Friday 22 February 2019

'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.
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.

Fiona Bennett

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."

Yoga is different from other forms of exercise as it focuses on both the body and the mind. Students are encouraged to move with their breath and it is this emphasis on the breath that makes yoga an effective stress buster.

While each yoga pose eases tension in the body by stretching tight muscles; the mind is relaxed by focusing on the breath instead of thoughts or worries.

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.

Dublin-based yoga teacher, Isabelle Gordon, recommends going to a gentle yoga class. "Gentle yoga poses, meditation and breathing exercises are all great for easing menopausal sleep problems. Poses such as lying on the floor and resting your legs up against the wall while focusing on your breath are perfect for relaxing your mind and body and don't require you to be super fit or flexible at all."

Isabelle (52), had been practising yoga for years before the menopause but when it began five years ago, she found that her sleep was affected.

"I'd always slept well and had been doing yoga for about five years. Then, as I went into the menopause, I found that my sleep patterns changed and I started to suffer with anxiety problems as a result."

Isabelle had been a fan of strong yoga classes but when her menopause began, she decided to change to a more gentle style of yoga to help treat her symptoms. She noticed immediate results.

"I started to do more relaxing poses in the evening and some meditation and I soon noticed that I was sleeping better again. Bringing my attention to my breath really helped. Breathing exercises like counting to five as I breathed in and again as I breathed out were great for clearing my head."

The experiences of both Breda and Isabelle, as well as this latest research, will give some hope to women who are sick and tired of spending their nights counting sheep. However, both women agree that doing yoga regularly is the key to keeping symptoms at bay.

"I do yoga everyday," says Isabelle, "I found that the better it made me feel the more of it I wanted to do. Doing two or three poses every evening helps to keep me feeling balanced in my body and mind and I'm sleeping great now as a result."

When Breda's menopause finished, she decided to take a break from yoga but she's recently started to wake again during the night and has returned to classes once more. "Yoga saved my sanity during the menopause, I'm confident it will work again," she says.

For more information on Isabelle's yoga classes visit: www.mydruyoga

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