How your cycle affects your sleep rhythm (and what you can do about it)
We all know that sleep is important. Especially sleeping long and deep is vital for all kinds of essential processes in your body that ensure good health. It ensures a proper working immune system, hormonal balance, nerve system, helps you to be more stress resistant and it is good for your brain. Just to name a few. Being able to sleep well is dependent on a combination of complex factors: stress hormones like cortisol, the cortisol awakening response (CAR) and neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and serotonin. These can be triggered by changes in the hormonal balance. This affects some people and not others.
It can be incredibly annoying if you are one of the people who is affected by this. Having a cycle that throws a spanner in the works for days every month is not ideal. But not too long ago someone decided to research sleeplessness and the female cycle (published in Endocrine Society). The researchers checked the sleep rhythm of the participating women during the couple of days before their period (the late luteal phase) until a couple of days after the start of their period (the early follicular phase). The research showed what some already knew: on average, we sleep a lot worse than normal a week before our period.
It takes us a lot longer to fall asleep than normal and we wake up a lot more during the night as well. Basically, it is a recipe for disaster. You wake up with the feeling as if you were run over by a truck (one with a trailer attached during the especially rough mornings). It has major effects on our well-being, because a good night’s rest is, as we described before, one of the most important ingredients to being and staying healthy. That’s why it is worth it to dive into the subject of the sleep rhythm during menstruation.
But first things first: how is it possible that your cycle affects the quality of your sleep? It all comes down to the hormones estrogen and progesterone. You need both of these hormones to sleep well, but that only happens when they are in balance. But this balance continuously shifts during your cycle. Your progesterone increases after ovulation. Progesterone ensures a deep sleep, but it also causes you to feel - the further into your cycle you are - more and more tired. Just before your period, progesterone levels drop again, which could cause you to have a hard time falling asleep and sleeping more restlessly.
Estrogen increases the amount of REM sleep you get. REM sleep is super important because during this phase of your sleep you process the day's impressions, thoughts and emotions. At the same time, it strengthens your memory and stimulates the development of your central nervous system. In addition, estrogen causes you to produce melatonin, a substance that slows your breathing and lowers your body temperature slightly, making it easier for you to fall asleep and sleep more comfortably. Around your period, your estrogen levels are low, so you may be missing out on this much-needed help with REM sleep, falling asleep and sleeping through the night.
So can something be done about those sleepless nights during your period? The answer is sadly no. At least, not if you’re looking for a solution that makes all of your problems disappear like snow in the sun. But there are some things that can make it all just a bit easier.
You have to eat enough. If you don’t, your body will burn calories that you didn’t eat and nobody feels better when that happens. But if this happens around your period? That’s a true no-go. Research has shown that it makes you sleep a lot worse. So make sure you get enough energy from your healthy food. At least eat just as much as you burn.
Give your sleep routine just a little more attention the week before your period. This means that you take enough time to relax before going to bed and you don’t eat chocolate or drink alcohol or caffeine right before bed. It also means that you don’t watch TV or spend time on your phone/Ipad late at night. To relax, you can take a magnesium supplement just before you go to bed.
Make sure your body temperature is a little lower
In the time between your ovulation and your menstruation your estrogen levels decrease. This causes your body temperature to be half a degree higher than normal. That is just enough to negatively affect your sleep rhythm, because a lower body temperature makes you sleepy. Make sure your bedroom is about 16 to 18 degrees Celsius for a good sleep. You can also take a warm bath before going to bed to trick your brain. Once you get out of the bath, the room temperature feels colder than it actually is, which cools down your body temperature and makes the brain think it is time to go to bed.
Give your digestion a helping hand
Fluid retention, obstipation, abdominal pain and an undeniable craving for chocolate, fries, chips, and pizza. All things that don’t help you sleep better during your menstruation. The solution is obvious: don’t eat junk food. It’s like putty for your intestines; you are throwing the digestive system into acute lockdown. Cravings? Try a cucumber with ranch, a handful of nuts or a banana. You could also bake a healthy sugar free chocolate cake or banana bread. It’s tasty, feeds the cravings, and your bowels will be thankful. Eat small portions, drink enough water, and set the heavy stuff aside if it's later in the evening.
Do you want to know more about healthy recipes that can affect your cycle? Read more here.
Use a menstrual cup
Do you have to get out of bed multiple times a night to change your pad? We have the solution for you: the menstrual cup. You can wear it for up to 12 hours and it can hold approximately 38 ml of menstrual blood. To clarify, most people lose up to 80 ml of blood during the entirety of their period. Say goodbye to those nights where you were scared to leak on the sheets. Another survival tip: put a towel down on the bed. In the rare case where you do have some leakage, you don’t have to worry about changing the bed sheets, you only have to change the towel. If you suffer from very heavy bleeding, it might be a good idea to make an appointment with your GP. Heavy menstrual bleeding is not normal and oftentimes something can be done to fix it.
Try to find out what causes the sleepless nights
Sleeping poorly can also be due to underlying diseases. Both PMS and PMDD can make you feel anxious or depressed. Endometriosis, adenomyosis, dysmenorrhoea (painful menstruations) and a couple of other cycle related diseases can cause pain. Anxiety, depression and pain are issues that generally do not combine well with a good night's sleep. Do you suffer from any of these conditions? Try to find help and talk about your issues with sleeping. Try to take care of yourself, lower the bar before and during your period, exercise (a short walk will do wonders), do some yoga and breathing exercises, and try to prevent stress. We know, these things are so obvious. But they really do help. Trust us.
Editor’s note: The study that was conducted involves a small number of women. Not much scientific research has been done on this although we know that many women do have this experience.