Wednesday 22 October 2014

'Yoga saved my sanity during the menopause'

Gentle yoga can help insomnia and many other debilitating menopausal symptoms, writes Fiona McBennett

Breda Sweeney and Isabelle Gordon are big believers in yoga's benefits. Photo: Ronan Lang.
Isabelle (left) and Breda (right) in some classic poses. Photos at the Dublin Yoga studio by Ronan Lang.

The menopause is a time of major hormonal, psychological and physical change for women and leaves many suffering a variety of uncomfortable symptoms such as hot flushes, mood swings, memory lapses and anxiety problems.

Insomnia is one of the most common problems women face and one of the most debilitating. According to research carried out by the Sleep Clinic in the Mater Private Hospital, Dublin, 66pc of women suffer from insomnia during the menopause.

Breda Sweeney, a retired teacher from Dublin, went through the menopause five years ago at the age of 52 and suffered badly with insomnia. "I would be awake for most of the night and then absolutely wrecked the next morning. The insomnia was dreadful, I couldn't cope with work or life as I was continually exhausted. The lack of sleep lead to panic attacks, palpitations and anxiety problems, I had a really bad time."

As Breda experienced, lack of sleep goes beyond just feeling tired; it affects our physical and mental well-being. We all know how a single sleepless night can make us feel irritable and moody, so it's no surprise that prolonged sleeplessness can lead to more serious disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Long-term sleep deprivation is bad news for our health; it can compromise our immune system and leave us at risk of heart disease and diabetes. Research has shown that lack of sleep can be as detrimental to our heart as smoking and that the body reacts to sleep loss in a similar way to insulin resistance, resulting in high blood sugar levels. Weight gain due to fluctuating hormones is often a worry during the menopause and studies have shown that there is a direct link between lack of sleep and putting on the pounds; with the risk of obesity being highest in those getting less than seven hours sleep each night.

So why does the menopause affect sleep? The menopause signals a drop in two main hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, and it's this that leads to a change in sleep patterns. Oestrogen is important for controlling magnesium levels in the body and magnesium allows muscles to relax. A drop in this chemical can make it difficult to fall asleep.

Lowered levels of oestrogen are also the cause of night sweats and breathing problems such as obstructive sleep apnoea, which can unsettle the sleep cycle. Progesterone is important for helping us fall asleep and stay asleep, with levels of this hormone lowered during the menopause, it can be a struggle to slip into a deep and restful sleep.

Finding a cure for menopausal insomnia can be difficult. General treatment procedures include taking medication such as hormone replacement therapy or sedating antidepressants, reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption, keeping a sleep diary and limiting time spent in bed to seven or eight hours.

However, these approaches aren't successful for everyone and Breda felt frustrated when she tried in vain to find a cure for her sleeplessness. "I tried everything; both prescribed and herbal medicines, but nothing worked," she says.

It was only when a friend suggested Breda go to a yoga class that things started to change for the better. "I had never done yoga before but I was so desperate to get my life back that I was willing to try anything. I started going to a yoga class once a week and after about four sessions I noticed that my insomnia began to improve."

Breda is not the only one to find yoga beneficial. Researchers in America have recently studied the effect of yoga on menopausal insomnia and the results were very positive.

With an increasing amount of women opting for a "natural" approach to the menopause nowadays, the study, based on 249 inactive but otherwise healthy women, set out to examine whether exercise, yoga or fish oils would have any effect on menopausal symptoms; specifically hot flushes, night sweats, mood and sleep. The participants were divided into groups and each group was assigned 12 weeks of either moderate exercise, yoga, fish oils, a placebo tablet or nothing at all.

The results showed that the fish oils had no effect on any of the symptoms and that exercise helped only slightly to improve sleep and mood. Yoga, however, was linked to improved quality of sleep and lower levels of depression.

This was the same in Breda's case. "I began to feel relaxed when I went to bed. The yoga helped to still my mind and left my body feeling more at ease."

Students learn relaxation techniques in class that can be used at home and this is particularly beneficial for those who are struggling to sleep.

"I used to take my mat out at home and do a few poses before bed. I especially found things like forward bends helped to make me feel calm. When I lay in bed I would try to watch my breath and relax each part of my body just like my teacher would tell us to do in class," says Breda.

But does the style of yoga matter when it comes to getting a good night's sleep? There are a huge variety of yoga classes to choose from these days so it's difficult to know which one is best.

Health & Living

Also in this Section

Top Stories

Most Read

Independent Gallery

Your photos

Send us your weather photos promo

Celebrity News