Female bodies can sometimes feel like the biggest of mysteries. But what’s going on inside may help explain why you’re not sleeping so well, according to medical research.
While our periods cause discomfort, they might also be contributing to interrupted sleep for a variety of reasons.
The relationship between our periods and our sleep cycles is complicated – but it is really important, according to Dr Kat Lederle, sleep scientist and author of Sleep Sense: Improve Your Sleep, Improve Your Health.
Interestingly, one can sometimes influence the other and vice versa – Dr Lederle calls a woman’s body a “messy picture” to study, so it can be tricky to work out what’s best for your own body at times.
Here’s everything you need to know about making sense of the connection between your sleeping pattern and your period.
How do our periods impact our sleep?
“Ovarian hormones have receptors in the brain, including in the areas that are involved in sleep regulation,” Dr Lederle says. “Fluctuating or changing hormone levels are likely to impact and effect sleep changes.”
These hormones are likely to affect other areas of the body, including the circadian rhythm – which regulates our sleep-wake cycle. According to Dr Lederle, these interruptions to your sleep are due to the efforts your body is making to create a stable environment for a fertilised egg to develop.
She also has a good idea of when to expect the worst sleep quality during your cycle: “Those who often notice poor sleep quality in the late luteal phase [right before you get your next period] and your first few days of menstruation.
“When levels of hormones like progesterone and oestrogen decline towards the end of the luteal phase, some women start to experience sleep problems, including for the first few days of menstruation.”
Unfortunately, the reasons for this aren’t completely determined, and can be complicated.
“It is believed that sex hormones affect areas of the brain involved in regulating sleep,” Dr Lederle explains. “It’s the fluctuating levels rather than the absolute amount that matters.”
On top of this, we also have the nasty symptoms that can come with our period to thank for disrupting our sleep. “PMS, such as anxiety, pain sensitivity, cramps, low mood can also cause or contribute to poor sleep.”
Similarly, women with irregular cycles are often more prone to sleep problems, but more research is required to work out exactly why. “Irregular cycles are often correlated with low or depressed mood, higher psychological stress, and anxiety symptoms,” Dr Lederle explains.
Conversely, how does sleep affect our periods?
“Sleep, on the other hand, can influence your menstrual cycle,” Dr Lederle says.
“There is evidence that lack of sleep increases secretion of luteinising hormone, which helps the ovaries prepare follicles to produce oestrogen and make ovulation happen, when levels should actually be lower,” she explains.
“The same goes for estradiol – which is a form of oestrogen – too much can hinder ovulation and thus negatively affect fertility.
Going to sleep and eating at irregular times, as well as jet lag and irregular light exposure can also contribute to what Dr Lederle calls “circadian misalignment”, an interruption to your sleeping and waking rhythms, which can send bodily functions and processes like your menstrual cycle out of sync.
What can we do to alleviate the impact that our periods and sleep have on each other?
Dr Lederle suggests the following to hacks for cracking your body’s relationship with periods and sleep, and making it work for you:
- Track your sleep and period symptoms, to get to know how they interact for you
- Find you personal sleep window and stick to it most nights
- Get natural light in the morning everyday
- Have a regular eating window
- Do exercise – move during the day to avoid long periods of sitting down
- Do something you enjoy everyday (a happy brain is a sleepy brain)
- Develop a practice to help you slow down (mediations, autogenic training)
- Work with a menstrual cycle specialist if you have irregular periods or pain or PMS/ PMDD