Do you find yourself lying awake in the middle of the night, thoughts whirling, body restless, as precious moments for sleep tick by? You’re not alone. One in four midlife women have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. It may seem like an impossible task but you can learn to sleep better in midlife.
I have to warn you that I am biased because I LOVE to sleep!! I love to sleep so much that I call Saturday “Napperday”! One of my favorite activities on a Saturday is to curl up in bed for an hour or so and take a nap. All the sleep articles I’ve read recommend against naps but I can’t help it. I was an insomniac for thirty years and finally learned to sleep, soundly and comfortably, and I’m embracing it with a full force bear hug!
Health effects of insomnia in adults
We all know how it feels to be exhausted. You’re tired and irritable. Your thought process is slower than usual and your reflexes delayed. But did you know that there also long term negative health impacts from lack of sleep?
According to Dr. Leslie Kernisan, from Better Health While Aging, “Insomnia has been associated with anxiety, depression, fatigue, worse quality of life, cognitive decline, and a variety of other worse long-term health outcomes.”
It has also been connected to weight gain, increased use of caffeine & nicotine, and a higher risk of injury from accidents.
Good sleep is critical to your health and well being!!
Why do women have sleep problems over 50?
For many of us in the Boomer II and Gen X generations, stress and a sense of failure plague our subconscious minds. Though women of all ages suffer from nagging thoughts, there is a problem unique to women in these age groups that doesn’t get enough attention.
We are the first – and hopefully last – generation of women who were told that we can have it all. We were brought up hearing that a successful career, family, travel, and friends could all be equally present in our life….if we just work hard enough, try hard enough, and put ourselves out there.
Our parents were trying to empower us. And, in fact, they did. We’ve shattered glass ceilings and redefined what it means to be a Mom. But, this success has come at a price. We survey our lives and see that we’re falling short of “having it all” and wonder why we can’t have more money, additional time with our children, social outings with friends, and a successful career without feeling burnt out. We must need to be more diligent, put in more effort.
This keeps us up at night. The constant list of things to do and goals to be accomplished occupies our subconscious when it should be resting and preparing for another day.
Most of us are not even aware that this belief in having it all set us on a journey with a destination we can never reach.
It’s simply not possible.
How can we ever be satisfied with our accomplishments if this is the standard we are trying to achieve?
Thankfully younger generations have learned and accepted that something has to give in the “have it all” mentality. They look for balance between the parts of their life. It’s time for older adults to do the same. But, in the meantime, it is a major source of insomnia in middle aged women.
I recently read a wonderful book on the topic by Ada Calhoun. In Why We Can’t Sleep, Calhoun addresses the burden of trying to have it all and it’s impact on our generation. Every Boomer II and Gen X woman should read this book. It will change how you view the stressors in your life. I walked away from it with a new perspective.
What can you do about insomnia?
The first step to better sleep is to identify why you can’t sleep. Then focus in on the variables you can control, and let go of the ones your can’t. The three primary factors stealing sleep from middle aged women are health, hormones, and insomnia. Speak to your healthcare professional to rule out any health related issues that may be keeping you awake.
If your problem is insomnia, there are steps you can take to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
Create a comfortable sleeping environment
One of the simplest, and most often overlooked, way to improve sleep is to eliminate environmental sleep disrupters.
Do an objective review of your bedroom at night. Is it quiet? Does your partner snore? Is it too cold, or too warm? How dark is it? Is your mattress comfortable? What about your linens and pillows?
Any of these factors could be hurting your sleep. Fix the issues that are fixable such as adjusting the temperature or making your bed more comfortable. Work around the ones you can’t.
If the room is bright, wear an eye mask. Even a small amount of light can disrupt your sleep. If your partner snores or you can hear road noise, invest in some good ear plugs. I use an eye mask and ear plugs when we travel. I’ve linked my favorites here, and I’ve tried them all! The ones I love are inexpensive and long lasting. Be sure to read the instructions on the ear plugs. Life changing!!
I know women who are hesitant, or anxious, to sleep with an eye mask and ear plugs out of fear that some terrible thing might happen in the middle of the night that they’ll miss. While I suppose that there is a very slight chance that could happen, there is a far greater risk of long term health issues or injury from an accident due to lack of solid sleep.
Caffeine and nicotine will keep you awake
Nicotine and caffeine are stimulants so it should be apparent that they will disrupt sleep but they sometimes have an immediate calming feeling which is deceiving. Caffeine has a long half life which means if you drink a cup of coffee at 4:00PM, half of that caffeine could still be in your system when you go to sleep. You might fool yourself into thinking it doesn’t bother you because you fall asleep fine. But it reduces the quality of the sleep that follows and causes you to wake up in the middle of the night, or toss and turn resulting in poor sleep.
Don’t forget that caffeine isn’t just in coffee. It’s in tea, soda, chocolate, and many over the counter medications. It builds in your system over the course of the day and can remain there as long as 12 hours!! Try not to have caffeine four to six hours before bed.
Alcohol disrupts sleep
Alcohol is a bit trickier. Yes ladies, even wine. Alcohol is a depressant and may help you fall asleep but as it degrades in your system it can lead to waking and even nightmares. It disrupts your circadian rythym and results in lighter sleep and increased tiredness the following day.
The older you get, the more alcohol interrupts sleep and women suffer from the effects more than men.
“Women appear to experience the sleep-disrupting impact of alcohol more significantly than men do.”Psychology Today
Limit your alcohol intake to a few days per week and don’t drink for 2-4 hours before bed.
Exercise and stretching can improve sleep
Regular exercise is important for overall good health and improves sleep. In addition to the cardiac and strength benefits of exercise, it stretches your muscles to help with aches and pains.
The best times for exercise are in the morning and in the afternoon. Too much rigorous exercise before bed may make you feel more awake and cause difficulty falling asleep. This isn’t true for everyone so see what works best for you.
Establish a night time wind down routine
Your body and mind need to transition in order to sleep better in midlife, or at any age! Ideally you should allow yourself at least an hour to unplug and relax before going to bed but this isn’t possible for everyone. I know it’s not possible for me!
At a minimum, control what you can. Don’t look at your phone or your computer. The blue light emitted by these devices interferes with the production of melatonin and disrupts your circadian rhythm. Restrict your intake of fluids and food in the hours before bed and reduce stress and distraction as much as possible.
Develop a bed time routine that remains the same every night. It could be as simple as reading for a few minutes, getting ready for bed, then off to sleep. Go to bed and wake up at the same time daily, even the weekends. It is less important what steps are in the routine as it is that it’s the same each day. Your body will begin to recognize the steps you take in your sleep routine and will associate them with bedtime.
Stop your mind from spinning
For me, this was the most substantial hurdle on my journey to a good night’s sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night – usually 3:00AM – with my mind full of important and unimportant thoughts. Sometimes it was as simple as remembering a task I needed to do in the morning, other times it was a realization that I couldn’t forget, a puzzle my subconscious mind solved for me as I lie in bed.
I found that taking a minute to write down whatever was racing around inside my head helped to stop the thoughts. Writing it down eliminates the need to keep the idea fresh in my brain. I can then let it go.
Avoid blue light when doing this. That means you can’t use your phone as a place for notes. I keep a notepad with a lighted pen near my bedside for this purpose. It’s a simple solution that has done wonders for my sleep!!
Remind yourself daily that you can’t “have it all” but, you can have a lot. Appreciate what you’ve accomplished and what you have in your life.
Wake up well
Sleeping well should extend into the morning. Establish a wake up protocol that starts your day on solid footing. That means not reaching for your phone or laptop as soon as you open your eyes. Instead, start a stretching routine or make a cup of herbal tea. Consider a short walk or some yoga.
Beginning the day with some focused time spent on your sense of well being will put you in a more positive mindset for the day. It will also teach your brain that waking up is relaxing and pleasant which can help reduce waking stress.
You can’t control everything in your world, nor can you set aside all stressors to allow you to sleep better. You can, however reduce the impact those stressors have on your nights by implementing some, or all, of the above strategies.
Like any change, it will take some time before you see the full results. But before you know it, you’ll see improvement in your sleep patterns and in how you feel during your waking hours.
For more information about finding calm and perspective in midlife, check out Finding Perspective and Happiness in Midlife, Staying Social and Engaged in Midlife & Beyond, and Put Yourself First Without Guilt.