WRITTEN BY SARA SHAH
Working from home has created lab-like environments for monitoring my menstrual cycle. I can watch my cravings, my moods, and my sleep habits without the typical distractions of a “normal” day-to-day life.
Though I’ve known I can never sleep the night before my menstrual cycle starts because I always seem to be tossing and turning because I am too hot and then too cold—I never knew that each part of my cycle brought with it a different quality of sleep.
So admittedly, in some ways I am grateful for this more-at-home time turning me into a lab rat, because I tracked my sleep and monitored how it changed throughout my cycle the last month. Then I did a bit more research on how the menstrual cycle impacts sleep, so I could share with all of you. Though be sure to keep in mind every body is different, and sleep habits will vary accordingly, try keeping a sleep journal over the next two or three months and comparing your sleep habits against your cycle to better understand your body.
And to help start you off on your sleep and menstrual cycle exploration, here are my findings, and my favorite “help-me-get-to-sleep” tips.
SLEEP LEADING UP TO YOUR PERIOD
A 2018 study found that poorer quality sleep is found in women who suffer from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or painful cramps. I am writing this after taking a nap because my period started this morning, and I did not get a wink of quality sleep last night. Women most often report sleep difficulties the days leading up to their period and the first couple days of menstruation.
Right before menstruation, progesterone levels should level out in the body, leading to low progesterone and estrogen levels circulating in the body. Progesterone rises after ovulation and though it can lead to heightened anxiety, it actually works to prepare the body for pregnancy. It does this by helping the body fall asleep and stay asleep. In women with heightened symptoms of PMS, these progesterone levels are markedly lower before menstruation, leading to increased sleep problems.
SLEEP QUALITY DURING MENSTRUATION
Thirty percent of women said they experienced sleep problems during menstruation. Decreased quality of sleep, can lead you to feel sleepier during the day. This decrease in sleep may naturally impact concentration levels, mood, relationships, and energy levels when it comes to performing daily tasks. Remember sleep quality could also be worse the first few days of your cycle due to cramps, headaches, digestive issues, and other bodily discomforts that come along with the first few days of your period.
The best advice is to take it easy. If you know you are not likely to get great quality sleep the first few days of your cycle, plan accordingly. Maybe focus on work projects that do not involve as many technical aspects, and when it comes to household tasks take a break for a day or two. In terms of relationships, be mindful of how you interact with others and the energy you bring to the conversation. Avoid issues that may be triggering when it comes to close relationships, so you can approach them with a clearer head and a more rested body and mind in the coming days. And try not to plan early morning calls, keeping in mind that you may be groggy.
The follicular phase occurs from the first day of the period until ovulation. In women who experience a normal cycle, this process takes place over the course of about 14 days.
At the beginning of the cycle (marked by the first day of the period), both estrogen and progesterone levels are lower than at any other point during the cycle. As noted above, women tend to report decreased quality of sleep the first few days of menstruation. Right after your period you may experience a few “normal” nights of sleep, according to however you define normal. This is because the body is more likely to respond to the secretion melatonin, a sleep hormone, during this phase of the cycle.
But do not get too comfortable, because this “normal” does not last for long because after the menstruation ends, estrogen levels begin to steadily rise until ovulation.
Estrogen increases leading up to ovulation, which provides a natural mood boost by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. As a result of this mood boost, there is an increased likelihood of heightened libido too. And let’s be honest, who can really sleep with steamy thoughts before bedtime?
Estrogen induces this biological excitement, partially so the body can become pregnant. This excitement or increased level of energy in the body may naturally lead to insomnia the nights leading up to, and the night of ovulation. However, it’s helpful to keep in mind that this sleep disturbance most likely occurs during the biological sexual peak in a woman’s 20s and early 30s, rather than in her 40s.
Another reason sleep may be impacted around ovulation is due to changes in basal body temperature. Leading up to the release of the egg from the ovary, body temperature decreases. Within the first 24 hours of releasing the egg, and the few days that follow, progesterone levels begin to rise, increasing basal body temperature. This sharp change in body temperature is likely to lead to insomnia. In ideal circumstances, as you are winding down for bedtime, body temperature lowers by one to two degrees, and the body losing heat is what helps you get to sleep and stay sound asleep throughout the night.
So be prepared for the increase in body temperature around ovulation to keep you up. Try sleeping in lighter pyjamas, using a lighter comforter around this time, or simply making your bedroom a bit cooler.
The luteal phase of the cycle marks the second half of the cycle, from after ovulation until the first day of your period. If the eggs released during ovulation become fertilized, then begin monitoring your sleep during pregnancy and getting the rest you need. However, if the egg is not fertilized, here is the breakdown of how hormones circulate through the body may affect sleep:
Women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a more serious case of PMS marked by extreme levels of depression, irritability, or anxiety tend to have a decreased response to the body’s secretion of melatonin during the luteal phase. This decreased response to melatonin, leads to poorer sleep quality, which may contribute to worsened mood—essentially creating a hard-to-break cycle of decreased quality sleep leading to decreased quality mood.
In most healthy women, the majority of sleep disruptions are found in the later half of the luteal phase, or the days right before menstruation. The reasons for this decreased quality of sleep are plenty, and I am sure you are familiar with many of them, they include: increased cramps, headaches, breast tenderness, gassiness or bloating, etc.
HOW IRREGULAR MENSES AFFECTS SLEEP
Poorer quality sleep is found in women who suffer from irregular menstruation or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Women who suffer from dysmenorrhea which is characterized by painful cramps, leading up to and during menstruation, experience significantly lower sleep quality.
This makes sense because painful cramps will naturally keep you up, and women are more likely to have more painful cramps if their cycle is irregular.
Hormonally, with irregular menses two things may be occurring. Painful cramps may be a result of higher levels of estrogen in the morning, which means increased levels of body temperature in bed. And when body temperatures increase our REM sleep decreases. Irregular menstruation affects sleep throughout your cycle, because hormone levels are not just irregular at the time of menstruation, but throughout the entire cycle.
When it comes to progesterone levels in women who suffer from irregular cycles, it relates back to the point above. Although too much progesterone may increase our levels of lethargy or depression, progesterone is not all bad. The hormone is also meant to increase the body’s ability to get to sleep and stay asleep in preparation for pregnancy. With lower levels of progesterone circulating in the body in women who experience more extreme versions of PMS, progesterone’s natural ability to help you stay asleep will be reduced too.
WAYS TO HELP YOU GET BACK SLEEP
DON’T FORCE IT!
If you can’t get to sleep, try getting out of bed and doing something else, like reading a book or walking around the house. Head back to bed when you start feeling sleepy. But do not look at screens during this time because screens will keep you up, rather than help you wind down.
AVOID LOOKING AT THE CLOCK
Don’t stress yourself out by watching the hours you are not sleeping pass by. Simply put the clock away and just know that your body is getting rest simply by having you lie down for a few hours.
DO SOME GENTLE STRETCHING
Try these simple yin yoga poses to relax the body and help it prepare for rest.
Body scan meditations are a great way to reconnect with the body and encourage it to relax and calm down before bedtime. Yoga Nidra is also a simple form of meditation that may help your mind slow down if you feel like it is racing.
Writing your thoughts, worries, or even a gratitude list can help you leave negative thoughts behind or encourage positive thoughts before bed time. This may help improve the quality of sleep and even help you get to sleep faster.
HEALTHY SLEEP HABITS TO HAVE THROUGHOUT YOUR CYCLE
AVOID SCREENS AFTER THE SUN GOES DOWN
The blue light from our screens, laptops, and televisions keep the body awake and impact your natural circadian rhythm. Before there were screens, our bodies began to prepare for bedtime as soon as the sun went down. So try your best to avoid screens at least 2-3 hours before bedtime to give your body an appropriate amount of time to prepare for bed. Try to dim the lighting in your house too as the sun goes down—think soft lamps and candles.
AVOID CAFFEINE AT LEAST 6 HOURS BEFORE BEDTIME
Caffeine consumed 6 hours before bedtime can reduce your nightly sleep total by as much as an hour, and that only increases the closer you have caffeine before bed time. m Don’t stress yourself out by watching the hours you are not sleeping pass by. Simply put the clock away and just know that your body is getting rest simply by having you lie down for a few hours.
DON’T OVER DO SUGARY SNACKS AFTER NOON
Similarly, sugar can disrupt your sleep, and since you did not sleep well, it will create a nasty cycle where you crave more sugar the next day. So be mindful of your sugar consumption, and don’t reach for a sugary snack for energy too close to bedtime.
GET REGULAR EXERCISE
Exercising regularly improves overall quality of sleep, but do not exercise too close to bedtime because this could keep you awake due to the energizing effect exercise has on the body.
BE MINDFUL OF ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION
Though alcohol is a sedative, it can have a negative impact on the quality of sleep. Alcohol impacts circadian rhythm, so though it can help you fall asleep it will affect the chemicals in your brain so your overall sleep may feel more interrupted and less wholesome. It does this by blocking REM sleep, and the less REM sleep the body gets the more exhausted you will feel in the morning.
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Sara Shah is the Founder of Mother Yin (https://www.motheryin.com/), a free holistic online resource created to help women find balance in their bodies, minds and lives through self-nurturing practices. Sara is a meditation coach, yoga teacher, and freelance writer currently based in Bali, Indonesia. She has trained with leading teachers in San Francisco, New York City, London, and Bali. Her practices are centered around self-compassion and healing the whole person step-by-step.