Getting a good night’s sleep is no easy task—and when Aunt Flo pays her monthly visit, it can be even more difficult. In fact, according to a National Sleep Foundation (NSF) survey, 30% of women report poor sleep during their periods, and 23% during the week prior.
You’re not doomed to count sheep whenever your period comes to town, though. Here’s what you need to know about how your menstrual cycle impacts your sleep, along with the best way to sleep during your period.
How your period affects your sleep
Though you might not think of your menstrual cycle and your sleep quality as deeply connected, they both exist within your body’s complex, interrelated, and ideally balanced system of hormones.
“The menstrual cycle is actually a very complicated, intricate hormone symphony and is controlled by something we call an axis,” explains board-certified ob-gyn and integrative medicine practitioner Tara Scott, MD, founder of functional medicine group Revitalize. “One part of your brain stimulates your pituitary gland to signal your ovaries to get an egg ready.” From there, a cascade of hormonal fluctuations creates the menstrual cycle as we know it, from ovulation to your period itself.
Two hormones in particular play a major role in sleep throughout your cycle: estrogen and progesterone.
“Progesterone stimulates the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps you relax and fall asleep,” says Scott. Estrogen, meanwhile, helps you stay asleep.
So, when levels of both hormones drop a few days before the start of menstruation, your sleep quality takes a hit.
“We often see that right before their period, women don’t sleep very well,” Scott says. Usually, the struggle continues for the first few days of their period, too, until levels ramp back up.
Plus, in many cases, imbalances of estrogen and progesterone caused by lifestyle factors such as environmental toxins and poor food quality can exacerbate the unpleasant symptoms women experience throughout their cycle, increasing its impact on sleep, explains Scott.
Common sleep-wrecking symptoms of your period
Of the many miserable symptoms women experience around their periods, a few are particularly problematic for sleep.
While not typically an issue during your actual period, changes in body temperature that occur earlier in the menstrual cycle can spell trouble for your sleep quality.
After ovulation, “your body temperature goes up about one degree,” says Scott. (This occurs because the progesterone made by the egg you release produces heat to create an environment more conducive to baby-growing.)
Though one degree may not seem like much, the slight change in body temperature leaves many women tossing and turning during the second half of their cycle, between ovulation and just before their period.
Changes in mood
According to the NSF, 44% of women identify feelings of anxiety or depression as contributors to sleep issues leading up to their period.
Your cycle affects your mood in two ways, Scott explains. First, progesterone, which is closely linked to the “chill pill” neurotransmitter GABA, drops before your period. Second, estrogen simultaneously tapers off, which influences your production of the “feel-good” hormone serotonin.
The result: You find yourself feeling generally bummed out or ripe with worry the few days leading up to (and after the start of) your period—and often staring at the ceiling at night as a result.
Perhaps the most troublesome of all period symptoms, cramps can wreak absolute havoc on your body in the first couple of days (and nights!) of your period. According to the NSF, 69% of women report that cramps or pain affect their sleep during the time of the month.
“Cramps usually correlate with how heavily you bleed, because they’re actually the uterus contracting to push out the uterine lining you’ve built up,” says Scott. Just like bleeding, cramps are typically the worst during the first couple of days of your period and then start to lighten up.
Extremely heavy bleeding and brutal cramps may indicate an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone, which can make your period (and sleep during it) unusually difficult, Scott notes.
Another all-too-common issue women deal with around their periods: headaches, which upwards of 57% of women report contribute to sleep issues during that time of the month, according to the NSF.
For many women, menstrual migraines occur because of how changing levels of estrogen and progesterone (and the balance of the two) affect the production of serotonin, low levels of which have long been linked to headaches. (That’s why a lot of migraine meds act on the serotonin system, Scott says.)
The best way to sleep while you have your period
Though many period symptoms seem unrelated, there is one remedy that’s quite the cure-all: magnesium.
“One of the best things, I tell patients, is to take magnesium,” says Scott. This mineral, which is responsible for hundreds of reactions in the body, is a very safe supplement for most people and can help with headaches, anxiety, sleep trouble, and more.
Key for a number of relaxing actions in the body, magnesium can help you chill out, body and mind, and sleep better throughout your period. Most docs recommend taking 300 mg, in supplement form, after eating to help ease period-related issues.
Another trick: Keep your bedroom cool (like 60 to 67 degrees cool) and take a warm bath or shower before hitting the hay. “The contrast between the warm bath and your cooler bedroom environment will make your body temperature drop and help with sleep,” says the NSF. Other ways to relieve period-related stress include deep breathing and yoga.
Your sleep position could also impact your ability to catch Z’s. Jennifer Wider, MD, tells Glamour that many women report the fetal position helps ease cramps, as it allows muscles around your abdomen to relax. (Because your legs are squeezed together in this sleep position, you’re less likely to leak—a bonus of snoozing this way.)
When at-home remedies just don’t work
If your period symptoms severely impact your ability to sleep (and general quality of life), make an appointment with your doctor. Often, intense symptoms signal a major imbalance between estrogen and progesterone that your healthcare practitioner can help you address, Scott says. Your doc may recommend birth control, which can balance your hormones and, in turn, help treat insomnia.
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