Although I have experienced many symptoms, there are two things which accompany me on my menopause journey – Hot flushes/sweats and sleep. Of the two, the lack of sleep, has been the number one thing which underscores everything, in my opinion.
I hinted about sleep in my article ‘The journey of the menopausal musician’ which I wrote for the Musicians’ Union. By the way, that article led to me being invited to participate in the roundtable discussion about women’s health for Reform Radio in Manchester; my article was curated for The Menstruation Project in Berlin, Germany, and I led the roundtable discussion ‘How can the music industry break the culture of silence on menopause?’ at MU’s Equalities and Diversity conference.
How has the lack of sleep affected me? My eyes did not look healthy, not great for stage work. My short-term memory became a little sketchy, although it didn’t affect music recall. I didn’t have the stamina to drive for long periods anymore. Some nights I slept 3hrs to 4hrs only. Sometimes 3hrs, then awake for 2-3hrs, back to sleep for 2hrs. The next is a weird description, but I felt as though I was dragging my body around, with a distant memory of what ‘rest’ felt like.
I knew that my body would not be repairing itself without proper sleep. I’m no scientist, but it felt to me that there is a correlation between the lack of sleep and increased hot flushes I was experiencing. I certainly felt more stressed because I was not sleeping properly. I became worried about how I was looking on stage. In my teaching, a couple of my students said ‘you look tired today, are you ok?’. Now that’s bad!
I felt that increases in my blood pressure were also related to the lack of sleep. Hypertension is pretty serious, and my GP had discussions with me about considering taking blood pressure tablets, as I was borderline. For me, this was the turning point. I wanted to avoid meds. (I’m not saying you should not take medical advice, as doctors are great at what they do, but I wanted to try controlling my levels using natural methods rather than medication first).
This led me to realising two things: 1) I had to figure out a way to strike the right balance between work, exercise, diet, rest, managing stress, improving mental health and maintaining spiritual health. 2) One thing I am very certain about is that the healing benefits of sleep were my starting point. If I can sleep, I can think, and if I can think, I can make better decisions about my work and lifestyle.
Great news! My cardiovascular readings are improving. I can confidently say I now get 6-7hrs each night and I’m working at getting 8hrs.
How did I tackle this?
Well, here are 10 things I did to improve my sleep and ease my menopause symptoms. I see them as part of my sleep ecosystem, as it is a composite of all these things which has resulted in me resting better at night:
1. When to eat and drink
Hormonal changes knock our body systems, such as the circulatory system, endocrine system, renal system —to name three— out of balance. I find that I am hungrier. I’m no longer the young person who can eat and drink at any time of the day and sleep it off.
I had to start listening to my body and respond accordingly. I had to make positive decisions about what I eat and drink, and when I eat and drink. Anything after 8pm, 9pm, affects my sleep and weight gain. I am more awake during the night. Evening gigs mean that I must eat before, and reduce what I eat after my performance.
2. Upkeep your vitamins and minerals
Since my menopausal changes, my vitamin D drops significantly in the winter, which was not the case before. I have more colds, and as you know, coughs disturb your sleep. I get a yearly checkup and a vitamin D boost from the GP. I am boosting my Magnesium level, and I will say more about this in a future post. Recently, I’ve been trialling a natural vitamin and minerals supplement. I will keep you posted.
3. Take time to breathe!
As a sax player, you would think that I have breathing methods all tapped, but not so. In my struggle to sleep, I came across Michael Moseley’s programme ‘Just one thing’ on BBC Radio 4. In his episode about sleep, he gives 5 tips, which include breathing techniques to help calm your locus coeruleus, the part of the brain that sends the wakeup chemical noradrenaline around your brain. I’ve tried his suggestions and they have worked for me. He also has an episode about breathing which is also a good listen.
During my day, I actively check in on myself – is something taking over my mind? Are my shoulders up? Is my breathing shallow or deep? These questions help me to check my breathing, reset and get on.
By the way, deep breathing, similar to fogging up a mirror (think Darth Vadar Star Wars, but done quietly😊) helps you to massage the vagus nerve, which activates your parasympathetic system. This may relax you, and is said to help your menopausal symptoms.
4. Clear your head
I journal. Last thing at night, if I am not too tired, or first thing in the morning, I spend time clearing my head of my thoughts and observations of the day. I used to rush to write what I was thinking, but ended up thinking faster than I could write and then I gave up, closed my book and remained anxious. But then I learnt to write slowly, and process my thoughts on the page, I notice that my breathing slowed, my heart rate lowered and I felt much better. It’s just great to leave my thoughts on the page, and then I can sleep without thinking about them.
5. Get a bedside note book
This is similar to point 4, but slightly different. If sleep escapes me because I am pondering about something, I reach for my bedside note book and a pen or pencil. I scribble in the dark the title of the thought, and leave it there. I don’t turn on the room light or use my phone lamp because light wakes me up. My writing is getting more legible now – lol! However, after I’ve written, I say to myself “this is now (sleep), that is tomorrow (troubling future thought) or that was yesterday (past unresolved issue). When I sleep, I am renewed, healed and rested. I can tackle it tomorrow with fresh strength”. I find that this action and self-talk helps me to nod off.
6. Manage your hats
I have learnt really great business skills on the Natwest Accelerator course. The information about time management has brought a better work-life balance for me. Let me explain. As a self-employed musician, it is easy to work all of the hours God sends. To say ‘yes!’ to every appointment because you don’t know when work will come again. I believed that reducing my sleep so that I could complete my work was the way to go. Wrong! Very damaging approach.
Through the course, I realised that I wear many hats. Not stage hats – lol! but business hats such as finance manager, sales person, marketing manager, etc. Also personal, family and community hats. I wasn’t doing myself nor my projects any favours. Now, I consider the amount of work it will take to prepare, deliver and recover from the gigs, projects and roles I am about to say yes to. Because to say yes, may mean saying no to sleep, rest and breaks.
I’m my own HR and Occupational Health manager. It’s an essential hat which I need to wear all the time. I have to be strict with myself and look after myself. No one else will do this for me. I have had to draw lines in the sand, jettison roles or projects, so that I can have a more manageable diary and work sensibly towards my strategic goals. By doing so, I feel more at peace, and as a result I sleep better at night and achieve more.
7. Portable fan!
In the past, I would sweat so much that it ran down my eyes and face. Yes, I carried a small flannel to mop up, but it is not easy to do this while playing a line. I found I had to wait for the appropriate pause in the song in order to release my sax, reach for my flannel, have a quick dab, and get back on song as though nothing happened.
I investigated portable fans. A small portable hand-held fan is now by my bed side, should I need a quick burst of cool air at night. The time I remain awake to do this has reduced to a couple of minutes now that I’ve made changes to my life style. I go on stage with a small neck fan as well. I am not only listening to the music and creating ideas, but also sensitive to my body and its signals so I can offer a great performance. The trick is to catch the flush at its inception rather than at the peak.
I have a lunch break. A stretch break. I plan weekends away and a holiday. Even if I am not away but working from Costa-Del-Home, this has so helped to reduce my stress and clear my mind. My sleep is so much better.
9. Control the blue light input
You probably know this already, but being on the phone ‘doom scrolling’ —as my daughter describes it— is so unhelpful. Yes, I’m entertained by watching funny videos, music, etc. last thing at night, but I can’t sleep after that because the light, even the night light option on my iPad, still flicks the ‘on’ switch in my brain. So, I have reduced considerably my use of electronic devices at night while in bed.
There are times I feel tired during the day time. It is a symptom of menopause. I’ve started listening to my body in that regard. I work from home, so I do take a nap when I need to. When I stop at a service station on my way to or from a gig, I will have a nap too if I’m tired. It refreshes my brain and gets me ready to go.
These are 10 tips. The work is not finished. I’m still on my menopause journey. There is much more I could write about. For example, I could tell you about how I laugh more, pray more, and meditate. How I finish admin work on my PC by 7pm, or how I do need a better mattress, one that does not send the heat back to me, like my memory foam mattress, but is breathable and cool.
Disclosure – some days I fall off the wagon and slip back to bad habits – boo! Some days, my body throws a curve ball, a new menopause symptom, and catches me out – lol! If my day has been particularly hectic and I have not wound down properly before bed, I may wake once or twice, for short periods.
By the way, if you are not a self-employed musician, but your music role is full time or part time for an organisation, you may be interested to learn that the TUC (Trade Union Congress) in Wales created a menopause in the workplace toolkit for trade unionists, to help them ‘campaign on the health and safety and equality issues surrounding the menopause’. They also have a two-day awareness course for Reps so they can support staff. Other organisations, such as CIPD, are doing something similar for professions. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is also available to people dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues which emerge during menopause. These advances are extremely important, as the Fawcett report found that 1 in 10 women leave their jobs because of menopause.
Thank you for reading. I hope this gives you another glimpse into the life of a menopausal musician, moi!
I would love to hear your experiences too. Please leave them in the comments box.
Bye for now.