How Your Period Messes With Your Sleep — And 7 Ways to Fix It

The real reason women's can't sleep: the menstrual cycle.

October 19, 2016
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Adapted from The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan

According to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation, about 70 percent of menstruating women say their sleep is disrupted during their periods by symptoms like breast tenderness, bloating, cramps, and headaches.

At the start of your menstrual phase (when your period begins), there's a decline in estrogen (and a slowing of your metabolism) and you get sleepy. We now know that the drop in estrogen leads to less REM sleep, which is when dreams usually occur. Also, having a heavy period can lead to anemia from the lower iron level, which is a possible cause of restless legs syndrome—that uncomfortable creepy, crawly feeling you may get in your legs when you lie down that forces you to keep moving your legs or walking around.

More: How to Eliminate PMS From Your Life Forever

During the follicular phase, in the first half of your menstrual cycle, the brain signals the pituitary gland to make follicle-stimulating hormone, which triggers a rise in estrogen. Thus, you no longer feel sleepy—on the contrary, you may feel overly stimulated and have insomnia. During the follicular phase, women tend to have more light or poor-quality sleep (Stage 2) and an increase in REM sleep, often at the end of the night, which may make it difficult to wake up in the morning. So, it's both hard to fall asleep and hard to wake up during this menstrual phase leading to ovulation.

During the early luteal phase, the week after ovulation, the hormone progesterone is on the rise again. This will increase sleepiness and body temperature. Your circadian rhythm (which is controlled by melatonin) is affected. You will feel sleepy and want to go to bed earlier, but you will also wake up earlier. Your metabolism speeds up during this phase, so you will feel hungrier and eat more. Sleep will be lighter or of poorer quality.

More: 5 Gut Mistakes You Don't Know You're Making

In the final phase that leads up to menstruation—the late luteal phase, which is when many women experience PMS—estrogen and progesterone levels begin to fall back to normal, increasing awakenings and decreasing the amount of deep, restorative sleep you get and crave the most.

But to improve your sleep during all phases, follow these natural sleep tips for PMS and your period: 

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1. Increase your intake of liquids

This will help flush out excess sodium that causes water retention and bloating just before and during your period. This will help decrease any feelings of discomfort that make sleep difficult. 

More: Period Power: How Your Menstrual Cycle Affects Your Workout

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2. Take extra calcium

In a study commissioned by the manufacturer of Tums (an OTC antacid medication containing calcium carbonate), taking 1,200 milligrams (mg) calcium daily resulted in a 50 percent decrease in PMS symptoms. Bloating was reduced by 36 percent, food cravings by 54 percent, and psychological symptoms by 46 percent. In addition, calcium has sedating properties, which can improve sleep quality.

More: 7 Best Foods to Ease PMS Symptoms

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3. Take 400 mg magnesium

Studies show that magnesium affects mood by boosting the level of serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter in the brain. When combined with calcium, magnesium is a good muscle relaxant. Of course, being relaxed is important to falling asleep easily.

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4. Take 100 mg vitamin B6

This can help you produce serotonin. But be careful: In some people, B6 can have an energizing effect. 

More: 11 Things You Need to Know About Exercising on Your Period

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5. Starting at 2:00 p.m., eliminate all caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant that can trigger anxiety, making it difficult to fall asleep. 

More: 10 Foods to Avoid If You Have Anxiety

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6. Exercise in the early morning sunlight

Remember, do not exercise within 4 hours of bedtime. Exercising close to bedtime can key you up and make it more difficult to fall asleep. However, getting outside in the natural sunlight can increase your melatonin level in the evening. In addition, getting sunlight each day is vital to keeping your serum vitamin D level adequate. We now know that sufficient vitamin D is important for producing leptin (the "stop" hormone that tells you to quit eating). 

More: How to Become a Morning Person

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7. Don’t drink alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime

PMS can cause your blood level of alcohol to get higher than at other times of the month. While drinking alcohol may make you feel sleepier, alcohol also keeps you out of the deep stages of sleep, which are important for feeling refreshed when you awaken.

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