For me it started in my early forties, all of a sudden I was waking up at night and couldn’t get back to sleep, but started brooding. And this to me, where I was the one at home who had the best sleep of all of us. I could always sleep anywhere. To suddenly no longer be able to do that was and is a real burden. All of a sudden, what had always been a matter of course became an issue. And that was annoying. In the past, I had never thought about mattresses or room climate. I also didn’t know that I needed daylight to sleep better at night. I didn’t know anything about good sleep. And I didn’t realize that dwindling hormones during perimenopause could torpedo our sleep needs either. But let’s cut to the chase:
How much sleep do we need?
Most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Period. Anyone who says they need less is lying to themselves. Very few people actually get by on very, very little sleep. We can safely assume that we are not one of them. For a few years, I only got six or seven hours of sleep, because with two teenagers and a full-time job, there just weren’t enough hours in the day. And: I was always tired. I believed in between that I was carrying some undiscovered virus that made me tired … According to the National Sleep Foundation, it’s probably not a big problem to miss an hour of sleep every now and then. However, getting too little sleep on a consistent basis is a concern. Sleep deprivation is associated with health consequences such as obesity and high blood pressure. You also have slower reaction times while driving or operating machinery. And on top of that, lack of sleep causes bad mood, concentration problems and mood swings. All of which is not something a woman needs!
While we sleepa whole lot happens
For example, our body releases more somatotropin – also called growth hormone. This can be used to rebuild muscles and joints. The more sleep we get, the better our body can repair itself.
In the brain, cerebrospinal fluid – our cerebrospinal fluid for short – is pumped through our brain faster. You can think of it as a squeegee that quickly blows through and removes everything that needs to come out of the brain. And in the morning you wake up with a clear head.
While the brain is being scrubbed and cleaned, our heart is taking a breather. During the non-REM phases, both heart rate and blood pressure drop. Breathing is similar: we breathe more slowly and regularly when we sleep. Then again, during the day, our breathing varies greatly depending on exertion.
Our digestion is also related to our sleep: certain foods such as soybeans, cashews or cocoa powder contain the essential amino acid tryptophan. Among other things, tryptophan causes sleepiness. Now, what happens with carbohydrate-rich meals is that the carbohydrates make the tryptophan more available to the brain, which is why we can get sleepy. For those who want to delve deeper here, sleep.org is recommended.
What do hormones have to do with our sleep?
1- Melatonin, the “sleep hormone”, decisively determines our day-night rhythm. It regulates our sleep. As soon as our retina stops receiving light impulses in the evening, the pineal gland releases melatonin. In the morning, when the light comes on, the melatonin level drops back to the daytime level. In addition, altered estrogen and progesterone levels can affect our melatonin levels.
– Are you still exposed to artificial light (e.g. screen, cell phone) in the evening before going to bed? This can affect the release of melatonin and thus your sleep.
– How much do you spend outside in normal daylight on a normal day? If we spend most of our time indoors, e.g. getting into the car from the house, then driving to the underground car park and going to the office from there and making the same trip back in the evening, then this can also affect our melatonin production because we have not been exposed to ‘normal’ daylight
2- Progesterone, is the hormone that calms and relaxes us. During perimenopause, the first thing that decreases is progesterone secretion. Such an age-related progesterone deficiency during perimenopause can be manifested by restlessness, irritability, anxiety and sleep disturbances. This includes a tendency to wake up frequently. Progesterone is the hormone that acts mainly in the second half of the cycle and during pregnancy. It stimulates the growth of the uterine lining and it then prepares it for the implantation of the fertilized egg. If fertilization of the egg occurs, progesterone prevents further follicle maturation. Progesterone has a relaxing effect because it increases the production of GABA. This is a neurotransmitter, in our brain, that supports sleep. If less progesterone is released, less GABA is also released, which can then lead to sleep disturbances.
Do you have problems falling asleep or sleeping through the night and are between the ages of about 35 and 50? Then this can also be related to a decreasing progesterone level.
3- At the same time, stress can cause less progesterone to reach the cells. The “stress hormone” cortisol is responsible for this. When we suffer from chronic stress, our body uses up cortisol faster than it can produce it. To meet the demand anyway, it goes to pregnenolone. Pregnenolone is the prehormone of progesterone and progesterone is the prehormone of cortisol. So cortisol is made at the expense of our progesterone supply. And if that’s not enough on its own, cortisol can also additionally block our progesterone receptors. Meaning, although progesterone is present in the blood, it does not reach the nucleus and thus cannot act accordingly. As a result, our stress tolerance decreases and we don’t calm down and feel rushed.
Do you often feel rushed and stressed and have trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night? Then this may also be related to cortisol. With chronic stress, we have low cortisol levels in the morning and high cortisol levels in the evening in our daily profile. We wake up tired and sleepless and still can’t fall asleep well in the evening. For those who would like to know exactly whether this is the case, a cortisol test*partner link is recommended.
4- If the thyroid gland is underactive, fewer thyroid hormones are produced. These are important, however, because a corresponding amount of thyroid hormones is needed to produce progesterone. This is because progesterone is formed from pregnenolone and pregnenolone is in turn formed from cholesterol and our thyroid hormones are responsible for this. If our thyroid is already at its limit, this will also affect our progesterone levels.
5- And last but not least: low testosterone levels can also have a negative effect on sleep duration and quality in women.
So there’s quite a bit of hormonal effect on sleep. It is rarely monocausal. Most of the time, several things come together. What about your sleep? What do you do to fall asleep or sleep through the night better? What have you already tried and what would you recommend? Write as a comment and we will get back to you.