Blood, cramps, PMS headaches – they’re hard enough to handle at the best of times, let alone when it’s 35°C. So here’s how to handle your period when the mercury keeps rising.
The UK is gripped in the middle of a potentially record-breaking heatwave, with temperatures steadily creeping up to a point where some parts of the country could reach upwards of 40°C. While that’s hard to handle for anyone who doesn’t own a private pool, there’s something especially trying about having your period in the middle of this sweltering weather.
Extremely hot weather wreaks havoc on our cycles, with many of the more frustrating symptoms associated with menstruation being exacerbated by the heat, says Dr Shazia Malik, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at The Portland Hospital.
“A connection has been found between hot weather in summer months and the length of menstruation,” she tells Stylist. “Increased exposure to the sun can lead to changes in the duration of your period.
“Similarly, if you are suddenly in much hotter weather, then your body may have difficulty adjusting to the temperature. This is because your body is accustomed to regulating your internal body temperature according to your usual environment, so soaring temperatures during a heatwave can send the body into ‘shock’, making this adjustment harder. An inability to regulate body temperature efficiently has been linked to periods that are longer in duration.”
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Heatwaves make periods harder to deal with psychologically
While you probably won’t have heavier periods in a heatwave, it might feel worse, because heat can affect our stress levels. The psychological symptoms typically attributed to periods such as low mood, anxiety and tearfulness rear their ugly heads far quicker than when they would on a cooler day.
“Oestrogen and progesterone are the main hormones which fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle and the stress hormone cortisol can have a significant impact on this,” Dr Malik adds. “When trying to go about everyday activities in extreme heat, stress levels naturally tend to rise, leading to an increase in cortisol. The increase in cortisol can decrease progesterone levels, resulting in higher levels of oestrogen and a hormone imbalance. This hormonal imbalance can accentuate symptoms such as stress, anxiety and tension.”
High heat also exacerbates certain physical period symptoms
Physiological symptoms of periods are also exacerbated, as your bodies battle the heat as well as your monthly cycle.
“Higher temperatures make your period headaches feel harsher than usual,” says Dr Sam Wild, women’s health clinical lead for Bupa UK. “This is because your blood vessels will be trying to adapt to your surroundings. If you’re feeling dehydrated, your blood vessels contract, but when you’re warm, they expand.”
She goes on to explain that heatwave periods can make it even harder to get to sleep because our body temperature is already higher than usual during menstruation. “Your body uses more energy when you’re on your period, so it means you’re likely to feel even groggier during a heatwave, especially if you’re not sleeping well.”
Bloating is made worse in this heat – which may in turn make those suffering less likely to drink, causing dehydration – and leading to breasts and stomach to feel more swollen, adds Dr Wild.
When struggling with period cramps, we’re usually told to reach for a hot water bottle to ease the sensation that gnaws at the pit of our stomach. But in the middle of blistering heat, the last thing many people want to do is boil the kettle and place a hot compress on our body. Dr Malik points towards other ways to remedy ongoing pain. “Taking a bath or shower to relieve pain can help you relax, or lightly massaging your lower abdomen to help alleviate cramps,” she says.
“You can also take part in some light activities and exercise such as mindfulness, yoga, swimming or pilates to distract you from the pain and relax the body and mind. It’s important to not overdo exercise when it’s really hot as this puts stress on the body.
How to handle your period in a heatwave
Over-the-counter medications can also be used to assuage suffering, says Dr Wild, suggesting ibuprofen is just as effective in the heat to combat muscle tension.
Eat nutritious foods and stay hydrated
While it’s tempting to snack on sorbets and sugary iced lattes in the sun, sensible nutrition choices will make periods less of a pain in the heat.
“Staying hydrated can reduce your chances of getting dehydration headaches,” Dr Wild says. “Avoid high sugary drinks, caffeine, alcohol which are notorious for causing dehydration. Water-rich fruits, such as watermelon and cucumber, help with hydration and sweet fruits, such as pomegranate, mango and oranges can help curb your sugar cravings.”
For dinner, a balanced meal made up of key components can remedy menstrual symptoms and assist in fighting off more troublesome symptoms. “Chicken and fish are both high in iron and protein to help boost energy levels,” Dr Wild continues. “Kale and spinach can boost your iron levels to help you feel stronger. Meanwhile, ginger has anti-inflammatory effects, which can soothe achy muscles.”
Experiment with more heat-friendly products
For people who usually wear sanitary towels, Dr Malik suggests using an alternative to prevent chafing and discomfort in the hot weather. “Alternative products include using tampons or menstrual cups,” she explains. “There are also period pants that have been specially designed to absorb blood and then washed for repeated wear. It’s great nowadays that we can find period pants and even swimwear which allows you to carry on your daily life without the issues above, and it’s also eco-friendly.”
Is it the heat or are you symptoms actually PMDD?
The impact the prolonged heat may have on a menstrual cycle can vary from person to person. However, if you find yourself really struggling with the hot weather, and that your symptoms do not ease at all, it may point to a deeper issue linked to your periods.
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD, is a severe form of PMS, and is thought to impact one in twenty menstruating individuals. Its symptoms are similar to PMS, but can reach more extreme levels: a study published in BMC Psychiatry reports that 34% of people with premenstrual dysphoric disorder have attempted suicide.
“If you are really struggling to cope with your period in the heat and it is affecting you, speak with a medical professional who will be able to share their expert advice,” Dr Malik explains. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ rule when it comes to each person’s menstrual cycle and associated symptoms – but seeking personalised advice would be beneficial.
“Periods should not incur physical or psychological symptoms which prevent you doing everyday activities – regardless of temperature and weather. There is plenty of advice and support out there, so please do speak to your GP or get referred to a gynaecologist.”
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