Certain foods can improve (while others can worsen) night sweats, a cause of sleep disruption to women during the transitional years.
Of the many side effects faced by women approaching menopause, the most disruptive may be the sudden changes in body temperature commonly referred to as hot flashes.
“There’s a lot of research still going on to understand the area near the hypothalamus [which controls sleep and circadian rhythms in the brain] and how that controls body temperature,” says Holly Thacker, MD, of women’s health at Cleveland Clinic and executive director of the online resource Speaking of Women’s Health. “But it definitely becomes off-kilter in women once their sex hormones start to fluctuate. The thermoregulatory zone becomes incredibly narrow, so any changes in ambient temperature make the body either try to warm up, hence the feeling of hot flash, or cool down, hence sweating or chills. It’s very hard to satisfy the brain thermostat when that thermostat is so narrow.”
By day, hot flashes and sweating are a source of discomfort that eventually passes. But when they occur at night, “they can be extremely disruptive to sleep,” Thacker says.
Disrupted sleep, Thacker says, can contribute to an array of detrimental health effects ranging from weight gain to premature aging—effects that menopausal women are already at risk for due to the hormonal decline associated with the time period. It is therefore vital that women entering menopause look for ways to minimize its impact on the sleep cycle wherever possible. And one of the most powerful ways they have at their disposal is proper nutrition and dieting, Thacker says.
Nutrition and Body Temperature
Bad nutrition has been shown to impact sleep at all stages of life, but for women suffering from menopause-related sleep disruption, its impact is particularly potent.
To begin, a poor diet often results in weight gain, and “the more weight you gain, the more hot flashes you have,” Thacker says. “Obesity insulates the body and makes people a lot more temperature-sensitive. A lot of heavy women are hot at night because it’s like wearing a fur coat constantly.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that extra weight warms the body and therefore exacerbates hot flashes and poor sleep. What’s startling is that, in turn, missing out on that sleep increases the weight gain even further. “If you don’t get enough sleep, you have a lot higher cortisol levels,” Thacker says. Cortisol is a known cause of abdominal weight, which Thacker describes as “the worst kind of weight.” She says, “It’s one thing to put on the weight in your thighs and your butt—that’s the pear-shaped feminine weight, which is not as metabolically dangerous as the apple-[shaped] weight around the gut and the midsection. That’s a lot more damaging weight in terms of diabetes, hypertension, and so on.”
To put it bluntly, Thacker said, women who are “used to scrimping on sleep and thinking that they can tolerate it—that lack of sleep will make them fat.”
But while the cause-and-effect relationship between a poor diet and increased fat—and subsequently, increased fat and a poor night’s rest—seems somewhat obvious, nutrition has its own effects on sleep, although they are more subtle.
For instance, many unhealthy foods cause inflammation in the body, beginning with the intestinal walls and spreading to the bloodstream when the body surges to protect itself from what it sees as foreign bodies. In some people, Thacker says, “that can cause joint pain. For others, it can raise blood pressure or blood sugar.”
Inflammation in the blood becomes even more dangerous when paired with high cholesterol, which is frequently a by-product of unhealthy foods. “You can have high cholesterol without heart disease,” Thacker says, “but if you have high cholesterol and you have inflammation, that’s when you start clogging your arteries. And when you start clogging your arteries, you don’t have good brain function and the thermostat and temperature regulator is in the brain.”
So poor nutrition, in addition to creating weight-induced problems that worsen hot flashes, also can raise the body’s heat during menopause—by literally attacking the brain’s ability to moderate temperature.
Putting Out the Flames
Therefore, the kind of diet that contributes to poor sleep is composed of foods that contribute to inflammation in the body. Such foods are high in processed sugar, transfats, and refined grain products (including pasta, pastries, and other items made from white flour). Several types of oil can contribute to inflammation, including safflower, sunflower, and corn oil, and both dairy and red meat have been known to have inflammatory effects.
Thacker recommends that women suffering from hot flashes switch to more of a Mediterranean diet, which is heavy with olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, and legumes. One kind of fat that the body does not produce naturally, she says, is “omega-3 fat, which is anti-inflammatory. Classic omega-3 foods include salmon, tuna, sardines, and nonfish sources like walnuts, flax oil, almonds, spinach, and eggs (if the chickens who laid the eggs were fed omega-3 foods).”
Thacker also suggests laying off alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol is considered an inflammatory ingestible, potentially raising blood pressure as well as the thermostat in the brain. And caffeine, especially when consumed after 6 pm, is a known sleep deterrent.
Additionally, tobacco is a major sleep disrupter for a number of reasons. “First of all, the liver has to work harder to clear the nicotine and the other toxins [in cigarettes], which raises the body’s temperature. Second, smoking tends to ramp up all the detrimental side effects of menopause, compounding its impact on sleep,” Thacker says. “Women who smoke have earlier menopauses and they have lower estrogen levels. If you smoke, you accelerate aging, in both the ovaries and the rest of the body. And if…you accelerate aging, you slow the metabolism down and you have much more stress hormones and cortisol. So by smoking… you accelerate that hormonal decline.”
Of course, good nutrition is but one aspect of healthy sleep. Exercise and lowering stress through massage, aromatherapy, and other relaxation techniques also can facilitate better rest, and often go hand in hand, Thacker says. Sleep, nutrition, and fitness are interconnected, and as one goes, the rest will follow, especially for women entering menopause.
“There are a lot of sleep disorders in women [in general],” Thacker says. “Restless legs, sleep apnea…and when women go into menopause and lose their sex hormones, they’re at a lot greater risk for other sleep disorders on top of their hormone deficiency. It compounds. I tell women they need to really protect their sleep and be happy about getting their beauty sleep, and not just for beauty. It starts a vicious downward cycle when women don’t take care of themselves at the change of life.”
Justin W. Sanders has been a contributing writer to sister publications RT Magazine and Orthodontic Products for several years. This is his first article for Sleep Review. Send comments and questions to [email protected].