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Let’s Talk About Menopause with Dr Dawn

October is Menopause Month and we thought what better way to help those who are going through the menopause or know someone who is, than to answer some questions on the topic. Now, we’re no experts on the science behind it all, but we know how important your wellbeing is and that getting a good night’s sleep is a big part of it (Something that can be quite a challenge at this time in your life). That’s why we have had a lovely chat with Dr Dawn Harper - who you might recognise from TV -to help debunk the myths of the menopause. Dr Dawn is a family GP with expertise in many fields including women’s health, so we know we’re in good hands. Take a look at the interview below for advice and tips on getting a better night’s sleep

What are the most common symptoms and challenges that menopausal women have to face?

The average age for the menopause in the UK is 51 and around three quarters of women experience symptoms associated with changing hormones, the most common being hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings and sleep disturbances. We are definitely better at talking about the menopause than we were even a generation ago, but I believe we still have a way to go in encouraging women to talk openly about their experiences with friends, family and colleagues to create a better understanding of the menopause.

Why is sleep often a challenge during menopause?

Sleep problems can be a feature of the menopause in their own right, but sleep can also be affected by other menopausal symptoms. Night sweats, for example, often cause a disrupted night’s sleep and women frequently tell me they are up several times a night changing bed linen and then finding it difficult to get back to sleep. If a woman’s menopause is associated with anxiety or low mood then this will also affect sleep.

What can women do to help themselves get a better night’s sleep?

Routine - It is important to try to maintain a routine, so try to go to bed and get up at a similar time every day. The human body responds well to a regular pattern.

Exercise - Exercise during the day helps promote a healthy sleep pattern but vigorous exercise late at night can delay your ability to fall asleep.

Light - Light promotes wakefulness so I always recommend dim lighting in the evening to prepare the brain for sleep, and avoid taking technology into the bedroom – the blue light interferes with the production of sleep hormones and there is nothing like the constant buzz of social media at keeping the brain active.

Alcohol - Beware of alcohol. It may help you get off to sleep but it disrupts the normal pattern of sleep waves meaning you don’t get a proper deep recharge sleep and may start the following day with less than a full tank of fuel.

Caffeine - Caffeine has a half-life of 8 hours. That means that it takes 8 hours for half of any dose of caffeine to leave your system. I advise cutting out caffeine after lunchtime and swapping to decaffeinated drinks later in the day – camomile tea, is an excellent alternative.

Stress - I advise taking a pen and paper to bed with you so that if you suddenly think of something you have to do the following day, you can jot it down and effectively take it out of your mental inbox. Relaxation tapes are also a great way to help you switch off at the end of the day.

Temperature – Being too hot or too cold will impair your ability to sleep. Experts recommend a room temperature of around 18 degrees to be optimal for a good night’s sleep.

Hunger – Avoid eating a big meal late at night as this may leave you feeling uncomfortable and affect your sleep, but equally don’t go to bed hungry as this will also impact on your sleep.

What type of mattress would you recommend for a menopausal woman?

Your bed needs to be comfortable to ensure a good night’s sleep. All too often I hear that people are sleeping on the same mattress as they bought for their first house, so menopause might be a time to treat yourself to a new one and if flushes and sweats are an issue for you, then a mattress topper with cooling technology and cooling pillows may help.

We’ve heard that snoring can be a side effect of menopause. How can women use pillows to stop themselves from snoring?

This isn’t really the case. If there is any link it would only be related to potential weight gain around the time of the menopause.

For those who like to use a duvet, what qualities should they be looking for? Would a lighter tog be preferable, or else?

I often hear women telling me they spend all night throwing the duvet off because they are too hot and then waking again cold needing to replace it. In this scenario, it may be worth considering 2 or 3 lighter tog duvets so that you can adjust your coverings, and wherever possible opt for 100% cotton rather than synthetic fabrics as these absorb moisture more effectively.

Is there any fabric that’s better for handling night-time sweats?

I discovered 100% Egyptian cotton a few years ago and have never looked back. It might be a bit more expensive but, for me, the comfort is worth it!

Is insomnia common for menopausal women? What changes to the environment would you recommend women consider to help break out of phases of insomnia?

If those self-help measures don’t work for though, it is important that you speak to your GP. Sometimes a short course of sleeping pills will help you get over a period of stress and recreate a routine, but they are only licensed for the short term and shouldn’t be used for more than a couple of weeks because of the risk of addiction.

How important is sleep for women during menopause? Is it more important than usual?

I think sleep is vital for all of us to maintain good physical and mental health and especially in these times, it is an essential part of keeping our immune systems in good health.

Is there a sleeping position you can recommend for staying asleep/getting back to sleep?

This is a very personal choice. One thing is for sure, if you are uncomfortable then you won’t find it easy to sleep, so invest in good a quality mattress, pillows and bed linen.

What tips do you have for women who wake up in the small hours and can’t get back to sleep?

I always say that bed should be for sleeping and sex! If you are awake in the night and unable to get back to sleep after 20 minutes, try getting up and going to another quiet comfortable room to read or listen to restful music, until you feel sleepy again and then go back to bed.

What pre-bedtime changes would you recommend?

Routine is what is really important. Avoid anything that is too stimulating late at night such as an action movie.

Are there benefits of using yoga or meditation to wind down before bed?

Absolutely – yoga and meditation are marvellous ways to wind down after a busy day and prepare your body for a good night’s sleep.

Would you recommend women have a fan near the bed, or keep a window open during the night to help keep them cool?

A fan beside your bed may help waft cooler air your way if you are feeling hot but if you leave a fan on for hours in a room with closed windows and doors it will simply move the air around the room and the engine of the fan could add to the overall temperature.

Can you tell us about the science of light and sleep? Is there a specific colour light we should use or avoid around bedtime/in the night? Why do we need to block out daylight to help us sleep?

Light promotes wakefulness, so I’m a big fan of blackout curtains for anyone suffering with sleep problems. It is also a good idea to invest in dim lighting as an alternative to bright lights in the bathroom so that you don’t expose yourself to bright white light immediately before you are going to ask your brain to go to sleep.

Is napping good for us? We’ve heard that it can really help mood and concentration, but we’ve also heard that it’s bad for us, so should we be napping during the day?

As a general rule, I advise against daytime naps as they can interfere with normal wake/sleep patterns, but if you do need to take a nap, try to keep it to less than 20 minutes and make yourself get up again before you have fallen into deeper sleep.

How much of an impact can changing your sleep schedule by one hour have? Does it have any medical risks?

Sleep deprivation increases the risk of mental health problems but also increases the risk of physical health problems like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even weight gain. You can change your routine by an hour, as long as you are still getting the recommended 7 – 9 hours a night. But changing time zones can play havoc with sleep. Anything less than a 4 hour time difference shouldn’t cause too many problems.

Is there any right or wrong answer for how many pillows and cushions you sleep with?

Comfort is the name of the game here, but if you are finding that you need more and more pillows such that you are sleeping in an upright position, this could reflect a breathing or heart problem and you should consult your doctor.

What’s the best advice you would give to someone struggling with changes to their sleep pattern, whether that’s because of menopause, clock’s changing, weather conditions or otherwise?

Try my top tips. If they are not helping, ask yourself what it is that is keeping you awake. If it is pain or anxiety for example, you probably need to speak to your GP.

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