Your menstrual cycle can wreak absolute havoc on your sleep. There is collective awareness about insomnia during PMS or discomfort during your period, but there isn’t a lot of conversation happening about why and how these events in your cycle can impact sleep. The menstrual cycle is just that, cyclical, and the ebb and flow of progesterone and estrogen can take your body on a wild ride month to month.
By understanding how your cycle changes, both month to month and throughout your life, you can get a better grip on how your period affects your sleep and make sure you’re getting the right amount of rest each night.
Why your period affects your sleep
Periods are regulated by two hormones: estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen tends to make you feel more awake, while progesterone tends to make you sleepier. Both progesterone and estrogen drop sharply right before your period starts. As the shedding of the uterine lining tapers off, your estrogen starts to increase, which can coincide with increased energy, until you ovulate. At that point, progesterone begins to increase as well, signaling rest mode. Then, both drop off suddenly, and your cycle begins anew.
Both hormones have an effect on sleep; in a broad sense, estrogen tends to make you feel more energetic and social (and often sexual) while progesterone has a hypnogenic effect, tending to make you feel more sluggish. If you experience pre-period insomnia, the cause may be that hormonal drop-off; your body loses its hormonal support for the sleep process and flounders as it tries to recover.
“Rising and falling levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone that regulate the menstrual cycle can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep, and influence the quality of sleep,” says Dr. Jodie Horton, an OBGYN in Washington D.C.
Understanding how periods affect sleep can be complex since most studies rely on subjective reporting (people answering questionnaires or surveys about what happens or how they feel) rather than objective measurements (EEGs or sleep studies). While this can make it difficult to come by specific or scientific information about how and why we may struggle to sleep at different points in our menstrual cycles, there’s still enough baseline information to help us find our own answers.
What causes sleep disturbances during the menstrual cycle?
Insomnia, defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep, is one of the most common sleep disturbances in general. Many people report experiencing insomnia during their periods, but the reasons behind the difficulty in sleeping varies. Identifying why you’re not sleeping is critical to helping you get a good night’s rest.
After ovulation and before your period begins, many people experience an increase in anxiety, irritability, and depression. This can lead to racing thoughts or depressive patterns which make it more difficult to relax and drift off to sleep.
Many people are simply uncomfortable during their periods. Cramps and gastrointestinal problems are the most obvious culprits, but some people report experiencing higher sensory awareness during their periods. Noises are louder, smells are stronger, and itchy things are itchier. Getting into a restful position can be more difficult while on your period.
Starting to menstruate when you’re going through puberty marks a big change in sleep quality. For preteens and teenagers, those who menstruate are more likely to experience insomnia than those who don’t have periods, and the newness of the hormonal fluctuations can feel especially disorienting and uncomfortable.
Pregnancy involves many hormonal changes that affect sleep quality, from additional sleepiness in the early stages of pregnancy due to higher levels of progesterone to sleep fragmentation in late pregnancy due to increasing oxytocin.
Menopause often leads to insomnia as estrogen levels fluctuate, and hot flashes and night sweats are notorious for causing broken sleep.
How you can get great sleep while on your period
Knowing why your sleep sucks while you’re on your period is all well and good, but what do you do about it?
Establish a pattern
First, you need to understand your patterns and why you’re struggling to sleep. Since every person has different hormonal fluctuations, knowing your specific ups and downs can help you plan ahead. Along with how much sleep you’re getting, try and keep some basic mood tracking:
- what was your emotional state?
- how much energy did you have?
- what did you eat?
- how much did you exercise?
If you can identify what helps you sleep when you’re not on your period, you’ll have some clues as to what may help when you are.
Use a sleep tracker
It may also be helpful to use some type of sleep tracker to get objective information on your sleep amount and quality. Sometimes our perspectives on how long it takes to fall asleep and how many times we wake up can be skewed and having an “outside observer” can help. The Sleep.com app can objectively track your sleep, and some fitness trackers contain a sleep tracker, and some of them will even make predictions about the different steps of your cycle based on your body temperature.
Find the right temperature
People in menopause notoriously struggle with hot flashes and night sweats, but this can be an issue at any point in a lifetime of periods. Drops in estrogen, as happen right before your period, make it more difficult for your body to regulate its temperature, meaning that if your sheets or blankets are too warm, your body is less likely to offset it. If you notice that you feel warm during specific phases of your cycle, plan to lower the temperature in your bedroom by a few degrees, wear lighter pajamas, or use cooling sheets to help keep your body in an ideal temperature range for sleeping.
Check in on your mental health
Hormonal shifts can lead to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. Transmasculine people may also struggle with dysphoria during this time. Take extra care of yourself in the days leading up to and during your period. Try to avoid unnecessary stress, eat well, drink plenty of water, and get some exercise. Poor mental health can lead to poor sleep which can further worsen mental health, so breaking that cycle as much as possible is crucial to your overall wellbeing.
Plan to deal with your flow
People with periods often have a lot of anxiety around the actual blood flow during their period, especially on days when it tends to be the heaviest. In most cases, it’s completely safe to keep your tampon or cup in overnight. If you worry about leaks beyond that, using a backup pad or period pants to catch any accidental overflow can help put your mind at ease, as can using darker pajamas and sheets, if you’re worried about stains. If you find yourself changing your pad, tampon or emptying your cup in the middle of the night it can be a sign that your flow is heavier than typical. Check in with your doctor for suggestions.
Establish a bedtime routine
Make sure you’re preparing for bedtime. Bedtime routines are a huge part of healthy sleep, but you may find that you need to change your bedtime routine while on your period. Maybe your cramps are too bad for your nightly exercise routine, or smells are too strong, so aromatherapy in the bedroom is absolutely not an option. It’s okay to plan a different routine that focuses on your cycle, whether that means a muscle-soothing shower before bed or even time on the sofa with frozen yogurt and a movie.
Learn about mindful menstruation
It can be difficult to have conversations about periods that aren’t full of euphemisms like “shark week” and “that time of the month.” The thought behind mindful menstruation is that our periods are a natural cycle that can be understood and incorporated into our lives instead of something that should be hidden away. Mindful menstruation means understanding that on a particular week of the month you might feel more social, and planning networking events or fun nights out with friends would make the most sense then, or that you should avoid morning meetings on a different week because you tend to sleep poorly when you have your period.
If having your period is triggering for you, carefully consider whether this practice could be helpful or upsetting.
Get better sleep, period
It’s important to remember that the goal of understanding your cycle and how it affects your sleep isn’t to change your cycle. In general, the hormonal cycles of our bodies are very resistant to change. What you can do is support those cycles by working with your body instead of against it. Sleep is one of the building blocks of health, and ensuring that you get the best sleep possible during your period can help make your period less painful, disruptive, and frustrating.