At a recent conference on sleep, we discussed the discovery that insomnia is far more prevalent in women than in men. I was surprised to learn that women have far more slow wave sleep than men, along with some other sleep quality differences.
It’s commonly known that insomnia in women often occurs as a side-effect of depression, and that twice as many women suffer from depression as men do. What isn’t known, however, is whether insomnia and altered sleep wave patterns are a cause or a consequence of depression, or simply an unrelated finding.
My personal view is that it is all related to women’s cycling estrogen levels and their relationship to the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is the 24-hour rotation of earth on its axis to which all life has adapted. All living creatures have clocks built into their genes, controlling every bodily function, coordinating all with the movement of our planet.
It is now known that hormones, and in particular estrogen, regulate the master clock in the brain. Anything which disrupts normal hormones will affect the master clock and, in turn, affect the circadian rhythm. An altered circadian rhythm will impact both mood and sleep.
These days, women are generally not living in accordance with their innate rhythms. They are often placed on chemical contraception, exposed constantly to endocrine disruptors, eat far too many processed foods, and not enough amounts of fiber and plant-based foods. They are exposed to far too much blue light at night, and don’t get out into the sunshine and into nature’s beauty enough.
So, for example, if a woman is taking chemical contraceptives such as birth control pills, living a life inconsistent with natural rhythms, and continually being exposed to chemical endocrine disruptors, this is at odds with nature’s plan; the lack of normal hormones, along with the chemical interference of toxins, leads to both chronic insomnia and mood disorders.
Healthy women of reproductive age have cycling hormones and hormones which are key to proper regulation of the master clock, which is located in the brain, sitting atop the optic nerve, sensing light and dark. Women’s hormonal fluctuations make them innately more prone to circadian disruption. This natural sensitivity is magnified by our unhealthy lifestyles and by the pharmaceuticals so often taken.
They skip breakfast, eating at random times during the day and often late into the night. They sit too much, exercise too little, go to sleep too late, and sleep with too much ambient light. Why should we be surprised by the rampant development of insomnia and depression? It would surely be surprising to not have that occur.
So what’s the solution? It’s simple, but not easy to implement. Get back to basics and live as we are intended to live. Eat lots of vegetables and fruit, and never eat processed foods or confined feedlot animals. Go to bed by 11pm. Sleep in a cool dark room. Eat a healthy breakfast and no more than three meals a day – no snacks! – and stop eating by 8pm in order to facilitate an adequate overnight fast.
During the day, get up and move and exercise. Work on stress. Avoid chemical contraceptives and pharmaceuticals, unless absolutely mandatory. Avoid television and computer use for two hours before bedtime.
I know how hard this sounds – but here’s the reality check moment. Your health is not an optional extra in your life. Your health – mental and physical – are vitally important and key components of determining your quality of life. Health must be maintained, even when you think it’s inconvenient!
Decide what is important to you in life and you will see that making it happen requires excellent health. Nurture your rhythms and your hormones and you will see your sleep and your mood dramatically improve!