Before the menopause, I’d go to sleep at night and wake up 8 or 9 hours later feeling refreshed and ready for another day’s crap. I’ve slept through storms and earthquakes and that’s despite being over-sensitive to noise in the daytime. It was one of my better points that I could lose myself in my sleep. Nowadays, a cat farting in the next street wakes me, and that’s despite being deaf in one ear.
I’ve always had vivid dreams, but they’ve often been pleasant ones. The kind of dreams where you don’t want to wake up, like the one with Nick Cage, myself and a jacuzzi. However, once I entered into the peri-menopause, my dreams started to get weird, bordering on nightmares. So now I’m convinced that Quentin Tarantino writes my dream scripts because they are so f**ked up. Dreams of headless horses and eight-legged frogs hanging out of my bottom? And those are not the worst ones. Even Freud would shit himself. Trust me.
I naively thought my sleep would go back to how it was once I was post-meno, but that’s not how this thing works because Mother Nature is a COW. So, like any self-respecting autie, I got researching and after a few hours trawling the internet, I found out that bad dreams are a problem for many menopausal women and if I had to take a wild guess at why it happens, I’d say that it’s partly to do with the lack of oestrogen.
To explain it, we need to go back to the scurge of womanhood.
Oestrogen levels plunge at week four of the monthly cycle and the lower it goes, the more you want to stab people and eat your own weight in chocolate. You get your period and you’re a grumpy bastard for a few days, (especially if you have painful periods). In that case, you live on painkillers and walk around with a hot water bottle permanently strapped to your pelvis area. Once the levels start to rise your sanity is restored and your family can breathe easy again because the beast is back in it’s cage, albeit temporarily.
So, you get the picture that oestrogen is the calming hormone, right?
Well, there is a natural decline in oestrogen during the menopause and once it’s gone, it’s gone, unless it’s replaced with HRT, and even then it’s only a temporary measure.
I remember that my dreams used to turn nasty when I was on my period, so maybe it’s not so surprising that nearly all my dreams are bad now I’m menopausal?
So, what to do about it?
I’ve been back and forth to the doctors desperately trying to find answers for my sleep problems. Gotta be honest here, they don’t have a clue and if I hear the word, ‘anxiety dear’ one more time, I will strangle the offender with their stethoscope.
HRT is no longer an option for me, and even if it was, once I stopped taking it I would go back to having shit dreams. So, I might as well get my head around the fact that bad dreams are my new ‘normal’ and work on what I expose my brain to throughout the day, because, believe me, it’s relative.
So, what can we do to improve our sleep?
Negative thoughts find their way into our dreams, especially when ‘good cop’ oestrogen is no longer there to beat the shit out of them them with her truncheon. REM is the part of sleep where we process our emotions, so it stands to reason that negative thoughts throughout the day will manifest as nightmares, yes?
The answer is simple: Be mindful of your thoughts.
The world can be a scary place. The news highlights high mega-shit humans can be and exposing ourselves to these horrors can be detrimental – as can watching disturbing movies and TV. For instance, I like my psychological thrillers, but I can guarantee a crap night’s sleep if I watch them before bed. I try to remind myself to do some light reading or watch a life-affirming movie or comedy. That said, I had the ‘frog up the arse’ dream after watching Victoria Wood – a comedian. I managed to decipher the dream (ish) and remembered her talking about some bloke in the same hospital as her who had ‘accidentally’ sat on top of his Dyson hoover attachment. As you do. So, that explains the arse bit. However, I still can’t explain the frog. Or why it had eight legs. Where is Freud when you need him, eh?
Calcium and Magnesium
Some women swear by taking calcium and magnesium supplements before bed. I’m doing this, but as I have only been taking them for a few days, there’s no improvement as yet. I would recommend taking citrate versions of these supplements as carbonate can be constipating. However, if you have diarrhea based IBS, carbonate might help to dry you up a bit AND help you to sleep. Win and win!
A Sodding Great Big Glass of Gin?
Alcohol might propel you off into sleepyland quickly enough, but you will have weird dreams and wake up in the early hours with a dry mouth or needing a big wee. Sorry, but no alcohol before bed if you want to improve your dreams and sleep in general.
Eating big meals late at night can cause sleep disturbance and vivid dreams. This is because your digestive system requires a lot of energy to digest food. Your heart-rate will rise for a start. Light snacks (non-sugary) won’t affect you as much. In some cases, it will help to balance blood sugar levels because being hungry also interferes with sleep.
As they are designed for short term use, I don’t recommend them because this isn’t a short-term problem. Sleeping pills are addictive and you might find you can’t sleep without them. If so, you are most likely addicted and that’s not great.
Our bodies play a part in bad dreams, especially with anxiety cases like me. I think our brains respond to stress hormone surges as we sleep. I have noticed that I typically wake up between 4.30 and 5.30. The dreams I have just before I wake (with my heart hammering) start off being fairly boring, but they always take a sinister turn. Just before my eyes fly open, in strolls Tarantino, and my dream turns into Reservoir Dogs. For example, this morning I was screaming in my dream. I was in imminent danger of being harmed by something unseen, but sinister, when I woke up with my heart pounding. Our heart rates naturally speed up during REM (when we dream) and my sensitised brain associates the increase in heart rate as danger and wakes me up. Clever, but annoying as fuck.
If this is you, my advice would be to get up once you wake up. No matter how early that is. It’s tempting to try and go straight back to sleep, but here’s the thing: Adrenalin is surging through your body and even if you manage to fall back to sleep, you will continue to have vivid dreams. It becomes a cycle. Get up, move about a bit and burn some of that adrenalin off!
We worry because it’s our hearts. Surely, all this waking up with rapid heart beats will cause us harm? The reality is that our hearts are designed to withstand adrenaline surges because this natural response keeps us alive. It’s unpleasant, but not dangerous. A few deep breaths and my heart rate is back to normal because I don’t add fear to the mix anymore, so I rarely have full-blown panic attacks. However, if these kind of symptoms are new for you, and are accompanied by chest pain and breathlessness, you should seek medical help.
There are many reasons why we have bad dreams. In being mindful of what we ingest, via our bodies AND minds, we can improve the situation. But I also think we just have to accept that some nights we are going to have crap dreams. So, lets not worry about it too much because that in itself will earn us a bad night’s sleep.
“Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” Stephen King