How Every Stage Of Your Menstrual Cycle Messes With Your Sleep

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
They may be predictable, but your periods can make life rough in unpredictable ways. On top of headaches, acne, and cramps, your "special" time of the month may also bring some weirdness to your sleep cycle. In fact, the hormonal ebb and flow of the menstrual cycle may affect your sleep throughout the month, not just during your period, explains Armando Hernandez-Rey, MD, a fertility expert at Conceptions Florida. Dr. Hernandez-Rey stresses that there's a lot of mystery surrounding how exactly the hormonal cycle does this, and it may vary for different women. But there has been some research to suggest that changes in your hormone levels throughout your cycle can cause insomnia or make your sleep less restful. Still, Dr. Hernandez-Rey says that what we do know is that there are definitely changes happening that could very well be affecting your shut-eye, so you're not going crazy. Here are Dr. Hernandez-Rey's best practices for getting to sleep — no matter the time of the month.
Right after ovulation is when you'll probably feel the biggest changes in your sleep habits, Dr. Hernandez-Rey says. In addition to your rising progesterone level, "you'll have drops in melatonin and cortisol levels," he explains, "and that dysregulation is one of the reasons you might have insomnia." Both melatonin and cortisol play huge roles in your sleep-wake cycle. Cortisol's nickname of the "stress hormone" makes it sound like a bad thing, but it's actually really important for keeping you awake. (What makes it bad is when you have too much cortisol.) Drinking coffee the next day when you're tired can actually then make this effect worse because it suppresses your body's response to cortisol, meaning you're working against your natural alertness and might not actually feel that much more energized. So be careful with caffeine (a good idea anyway if you're dealing with insomnia), or at least do your best to time it right. On the other hand, melatonin is a hormone known for its sleep-inducing properties. So Dr. Hernandez-Rey suggests that a melatonin supplement during these days might be extra effective if you're having trouble getting to sleep.
Your Period
"When you get your period, you have drops in estrogen and progesterone levels," Dr. Hernandez-Rey explains, "and that throws off your sleep cycle as well." The exact reasons why that matters aren't totally known at this point, but one theory is that because estrogen may help you get more restful sleep, it'll be harder for you to feel rested even if you don't necessarily have problems falling asleep. And of course, getting to sleep can definitely be a challenge if you're also dealing with cramps or any holdover stress from your PMS phase. To remedy this, the best thing you can do is try your best to take care of yourself during PMS (exercise is always a good stress reliever, but whatever works for you). The good news is, your period will pass and you'll be able to catch up; sometimes just reminding yourself of that can reduce anxiety that makes matters worse.
This is when things will settle back down to normal — whatever that means for you. However, as estrogen begins to build up again towards ovulation, you may begin to feel thrown off. "Just before ovulation, estrogen is almost near its peak," says Dr. Hernandez-Rey. And because estrogen can (paradoxically) act as an excitatory hormone, you may start to feel out of whack. Age matters here as well. As we get older and march on to menopause, our overall estrogen levels decline. So, right at and just before ovulation, Dr. Hernandez-Rey says we may start to feel some insomnia. And that's more likely if we're in our 20s than in our 40s, for instance, because that peak just isn't as intense.
If you're having problems falling asleep and you think your hormones might be a factor, definitely check in with your doctor. Dr. Hernandez-Rey says your first stop will probably be hormonal birth control because these medications can help regulate your cycle. But if that's not an option for you, you can work with your doctor to find the perfect snoozing solution. There's almost always more than one thing going on when it comes to problems sleeping. "Sleep is multifactorial," says Dr. Hernandez-Rey. "Regardless of where you are in your cycle, if you go out drinking on a Saturday night, you may suffer from insomnia." But worry not, it may take a bit of effort, but your best night of sleep isn't out of reach.

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