National Hypnotherapy Society | The silent scourge of mid-life…

Menopausal women are nearly four times more likely to have insomnia, and recent figures suggest that, in Britain, some 15 million prescriptions for sleeping tablets are thrown at this problem every year.

It’s not just the mood swings: chronic insomnia — defined as disrupted sleep that occurs at least three nights per week and lasts at least three months — has significant health implications and has been linked to obesity, high blood pressure, dementia and even cancer.

The physiological symptoms of the menopause are held principally to blame such as hot flushes and adrenaline surges. Then there’s hormones, sleep-promoting progesterone and mood-lifting oestrogen levels start to decline.

Insomniacs are often reluctant to ‘out’ themselves. As is the case with many mental health issues, they worry they’ll be labelled as neurotic. With a physical illness, people are likely to sympathise, offering a glass of fizzy water or a painkiller. But with insomnia, you’re offered ‘helpful’ advice, such as: ‘Have a stiff whisky’, or — worst of all — you are treated to an account of how the other person ‘sleeps like a log because they work so hard’.

Humans are in a very small minority of mammals who are monophasic sleepers — that is, their days are divided into distinct periods of sleep and wakefulness. Of the remainder, 85 per cent are ‘polyphasic sleepers’, meaning they sleep for several short periods throughout the day.

There is a school of thought that says humans have simply taught themselves to be night-sleepers and that their natural state is that of a polyphasic; babies, toddlers and older people, free of timetables and obligations, nap naturally whatever the time of day.

Professor Kevin Morgan, who heads the Clinical Sleep Research Unit at Loughborough University, agrees that some people are inherently predisposed to insomnia. ‘Inside all of us is a threshold for reaching insomnia status,’ he says. ‘Some of us have a very high threshold, so a lot would have to go on in our lives before we reach insomnia status, and some of us have a very low threshold. The life changes that accompany middle and increasing age are loaded with precipitating events that can expose it.’

Anyone who sleeps with their mobile phone next to their bed and winds themselves up before sleep with aggressive emails or violent films is just irresponsible, and tools cannot always be blamed in those circumstances. ‘It is naive to assume that modern life is destroying our sleep,’ says Professor Morgan. ‘Our mothers and grandmothers slept in hard beds in cold bedrooms with no heating or double glazing and most with outside loos, while we’ve never had more comfortable beds or homes.’

‘What we know beyond doubt is that alcohol has a direct impact on sleep,’ adds Professor Morgan. ‘It can promote sleep onset, but it can promote waking, too, and research tells us that swathes of middle-aged, middle-class women are drinking regularly, every night at home, and consuming way above the maximum 14 units recommended for them per week.’

Food also plays a part. May Simpkin, a nutritionist and head of wellbeing at Grace Belgravia in Knightsbridge, an exclusive health clinic for women, says studies have confirmed that eating less fibre, more saturated fat and more sugar is associated with disrupted sleep.

A diet that is low in sugar, low in refined carbohydrates such as white bread, cakes and sweets, high in proteins and which includes plenty of vegetables will provide all the essential nutrients to allow the body to function optimally and keep hormones, neurotransmitters and blood sugar levels in balance. This will promote regular, good quality sleep.