If you spent that day yawning your way through another caffeine-fueled energy and mood roller coaster, you should know that sleep—or rather, a lack thereof—can seriously affect your well-being. I'm particularly passionate about this topic because research has shown that women need more sleep than men in order to function optimally, but many just aren't getting enough. Whether you're worrying about your to-do list or being kept up by your partner's less-than-pleasant snoring, then you may not be getting enough shut-eye.
But there's another often-overlooked reason women just aren't getting enough good sleep: hormones. If your endocrine system is out of whack, it can wreak havoc on your sleep cycle, and that's serious: Lack of sleep doesn't just make you tired—it can lead to more accidents, trouble concentrating, poor work performance, and even increased sickness and possible weight gain. If you're dealing with a hormonal imbalance, you'll be prone to all sorts of potential sleep problems that can set you up for the aforementioned issues and more. Understanding how your hormones affect your sleep and how you can optimize them to work in your favor will get you drifting off toward better health.
How does your cycle affect your sleep?
Here's the deal: In the days leading up to your period (otherwise known as the luteal phase), your body produces a big spike and subsequent fall in estrogen and progesterone. If you're hormonally healthy, eating and living in a way that supports your endocrine system, these fluctuations shouldn't cause any symptoms.
But if you're struggling with endocrine issues, the two sharp drops in estrogen at the beginning and end of the luteal phase can lead to serious sleep disruptions. That's because estrogen is essential to your body's production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that carries nerve impulses to your body from your brain and is often associated with positive feelings of well-being and happiness. It's also a big player in sleep. That's because serotonin is converted into melatonin at night, and melatonin is the hormone that regulates your sleep cycles. So if your diet and lifestyle aren't supporting your hormonal health, the estrogen dips during your luteal phase will result in decreased serotonin, subsequently lowered melatonin, and, as a result, crummy sleep.
Too much estrogen can cause sleep problems too. Excess estrogen and not enough progesterone (a condition called estrogen dominance that's all too common), can lead to issues like PMS (think: mood swings, fatigue, and cravings that can indirectly affect your sleep quality) and insomnia. Lots of factors can lead to this imbalance, but one is age. After around age 35, progesterone production slowly decreases as part of a 10- to 15-year process known as perimenopause. This is a natural process, but the steady, gradual decline in progesterone can make it even harder to balance out high estrogen levels.
The final piece in the sleep puzzle that can make all of these issues so much harder to sort out? Stress. When you're chronically stressed, you're much more likely to eat a nutrient-poor diet, consume caffeine to stay alert, and then lean on alcohol to wind down at night. And while exercise is great, taking your frustrations out on workouts that are way too intense will also negatively affect your adrenals, the glands that pump out the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol leads to—you guessed it—bad sleep.
What is your period telling you about your sleep?
Your body is beyond wise—it'll give you signals to let you know what it needs and whether something is wrong. Here are some of the most common things your cycle could be signaling and how your sleep is directly connected to your endocrine issues:
- If you have PMS (including gnarly mood swings), the hormonal imbalance at the root of it will cause you to have more disrupted circadian patterns.
- If you're beyond fatigued, your circadian patterns are also likely out of whack.
- If your periods are super heavy, it's a sign of estrogen dominance, which, as you now know, will affect your shut-eye.
- If you have brown staining, it's a sign of low progesterone. This can also lead to estrogen dominance and all the subsequent issues associated with that.
Here's your plan to sync your cycle for amazing sleep.
If you're experiencing any of the symptoms above, or any other signs of erratic sleep or out of control cycle, then it's time to nip the problem in the bud. And that means addressing the underlying causes of your problem, not covering it up with caffeine and sleep aids. First things first: You have to improve the ratio of estrogen and progesterone, and the only way to truly do that is to cut out the problematic factors and amp up the good stuff:
- Cut caffeine. Coffee is bad news for women, period—but it's a particularly bad idea right before your period. If you're hooked on the stuff, start by giving it up the week before menstruation.
- Boost magnesium. Caffeine can zap your magnesium levels and, in turn, your energy—take a supplement to feel more stable.
- Be good to your gut. Your gut plays an essential role in breaking down excess estrogen; taking a probiotic and eating fermented foods can help keep your gut healthy.
- Eat for progesterone production. Getting enough B6 can help boost your progesterone, so be sure your diet is filled with foods rich in the vitamin, like wild-caught tuna, bananas, and sweet potatoes, and consider taking a supplement.
- Outsmart stress. Ashwagandha is a great adaptogen herb that can help support your adrenals, allowing you to combat stress more effectively.
What happens to your hormones when you skimp on sleep?
As you may already know, I'm a huge proponent of cycle-syncing. That's a fancy way of saying you simply eat and live in a way that complements your body's natural hormonal cadence. It means you work with—not against—your endocrine system to achieve better health, success, and happiness. By eating the right foods at the right times of the month and engaging in activities that are appropriate for the phase you're in, you can actually optimize your life.
With all that said, can you sync other areas of your life, too, skimping at certain points of the month and making it up later? Say...with sleep? Sleep isn't an area you can mess around with—it has to be consistent. That's because disrupting your sleep patterns means disrupting your levels of melatonin, and this crucial hormone governs all your hormonal output. Messing with melatonin sets you up for further hormonal dysfunction.
If you absolutely, positively must get by on a little less than the recommended seven to nine hours of shut-eye, try to schedule it for the week of ovulation. This is the time of the month when you have extra testosterone that will help keep your energy levels afloat during the day, so a little less shut-eye shouldn't leave you quite as drained. But, if you're really intent on getting by with less Zs, then don't try doing it with the crutches of caffeine and sugar. Pumping your body full of these two things will only wind up disrupting your sleep more in the long run. Instead, triage the situation with magnesium supplements and extra B vitamins and ashwagandha.
Download the MyFLO app, for more support on cycle-syncing your diet and exercise to further support your sleep.