A friend of mine recently underwent overnight testing designed to uncover if she has a sleep disorder. Her problem is pretty persistent, causing her insomnia and restless sleep night after night for months on end. So, it was evident she needed help.
But, what if you have troubled sleep just a few nights at a stretch, then it goes away only to return?
Any time you suspect you have a health problem, it’s wise to discuss it with your healthcare provider. However, you may be able to put your mind at ease–and avoid costly tests and medications–if you first uncover if your sleep complaints are simply a normal (albeit frustrating) side effect of hormones in your monthly cycle.
And, there’s an easy way to find out….
Is it a sleep disorder or your hormones?
When you want to figure out if recurring difficulty falling asleep, tossing and turning at night and/or feelings of fatigue after awakening are potential symptoms of a sleep disorder or a normal aspect of your monthly cycle, all you need is a calendar.
In the calendar, write down where you are in your monthly cycle right now, then chart out the rest of your cycle. (To make it easier, you can use a menstrual cycle tracking app, such as my Hormone Horoscope App.)
Then, circle or make a special note about these specific cycle days: Day 8 to ovulation (which is Day 14 in a 28-day cycle) and the fourth to eighth day after ovulation (which is Day 18 to Day 22 in a 28-day cycle).
On these days of your monthly cycle, you should be getting the kind of wonderfully deep, restorative sleep that sleeping pill companies hate. Even if you mess up with a late-afternoon cup of caffeinated coffee or keep the TV on late at night (both known sleep disrupters), your sleep should be the best it is all cycle long.
Why? During Day 8 to ovulation, estrogen is at a high level and rising–and this hormone helps produce brain chemicals that promote sound sleep, such as serotonin. When rising, estrogen also reduces aches and pains and lowers the likelihood of negative moods that can keep you from experiencing high-quality zzz’s.
And four to eight days after ovulation, not only is sleep-boosting estrogen rising again after a brief dip, it’s also paired with rising progesterone–a sedating hormone that helps further lull you into a deeper snooze.
If you aren’t getting a good night’s sleep on these cycle days–a time when your sleep should be at its best–then it’s a sure sign to speak with your healthcare provider about investigating a possible sleep problem.
The cycle days when insomnia strikes
Now that you know which cycle days are best for sleep, it’s also key to keep in mind when it may be more difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep or reach the deepest stages of sleep that help you wake up feeling refreshed: These are the first few days of your period, the three days following ovulation (Day 15 to Day 17 in a 28-day cycle) and your premenstrual week (the final 6 days of your cycle).
The period-related sleep woes are due to menstrual cramps keeping you up or waking you up at night and/or low estrogen. While estrogen rises throughout your period week, it starts off at rock-bottom and may not have risen high enough during the first few days of bleeding to help produce a greater amount of brain chemicals that manage sleep.
The sleep problems right after ovulation and during your pre-period week are due to plunging estrogen. When this hormone descends, it drags down levels of brain chemicals that foster a good night’s rest. On top of that, it amplifies aches and pains, can sour your mood and prompt ruminating, and make you more sensitive to temperature, sounds and smells–all factors that can rob you of good sleep.
If you’re having trouble sleeping only on these cycle days, then you’re likely sensitive to these cycle-related effects.
4 ways to get better sleep all cycle long
If after noticing a pattern of good sleep and lousy sleep based on where you are in your cycle, you realize your sleep woes are likely hormone-related, there are medication-free, study-proven treatments you can use at home. Here are four easy ones to try:
Tuck a lavender sachet into your pillowcase: In a study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, poor sleepers who followed healthy sleep habits (such as sticking to a regular sleep schedule and avoiding caffeine in the hours leading up to bedtime) while also inhaling lavender throughout the night enjoyed better, deeper sleep than those who followed healthy sleep habits alone. Credit goes to compounds in lavender that help relax you when inhaled. Bonus: Lavender reduces your risk of experiencing anxious dreams and nightmares and makes you more likely to have dreams with happier storylines. That’s because pleasant aromas have a direct effect on the limbic system—the parts of the brain responsible for emotion—prompting positive feelings that affect what you dream about, reports the Journal of Sleep Research.
Move more: Whether it’s taking brisk walks with your dog, playing with your kids or hitting the exercise bike, numerous studies (such as this, this and this) have shown that being more active during the day leads to better sleep at night for all ages and due to a wide variety of reasons, such as stress, burn-out, aches and sleep apnea. Being physically active reduces stress, improves flexibility, reduces weight and tones muscles, which help counter many causes of sleep problems that can be exacerbated during declining estrogen cycle days.
Drink milk with dinner: Sounds like folklore, but research proves that drinking milk at night really does help you get better sleep. That’s because milk supplies the brain with the amino acid tryptophan, which helps create sleep-regulating serotonin and melatonin.
And do both: A 2014 study of 437 older adults who had difficulty falling asleep found that those who were both active and drank one cup of milk daily fell asleep faster than those who were only active or only drank milk. Turns out, when combined these methods have a synergistic effect that make each work even faster at ushering in sleep than when doing either alone.
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Gabrielle Lichterman launched the growing movement to live in sync with your cycle and discover how your hormones impact your moods, health and behavior with her groundbreaking book, 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals about Your Love Life, Moods and Potential. Learn more about Gabrielle and how you can join her mission to educate future generations of girls and women about their hormones.
Featured Cycle Tool:
Keep track of where you are in your monthly cycle with this portable, easy-to-use ovulation mini-microscope from Fertility Focus.
It’s as small as a lipstick tube and you can use it anywhere. Just dab a little saliva on the lens, let it dry, then take a peek through the microscope. Seeing dots, sticks or ferns on the lens tells you how close you are to ovulation. It couldn’t be easier! Order it at Amazon.com.