary experience.
Once you feel you’ve written everything down, or your mind feels finally calm, stop the dumping and you should be ready for sleep!
Possibly my favourite nutrient/supplement for sleep, magnesium can truly work wonders. Magnesium is both a muscle and nervous system relaxant, meaning that it will help calm your body and mind for restful slumber. I find that many women with hormonal imbalances and sleep issues are deficient in magnesium, and bringing this nutrient up to par in your body may be great for your sleep.
There are many different forms of magnesium, like citrate, glycinate and malate- all of which are helpful for sleep. One thing to note is that higher doses of the citrate form may cause loose bowels or gassiness in some people. For that reason I often recommend the glycinate form, but you can choose what works for you. You can also use magnesium in the form of epsom salts, which are essentially magnesium sulfate, and can be absorbed through the skin when you take a bath.
If you are taking a supplement, start with 200mg daily before bed. You can work up to a dose that’s right for your body- up to 1200mg daily. If you are taking more than 400mg, split the doses and take some during the day as well- don’t worry, it won’t make you sleepy or drowsy during the day. Be consistent in taking the magnesium for a few months to see how it will work for you.
#5 Sleep Herbs
If you know me, you know I love herbal medicine. Sleep is a great application to use herbs. Herbs can be taken as tea, tincture or capsules. I find clinically that teas and tinctures tend to work faster for the purposes of getting to sleep.
Here is a list of herbs that may be helpful for sleep:
- passionflower (this can be combined with the above two herbs for a potent combination in tincture form)
- lemon balm
- St. John’s wort (note: don’t take if you’re on antidepressants)
Teas can be made by using 1 tsp of the herb or herb mixture with one cup boiling water poured over. Steep covered for 10-15 minutes for maximum benefits.
Tinctures can be taken in the few hours before bed.
#6 Pre-Bed Protein Snack
A common reason women may wake during the night or have trouble staying asleep is imbalanced blood sugar. If your body believes it doesn’t have enough fuel, it might wake you up during the night. If you find yourself waking up more than once a night, or having trouble falling back to sleep or you need to eat something in the middle of the night, blood sugar imbalance may be at the root of your issue.
Of course, it is important to balance blood sugar all day with every meal and snack, but specifically for sleep, having a pre-bed protein snack could help. Protein helps to balance blood sugar and keep us full, as well as providing building blocks for the repair your body does at night.
Some examples of protein snacks to enjoy 1-2 hours before bed would be:
- Small handful of nuts
- One tbsp of nut butter (like almond or cashew) on a bit of fruit (like half an apple or pear)
- A small cup of chicken soup, or another soup with protein in it
- Chia pudding topped with some hemp seeds
- Two tbsp of grass-fed collagen protein (like from Great Lakes or Vital Proteins) mixed into your nightly herbal tea
- A little bit of leftover cooked chicken or turkey with some salt
As you can see, while sleep disturbances can be extremely debilitating there are many natural remedies that are very efficient in helping your body to get back on a regular sleep-wake circadian rhythm.