09 May READER QUESTION: “What’s the hormone/sleep connection?”
Melissa, a Hormonology newsletter subscriber, asks: “Can you shed any light on sleep patterns and how they relate to the hormone cycle?”
My answer: Hormones can have a profound impact on sleep—both positive and negative. Here’s how it breaks down:
Week 1: Cramp pain during menstruation may keep you from getting deep sleep in the first few days of your Week 1. However, if you take a painkiller or don’t experience cramp discomfort, rising estrogen during this week is likely to be making your sleep deeper and longer as it helps boost the brain’s level of sleep-regulating serotonin.
Week 2: As estrogen climbs toward its peak in your Week 2, it gives a rocket-boost to your mental and physical energy, which could make it difficult to turn off your thoughts and unwind. However, once you do drift off, the high level of estrogen is helping you have a solid night’s sleep as it continues to boost levels of serotonin in the brain.
Week 3: This is a topsy-turvy week when it comes to sleep. In the first half of your Week 3, estrogen takes a steep plunge, which can trigger bouts of insomnia as it reduces levels of serotonin in the brain. However, by the second half of your Week 3, estrogen rises and is paired with rising progesterone, a sedating hormone. Together this hormonal duo can give you the deepest sleep of your whole cycle. Which is a good thing because you’re going to need it by the time Week 4 rolls around….
Week 4: In study after study, women report having their worst quality of sleep during their premenstrual Week 4. It may be hard to fall asleep, you may wake up in the middle of the night or you may have light sleep that leaves you feeling tired upon awakening. The problem is plunging estrogen, which strikes a one-two punch: It brings down levels of sleep-regulating serotonin in the brain and it’s making you more sensitive to factors that interrupt a good night sleep, including unpleasant odors, uncomfortable room temperatures, loud noise or pajamas that pinch and bind.
All this said, it doesn’t mean you’ll lose sleep during each of the bad-sleep times of your cycle every month. You may have more of sensitivity to rising estrogen or falling estrogen. Or you may be more prone to sleeplessness during just a couple of days out of the month or when hormonal effects are coupled with other factors in your life, such as medications, health conditions and stress.
So, what can you do to get better sleep on your bad-sleep days? Here are a few proven techniques:
Drink chamomile tea: This sweet-flavored herbal tea contains mildly sedating compounds that can improve sleep quality. For best results, steep a cup for 10 minutes and drink two hours prior to going to bed so you have time to empty your bladder.
Pop a little melatonin: A study out of MIT reveals that a tiny dose of the sleep-triggering hormone melatonin—0.3 mg—is more effective at lulling you to sleep than a larger dose. Take it 20 minutes to an hour before bedtime. (And dim the lights an hour or so before you turn in; exposure to light stops the body’s natural production of melatonin.)
Listen to lulling music: Several studies show that listening to soft, slow music an hour before bedtime (even if it’s on in the background as you do other tasks) results in deeper, longer sleep. The reason? The music prompts the mind and body to relax, making it easier to drift off.
Count backwards by 3s: When you wake up and can’t fall asleep due to racing thoughts, start counting backwards from 300 by 3s, for instance, 297, 294, etc. According to sleep expert Michael Breus, Ph.D., this activity is engaging enough to stop your thoughts from racing and triggering stress that keeps you alert, but is boring enough to lull you back to sleep.