Ever noticed that you get night sweats or sleepless night before your period? That’s only natural, say the experts.
Women find themselves battling for equality in just about every aspect of life. We might be better able to fight the gender pay gap if the gender health gap didn’t mean we were fighting for better childcare and parental leave, endometriosis support or pain relief. But it turns out that it’s not just in our waking lives that we’re lagging behind.
There’s also a gender sleep gap, these stats prove it: 69% of women experience sleep disturbance during their period, losing an average of an hour and half sleep a night. That’s a whopping 7.5 hours of sleep during each time of the month (according to the Bodyform campaign, #periodsomnia).
Just as with our appetite, energy and levels of discomfort, our sleep will fluctuate around our cycles, and understanding how and why is important to best look after your health.
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How does the menstrual cycle impact sleep quality?
We normally sleep better during the follicular phase
Let’s start with the follicular phase, which happens mid-way through your cycle as your period ends and you prepare for ovulation. This tends to be a more settled phase of sleep – what you might count as your ‘normal’ sleep.
For the seven to 10-day phase, you can expect your regular amount of shut-eye without feeling too disrupted, says women’s health expert at Bio-Kult, Dr Shahzadi Harper.
The luteal phase is where problems begin (both PMS and sleep-related)
The luteal phase is when things get a bit more complicated. The phase begins after ovulation and continues into the first few days of your bleed. During that time, your progesterone and oestrogen rise then fall.
This hormone surge means it’s the most common time for sleep issues: according to the National Sleep Association in America, 23% have poor sleep in the week leading up to their period and 30% of women report disturbed sleep during their bleed. That’s worse in women with PMS, who are twice as likely to experience insomnia during their period.
“During the luteal phase of menstruation (around 14 days before a period begins), levels of energy expenditure are thought to increase,” explains Kim Plaza, technical nutrition advisor at Bio-Kult. It’s because the hormonal fluctuations require energy, with some studies showing we can burn up to an extra 500 calories a day. “That can lead to more daytime tiredness,” explains Plaza.
What sleep issues are associated with the luteal phase?
Increased nighttime wakefulness
“The luteal phase has been associated with changes in body temperature and reduced rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which are linked to reduced sleep quality and more nighttime wakefulness,” explains Kim Plaza, technical nutrition advisor at Bio-Kult.
More night sweats
That all comes down to the change in progesterone levels. A 2010 study found that the progesterone rise was associated with an elevated nighttime body temperature and a less amplified circadian rhythm. Those pre-period night sweats that stop you sleeping? That’s a real thing. And that change in temperature was also related to an increased slow-wave sleep pressure in the daytime, again making us feel more lethargic.
Reduced sleep quality
As the luteal phase continues into your period, your sleep quality remains impacted. A 2019 study found that sleep efficiency decreases by 3.3% and you wake up on average an extra three times a night, adding an extra 15 minutes of awake time into your sleep schedule.
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How to look after your sleep around your cycle
Make sleep a priority 14 days before your period is due
Ironically, sleep is even more important before our periods. “During the luteal phase of menstruation (around 14 days before a period begins), levels of energy expenditure are thought to increase,” explains Plaza. It’s because the hormonal fluctuations require energy, with some studies showing we can burn up to an extra 500 calories a day on our period, which can lead to more daytime tiredness.
Don’t ignore tiredness
Notably, not everyone feels huge surges of sleepiness or wakefulness depending on where they are in their cycle and just responding to your natural sleep urges will probably keep everything ticking along. But if you are struggling with your sleep, Plaza urges you to maintain a regular routine.
Maintain a regular sleep routine
“This includes waking up within the same 90-minute window each day and eating at similar times. The circadian rhythm is dictated largely by our exposure to daylight and stress, so the more our wake-up times fluctuate, the more our hormones will need to adjust,” says Plaza.
For example, the stress hormone cortisol naturally spikes in the morning to help wake us up – but if you have too much cortisol circulating later in the day, it may be harder for the sleep hormone melatonin to have an effect.
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“A routine that keeps us calm may prevent spikes in stress hormones and promote wellbeing. If you find that stress levels begin to rise during the end of your cycle, consider keeping a note of the times that you’re getting up – it may provide a useful clue,” adds Plaza.
Eat meals at regular times every day
“Eating meals at similar times each day also ensures that we are also stabilising appetite hormones, such as ghrelin and leptin, which can impact our sleep. As our appetite can change with the fluctuating energy demands of our cycle, sticking to a regular eating pattern will allow our bodies a chance to control blood sugar and keep energy levels balanced.”
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