Have you ever experienced period insomnia? Or noticed a pattern of taking longer to fall asleep while on your period? Or maybe you always seem to experience more sleep interruptions when you menstruate?
It’s not all in your mind–it’s in your hormones!
I’m sure it’s not news to you that female hormones get a bad rap. Culturally, we love to bash on, dismiss, blame, and condescend female hormones. It is such a pity, and pretty backward.
Hormones aren’t the enemy–they’re just trying to do their job! And part of their job is communicating to us when they need us to make changes in our lifestyle choices to better support them in doing their highly complex, vastly vital jobs that keep our bodies functioning properly.
But perhaps you hadn’t before considered how your naturally cycling hormone levels play a big role in your sleep patterns across your menstrual month.
We’re going to do more than just point our finger at hormones as the problem, though; in discovering the link between your sleep and your menstrual cycle, we’ll be better able to decode our body’s cues for more sleep, but also be able to address those needs from a more informed place, with hopefully more understanding of, compassion for, and desire to lovingly provide for our bodies’ need for sleep.
Period Hormones and Sleep
In her book Period Repair Manual, naturopathic doctor Lara Briden says,
“Sleep is [a] priority strategy for period health. Getting seven or eight hours of quality sleep each night will do more for your period health than almost any supplement or herb” (91).
This is why the focus of this month’s My Club Red box is sleep! Sleep is a heavy-hitter when it comes to improving your periods, and your overall health.
Dr. Briden continues,
“Why is sleep so important? Hormonally speaking, sleep is a very active time. For example, sleep stabilizes your HPA axis and cortisol. It improves your insulin sensitivity and regulates the release of luteinizing hormone (LH), estrogen, and progesterone. Sleep normalizes your levels of leptin, insulin, cortisol, and serotonin” (91).
As you can see, sleep is a pivotal time for so many of our hormones.
Each of the hormones Dr. Briden refers to here has an impact on the quality of your periods, so of course if these period-related hormones aren’t adequately provided the right environment for optimal hormone production, which they get while we sleep, it’s no wonder our period symptoms will be intensified.
If our period symptoms are intense, that’s one way our body is communicating to us that it is not getting what it needs to adequately accomplish the complex symphony that is optimal body functioning.
This is one illustration of how our menstrual cycles are now being considered by some to be the body’s “fifth vital sign.” Our body is always communicating with us, but most of us just don’t know the language of our bodies.
Progesterone: The Star Performer in Cyclical Sleep
You likely have heard that melatonin is the important hormone for your nightly sleep, which is very true: melatonin is your sleep hormone and you need it in order to fall asleep every night. We need melatonin to regulate our sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm.
However, menstruators also have an infradian sleep rhythm–meaning our sleep patterns change over our longer menstrual cycle–and the star hormone of that show is progesterone.
Progesterone is the dominant hormone of your luteal phase, the phase of your cycle after ovulation and before menstruation. Menstruating bodies primarily produce progesterone in the ovaries after ovulation: the now-empty sac that held the egg released at ovulation transforms into the corpus luteum, a temporary gland that produces progesterone.
In her book Period Power, Maisie Hill relates that one of the benefits of the hormone progesterone is that it improves sleep. So sleep is easier to attain or you may find you need more of it right after ovulation, when the corpus luteum begins creating and producing progesterone for the first time in the menstrual cycle (44).
Maisie Hill goes on to say,
“Once progesterone and estrogen start to rise after ovulation, falling asleep gets easier and quicker, taking you into sleep that is deep and restorative. The is the time to get to bed earlier and stock up on some z’s, as the bad news is that when progesterone and estrogen start to fall as you approach menstruation, sleep becomes lighter and you can find yourself in the #wideawakeclub because it gets harder to fall asleep and stay asleep” (150).
So the natural fluctuations of progesterone levels (it’s high in some phases of your menstrual cycle and low in others) will clearly have an impact on our sleep patterns.
Menstrual Cycle Hormone Pattern
In this diagram, take a look at progesterone, indicated in green.
As we can see clearly in this visual representation of shifting hormonal levels over the menstrual cycle, progesterone rises after ovulation, but then drops lower and lower in the days leading up to menstruation.
So it’s easy to see how sleep might become more elusive or lower-quality as we lose the support of progesterone leading up to our period, which overall is the phase of the cycle with the lowest levels of hormones, which has a big impact on how we feel.
The Impact of Lifestyle Habits on Sleep
As we’ve established, changes in hormones across our menstrual cycle can play a role in sleep disruptions, and the really unfortunate aspect of that is that poor sleep impacts a host of hormones, as Dr. Briden mentioned above.
Maisie Hill also points to the immediacy of the effect of poor sleep on another aspect of our hormonal wellbeing: stress and blood sugar. She says,
“Trouble falling and/or staying asleep increases your production of the stress hormone cortisol, and just one night of interrupted sleep can mess up your blood sugar level the following day” (150).
The analogy of the body and hormones as a complex symphony is quite appropriate: Our hormones don’t operate in a vacuum, separate from each other. If some hormone levels are impacted by something like poor sleep, other hormones respond to that initial shift of hormones, which likely result in our taking actions in an effort to counteract the effects we feel from those shifting hormones, which can in turn affect other hormones. It can be quite the snowball effect!
Maisie Hill illustrates it this way:
“...just one night of interrupted sleep can mess up your blood sugar level the following day, which means you’ll be flagging and more likely to seek out caffeine and sugar to get you through the day, which then screws with your mood and sleep and before you know it you’re in a vicious cycle" (150).
But before we snowball too far, it’s important to recognize that even though we cannot control the natural shifts in progesterone throughout our cycle (knowing that those shifts may trigger poor sleep) it’s vital to accept that hormones are not the only inhibitor to high-quality sleep.
There are so many lifestyle factors that affect sleep quality, as I’m sure you know. Things like:
- avoiding blue light the last few hours before bed, which can inhibit your body’s ability to release melatonin
- a consistent sleep and wake schedule
- proper sleep conditions like cool temperature and very little light
- consistent exercise
- a wind-down routine
- ensuring you have eaten enough throughout the day to fuel your body while it sleeps
- avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening
- reducing stress
- employing sleep associations
- avoiding daytime naps
- and so many more.
The trick is to actually do the things that we know will help improve our quality of sleep.
The best way I can think of to do this is by tracking your menstrual cycle, making sure to track your sleep patterns, experiences, and supports!
By tracking your individual patterns, you’ll be able to identify when you might need to employ additional sleep support and when in your cycle you might not need to bother with the extra sleep support, like around ovulation when sleep might come easier with the help of progesterone.
Use your new knowledge of your infradian rhythm to your advantage! If it’s overwhelming to see this long list of sleep strategies, assure yourself that you don’t need to do every one of them, and you don’t even need to do them every day. Focus on pinpointing when you need sleep support most in your cycle.
And tracking which sleep support strategies you use can help you narrow down this list to only include the ones you know work best, and matter the most, for you! Maybe you’ll eventually find that many of these lifestyle shifts are easier to accomplish than it might seem, and maybe you’ll enjoy trying out different supportive sleep strategies!
I know that for me, my nightly routine is one of my treasured times of self-care and self-nurture in my day. Feeling and learning just how much poor sleep affects both my body and my lived experience, it has become easier for me to view my nightly routine as less negotiable than it was before I knew just how vital healthy hormone functioning is.
I hope this blog post has helped remind you how important sleep is for our overall health, but also for our menstrual health. I also hope we can all consider our bodies with a little more grace, knowing a little more about how they are responding to ever-shifting hormone cycles.
Knowing when I’m at a low-progesterone point of my cycle helps me feel less frustrated when I have a hard time falling asleep; I can respond with more understanding and compassion and less complaining and short-temper.
And of course I hope that the next time you find yourself experiencing the ups and downs of progesterone’s affect on your sleep, you’ll reach for some of the sleep supports provided in this month’s My Club Red box, including the yoga for sleep in our next blog post (stay tuned!).
Here’s to better sleep! And happier hormones.