The realities of little ones makes rest almost impossible at times, but why is it that even when we do get some sleep, we don’t feel any better?
Exhaustion is an epidemic amongst mamas.
We’re talking bone-tired, overwhelmed, can’t-think-straight exhaustion. And it stretches way beyond the three-hourly feed period of parenthood. This is years and years of tiredness, all rolled into one.
For me, the exhaustion actually started way before babies. My career – requiring pre-dawn starts and very high stress levels – meant I was running on nothing before an egg was even fertilised. Throw in three babies and nearly ten years of pregnancy, breast-feeding and broken sleep, and you’ve got the perfect formula for burnout.
And, judging from the hundreds of messages I’ve received from you all over the years, I know you are the same.
So what’s going on? Why, when the baby finally sleeps and the kids finally give you an hour to yourself, you don’t feel any better? And why is it that that thing you crave so much – sleep! – seems to be the last thing you can actually do?
In my hunt for answers, I was led to Naturopath and Herbalist Sarah Mann. Her insights into what’s going on for mamas was so important, I had to share the whole interview with you. Make sure you read to the end – her ‘Checking In Practice’ is one of the best I’ve ever tried.
Let’s start with the fight or flight response – what is it, and how it is turned on as busy overwhelmed mamas?
The flight or fight response is a cascade of changes the body has in response to shock or stress. It’s caused mainly by the nervous system and adrenal glands and gets the body ready to flee or face a problem. It’s very important in immediate danger, our heart rate and breathing speed up, blood vessels constrict, blood pressure rises, and blood and energy flood to our extremities so we can respond quickly. It can be triggered by actual danger or by emotional stress or perceived stress. The flight or fight response is an energy expending state, as opposed to the ‘rest and digest’ state which is for nourishment and repair.
For some women pregnancy, birth and becoming a mum is a huge ordeal. It can be overwhelming and unexpected and bring up feelings that are beyond comprehension in the moment. It is groundbreaking having children and very individual how we respond.
The flight or fight response can be triggered for mums by this overwhelming emotional and physical change. Some mums feel vulnerable or panicked bringing their babies into the world, others are recovering from surgery and giving birth, and others are physically overwhelmed with the needs of their children, family and work which has the body working overtime.
What affect does that have on our health, ability to stay calm with your kids, and our sleep?
The hormones involved in the flight or fight response suppress digestion, the immune system and reproductive functions to divert energy to vital organs. If your nervous system is overstimulated for a long time it can cause digestive symptoms like bloating, constipation or having no appetite. Some women notice low immunity and catching every cold on the block. For some women it can be skin or allergy flare ups, irritability and anger, sore muscles, lowered libido, feeling on edge or at the very end of your patience, overreacting, anxiousness, being absent minded or forgetful. It can also cause disruptions to sleep.
What is adrenal fatigue?
The adrenal glands are these wonderful glands that sit on top of our kidneys and they are in charge of secreting the hormones needed to respond to stress, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenal fatigue is when these resources are expended, and the adrenal glands can no longer respond to stress productively. The body then starts using secondary stress hormones like oestrogen to get you through, and taking resources and nutrients from ‘non vital’ organs and functions like the skin, digestion and cognition.
How does that show up in our lives?
This can show up in many ways, most commonly fatigue, exhaustion and not being able to meet the same level of activity or stress as they could before. Adrenal fatigue can show up as anxiety, hormonal changes, weight gain, the onset of food allergies and sensitivities that weren’t a problem before, dry or delicate skin and cold hands and feet.
A lot of stressed mamas tell us they can’t sleep at night, even if their little one is finally sleeping all night! They wake in the night and start worrying about everything… 3am seems to be a common time! Why would this be happening?
Oh gosh, I know. If you have spent the day going from task to task, worrying or overwhelmed, your body and mind are stimulated. It can take time to switch off and fall asleep, or you may now be a very light sleeper, or wake after only a few hours sleep. The body’s inner rhythm can change when we’ve become used to waking throughout the night with our children. It shows me the body is overstimulated and needs to remember its rhythmic nature, moving between action and rest, breathing in and breathing out.
The wonderful thing about your body is it is responsive and adaptive. Our organs are listening. They are receptive and seeking an active equilibrium.
Healing and understanding are inevitable if you are looking for it – that is the truth.
And can you give us any insights or tips on what we should be doing to balance this?
Yes! There are many things you can do to restore your health and nourish the body while you are looking after your babies and children. The small daily rhythmic things we do carry us and replenish us with time. Sometimes we need a bit more of a healing intervention to get through. But either way, there is a lot of support out there for mamas.
- Debrief your baby’s birth and your transition to motherhood with a practitioner or counsellor you love. The transition to becoming a mother can be hard for some women. It is essential to our health to move through what has come up for us and come through it freer and with understanding. This calms the nervous system instantly when new awarenesses are reached, and tells the body the danger has passed. Our body can then switch to filling up and overflowing with energy, rather than having it preoccupied with overwhelming feelings.
- Nature is a superb healer. Come to the Blue Mountains and visit a water hole with your family or go for a bush walk together. Visit your local waterways or a beautiful big old fig tree. Nature is a great harmoniser, she is a reminder to pause, she is rhythmic, calming and so generous. Her beauty is nourishing and she’s honest. Nature is soothing to frayed nerves and can help us to understand.
- There are wonderful herbs that restore adrenal function, nourish the nervous system and support overworking bodies to come into a rhythmic pace again. Herbs such as licorice, withania, chamomile, nettle, oats, passionflower, lemon balm, skullcap, motherwort and schisandra are all herbs that do this in their own way. Drinking medicinal teas throughout the day is restorative, you can make a large pot of herbal tea each morning, pop it in the fridge and drink it chilled throughout the day. Lemon balm is a wonderful tea for during the day. It is calming and invigorating at the same time, brightening the mind while calming the tummy and nerves. Chamomile is better in the night as it lulls you into a warm restful pace. You can also see a Naturopath and have a tincture or tea blend formulated for you and what you need, we have access to a wide range of herbs that can be harder to come by and can help you learn how to use them.
- Sometimes nutritional supplementation is needed to help restore energy levels, especially the nutrients that are particularly depleted with stress such as Magnesium, B Vitamins, Vitamin C and Zinc. It’s a very good idea to see a Naturopath for help with this – we have a wonderful way of assessing your health to understand what nutrients are particularly in need and what forms of supplementation are best for your health.
- Food as medicine, incorporating supportive foods, herbs and spices into your meals and drinks is a wonderful way to give your body extra support. Parsley, coriander, thyme, rosemary, oregano, ginger, turmeric, seaweeds and dulse, Asian mushrooms like reishi and shiitake, spirulina, fermented foods with good bacteria like yoghurt (if dairy isn’t a problem for you), krauts and pickles, kombucha and kefir. These all supply extra minerals and medicinal elements that really give the body what it needs to come through.
- There are wonderful homeopathic remedies I use in my practice to bring rhythm back to the organs. This can be helpful when daily practices don’t seem to be quite getting to the heart of the overwhelm.
- For mums having trouble sleeping, give yourself half an hour of winding down before bed. Dim the lights, light a candle, do some gentle stretching, meditation or deep breathing, have a bath with epsom salts and lavender oil, or a cup of chamomile tea. It sounds cliché but finding your own practices like these to wind down is a great way of telling the body it’s time to relax and rest. Write a list of things that need to be done and really let the task go as you write it down. Put the list away for the morning knowing everything will be done in good time.
- Avoid all those things that creep into the diet that take more energy than they give. Coffee, alcohol, refined sugar and processed foods taste wonderful in the moment but they give you very little in return. Have on hand other nourishing foods like smoothies, fresh juices, crispy salads, nourishing broths and soups, creamy rooibos or dandelion chai and sweet treats based on nourishing whole foods.
- An important and simple thing to do for a better night’s sleep is avoid screen time and technology at least an hour before bed. This will allow the body to release all the right neurochemicals needed for sleep.
- It is overly quoted and often taken for granted: the humble healthy diet. Including plenty of fresh vegetables, a variety of wholesome protein sources, hydration, cold pressed oils, nuts and seeds, fruits, sleep, movement and rhythm each day is your backbone to great health and energy. Even simply adding a green smoothie into your day is a real win.
- Rhythm – and eating regularly – is very stabilising for the nervous system. Just as a predictable rhythm builds resilience and confidence for our children, so does a predictable rhythm for our own bodies too.
- Reach out for love and support from friends and loved ones, and be there for others too. Take an interest and ask others how they are today and if there’s anything you can do to help them. Quality time and being heard is a great gift you can give to the people around you. Being there for others can shift fatigue and a troubled mood and bring a flow of love back into the body.
- Try a ‘Checking in Practice’. Sometimes we don’t know it but we are on the run, keeping busy avoiding thoughts, feelings or circumstances. This is a practice used to check into where you are with courage and honesty.
At the end of your day take some time (at least 15 minutes) to lie down on your back, somewhere warm and comfortable. Place one hand on your belly and one on your heart. Rest here, feel your breath and consciously take deep breaths all the way into your belly, slowly lengthening your in breath and your out breath. It may take a few minutes for your breath to truly settle.
In this deep breathing place, ask yourself ‘Am I running away from anything?’ Lie with this question and feel your answer. Is there anything you are avoiding? Are there things niggling your attention that you are refusing? You may feel yourself pulled slightly to one side, or a frayed feeling. Whatever you notice will be unique to you. Nothing you notice is a problem, simply notice it and let it inform you.
Now is the time to stop. And with great warmth and self trust, turn and face these things. With your imagination, stop and let these things be around you, feel yourself sitting amongst them. Notice that as you stop running they will stop chasing, and settle in a little buzz around you. Continue to breathe slowly and deeply. Imagine yourself broadening and enveloping the space around you, becoming the largest presence. Look into all the nooks and crannies of your energy and fill it with your warmth and presence. Slowly open your eyes when you are ready.
Sarah Mann is a Naturopath and Herbalist based in the Inner West of Sydney.
If you’re struggling to wind down at the end of the night, as Sarah has suggested, you can also download Amy’s End of Day Meditation via the link below.