Do you struggle with sleepless nights leading up to your period? Are you often left feeling fatigued after your time of the month? And did you know that the lifetime risk of insomnia is 40% higher for women than men? As with many things, our hormones are to blame.
“Female sleep problems are linked heavily to hormone levels which fluctuate throughout a women’s monthly cycle and can become imbalanced,” explains private GP and menopause specialist, Dr Sumi Soori. She maintains that by tracking our menstrual cycle, it may be possible to improve our sleep just with the awareness of what is happening to our body. Dr Soori calls this “menstrual mapping.”
“Tracking your menstrual cycle is a really powerful tool and one that every woman should get into the habit of doing,” she says. “By getting to know your unique monthly rhythm you can start to predict and plan around when your sleep suffers most. Armed with this knowledge, we can sleep better, feel better, work better, and be kinder to ourselves by working with our bodies and our hormones instead of against them."
According to the GP, our cycle can be described in four phases or ‘seasons': “Oestrogen, progesterone, cortisol, and melatonin are the main hormones that affect sleep. At different times of your cycle, you are going to feel differently both physically and emotionally which will then impact your quality of sleep.
“When we sleep well it means when we wake up we release the appropriate amount of cortisol, which then releases the appropriate amount of oestrogen and progesterone. But when we don't sleep well, we don’t have the right balance of hormones. And if we don't have the right balance of hormones, we don't sleep well. It’s a vicious cycle.”
“The first step to positive change is making women aware of when and why they don't sleep well, to better manage their sleep,” Dr Sumi, who is working with Simba, advises, “I’m a big advocate of trialling a monthly sleep journal for three months. This will not only help you begin to see how the pattern varies throughout your menstrual cycle but will give you a better understanding of what to do during the times when sleep is impacted and will enable you to regain control of variations in sleep to give you more consistent slumber throughout the month.”
So, what can we expect from each season and how can we use this information to live and sleep better?
Phase 1: Menstruation or the ‘winter phase’
This is your period and the elimination of the uterus lining. Bleeding typically lasts between three to seven days. Period cramps, lower back pain, tender breasts, more visits to the loo and a higher body temperature can make it harder to sleep well. “At the very beginning of the cycle, oestrogen and progesterone levels are low which means sleep can be difficult or challenging just before or during a period,” says Dr Sumi.
What to expect
• During this phase your hormones drop to the lowest levels.
• You may notice increased fatigue, bloating and breast tenderness, emotional vulnerability or tension, teariness, anxiety and an unsettled spirit.
• You may feel a sense of release when the bleeding starts.
• At night you may feel warmer than usual – the body temperature is naturally higher before and during menstruation.
Dr Sumi’s Advice
Prioritise self-care: With hormones at their lowest levels at this stage, carve out time for stress-reducing self-care – whether that’s meditation or just some alone time. “When we have too much stress we release too much cortisol that hinders production of oestrogen and progesterone, and balance of it which affects our sleep,” she said.
Support: Wear a supportive bra in bed if you experience breast tenderness to reduce the physical discomfort.
Change your sleep position: You are likely to reduce the flow of blood by sleeping on one side rather than your back. Sleeping on your side with a pillow between your thighs can alleviate some of the crampings, or if you have backache, sleep on your back with a pillow tucked under your knees.
Work out: Many women think that they should stop exercising when they have a period, but this isn't true. “As the oestrogen and progesterone are so low during our period we can recover from exercise much more effectively. Plus, it has the added benefit of releasing feel-good hormones which can ease some of the emotional and physical pain during a period that can cause restless nights,” said Dr Sumi. Take care around resistance or weights training though, as this can put pressure and agitate your core. Yoga can be really helpful and any exercises or poses that can take pressure off the pelvic area.
Avoid sugary and spicy foods which increase your body temperature further: Eat lighter meals and have the last meal of the day earlier to improve digestion.
Go alcohol-free during your period: Your body is already hot, drink wine on top of that and it’ll surge further.
Don’t overdo the water before bed: Your body releases more fluids during your period, so keep hydrated throughout the day with regular glasses of water, rather than playing catch up before bed, to avoid needing the loo all night.
Cool down: Sleep with the bedroom window open or switch to a lighter duvet to help keep you cool. Simba’s new Hybrid® 3-in-1 duvet , has a flexible four-season design. It also contains Stratos® , a sophisticated phase change technology that acts like a thermostat, enabling the fabric to react to your body temperature, dissipating excess heat to keep you cool and dry.
Phase 2: The follicular phase: preparing for ovulation – or the ‘Spring' phase
The follicular phase is before the release of the egg. This phase overlaps with menstruation, ends on ovulation and lasts up to sixteen days. Levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) increase slightly, causing egg-containing follicles to develop. "As soon as your period ends, you should start to feel better, and your sleep should start to improve," says Dr Sumi.
What to expect:
• Progesterone remains low, but your oestrogen levels increase.
• Your body temperature will get back to normal making nights more comfortable.
• Your mood starts to stabilise. Enthusiasm for life and energy return as lots of oestrogen is released.
• It’s a good time to socialise.
• You may feel happier with your reflection as premenstrual blemishes often clear up, and your features can appear more symmetrical.
Dr Sumi’s Advice:
Eat right: Progesterone keeps us calm and relaxed. Boost it naturally with magnesium-rich foods, such as dark chocolate, milk, carrots, avocados, and salmon while levels are lower.
Ramp up the resistance training again and combine with cardio: “Combined, you’ll end up with a stronger core, which can help lower discomfort during your period, alleviating some of the physical barriers to sleep,” she says.
Get organised: You may feel more enthusiastic and motivated, so it’s a good time to fire up the to-do list, make plans or take on a project.
Check iron levels: If you feel excessively drained or tired during or immediately after your period, consider testing your iron levels for anaemia and eat iron-rich foods such as red meat, spinach or kidney beans during these days.
The Ovulatory Phase, or the ‘summer’ phase
Summer is the final hormonal push towards ovulation. The release of the mature egg occurs mid-cycle or roughly 14 days before menstruation and is triggered by high levels of luteinising hormone. As Dr Sumi explains: “It’s the shortest phase of your cycle, lasting two or three days when your ripe follicle bursts releasing an egg. During the next day or so, the egg is either fertilised or it dies.”
What to expect:
• You may find you get the best sleep of the month during this stage. As your hormones climb rapidly, life should feel easier and more enjoyable. You feel as though you can do more or less.
Dr Sumi’s Advice:
Work hard: This is the time to take on the things that can give you sleepless nights and dedicate long hours to a project and things you would usually push away the rest of the month.
Book your appraisal: Ovulation is a great time to receive constructive feedback as you will be more inclined to listen and take thoughts on board.
Connect: This is the perfect time to reconnect with a partner if you’re trying to conceive.
The luteal phase, or the ‘autumn’ phase
Autumn is the phase after the egg is released and when we tend to experience PMS. Oestrogen and progesterone levels rise in the first part to help prepare the uterus for an embryo. But if pregnancy doesn’t occur, the levels decrease in the latter part, which can impact sleep.
What to expect:
• At some point after ovulation, you may notice either a subtle or dramatic shift in your mood, anxiety and sleep.
• “Progesterone is naturally calming and relaxing and a soothing hormone. When our progesterone is low we can feel quite irritable and anxious,” explains Dr Sumi. “With fluctuating hormone levels, you may experience night sweats or find that your sleep is fragmented or broken.”
• You may feel that it is harder to get to and stay asleep - or have restless days leading up to your period.
• The amount of REM sleep - which is when we have the most dreams - is less in this part of the menstrual cycle.
• Your energy slumps and you can turn inward – and can feel sleepier during the day.
Dr Sumi’s Advice:
Keep it cool: Start to dial down the temperature of your room as your body temperature rises.
Stay active: Exercise releases endorphins which are helpful to improve your mood which can affect sleep. It can also help reduce your cortisol levels at night – helping you to sleep better.
Relax: Opt for intense HIIT and cardio workouts during this phase; opt for something more gentle like pilates, swimming or yoga. Also, be sure to set boundaries for physical and emotional wellbeing to prevent a surge in the stress hormone cortisol.
Pop a supplement: Take magnesium supplements or powder to help further soothe troublesome thoughts and sleep.
Resist the urge to nap: Although you may feel tired, napping can be disruptive to your circadian rhythm. Maintain good sleep hygiene by waking up and going to sleep at the same time each morning and evening.
Swap alcohol for herbal tea: Reduce your intake of alcohol and stimulants to prevent your temperature from rising further. Drink peppermint tea for bloating and to reduce the discomfort on your pelvic and abdominal areas.
Sweet dreams. Zzzzz….
This article was originally published on Glamour UK.