sleep7There are lots of ways I know when my premenstrual week arrives–and one of the biggest tells is that I suddenly have more trouble drifting off, I get less restful sleep and/or I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep easily.

And, I’m not alone: Numerous studies (including this one, this one and this one) point out that sleeplessness is a common problem among premenstrual women.

What’s causing so much bad sleep during the final week of your menstrual cycle? Point a guilty finger right at plunging estrogen. As the level of this hormone falls, it lowers levels of sleep-regulating serotonin in the brain. It also makes you more sensitive to factors that can keep you awake, stop you from reaching deeper stages of sleep or rouse you from your slumber, such as noise, smells, light, itchy pajamas, scratchy sheets and the room temperature being slightly too cold or hot. It can also up your likelihood of anxious dreams or nightmares that can lead to a less restful snooze or startle you awake.

Unfortunately, poor sleep doesn’t just lead to more daytime tiredness. Research shows it can also trigger or worsen a wide range of symptoms we generally associate with our pre-period week. For instance, a lousy night of zzz’s can…

* Ruin your mood, reveals a study in journal SLEEP.

* Make you view people as more negative, reports the Journal of Neuroscience.

* Reduce self-control, according to a study in the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience.

* Increase your sensitivity to pain, reports the journal PAIN.

The good news? If you have a difficult premenstrual week that’s punctuated by bad moods, negativity, out-of-control eating or spending, a flash temper and/or more pain, improving your sleep length and quality could help reduce these bothersome symptoms.

Lucky for you, sleep researchers spend an awful lot of time looking for ways to help folks get better sleep–and they’ve found many easy, drug-free techniques. I’ve rounded up six here that you can try:

1. Tuck a lavender sachet into your pillowcase: In a new 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.
How it works: Lavender contains compounds that trigger relaxation when inhaled, explains lead study author Angie Lillehei Ph.D., M.P.H., R.N. 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.

2. Supplement with iron: I’ve talked about the importance of taking an iron supplement—15 mg. for women ages 14-18; 18 mg. for women ages 19 to 50; 8 mg. for women 51 and over—every day of your cycle to lessen fatigue that occurs as you shed iron during menstruation. Now a new Turkish study reveals supplementing with iron can also help you sleep more soundly and help you feel more positive.
How it works: Iron helps regulate the production of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline—neurotransmitters that impact sleep and mood. If you get too little of this mineral (a problem about 20% of us have), it can disrupt your sleep rhythms and trigger depression or anxiety that keep you from getting sound sleep, says leads study author Murat Semiz, M.D. Luckily, these problems disappear when you replenish your body’s iron levels.

3. Enjoy Jell-O dessert: Eating one serving of sugar-sweetened or sugar-free gelatin dessert can help you fall asleep faster and spend more time in deeper stages of sleep without causing next-day drowsiness.
How it works: Gelatin is brimming with glycine—an amino acid that makes you more relaxed and lowers your core body temperature slightly, triggering nighttime drowsiness, reports the journal Sleep and Biological Rhythms. Other good sources of glycine include pork, beef, poultry, seafood, egg whites and tofu.

4. Eat more vegetables: Been skimping on vegetables lately? You may be inspired to try fitting in more servings of bell peppers, corn, peas, spinach and other delicious favorites after hearing this: In a Japanese study of 3,129 women, those who ate the most vegetables daily fell asleep faster and stayed asleep longer.
How it works: Vegetables are rich in sleep-promoting nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and vitamin C.

5. Warm up your pajamas: Throw your pajamas in the dryer on low for 10 minutes right before turning in—and you’ll fall asleep about seven minutes faster and get more deep, restorative sleep.
How it works: Mild warming increases skin temperature—triggering soothing relaxation—without altering your body’s inner cool-down mechanism needed to get to sleep, reveals a study in the journal Sleep Medicine.

6. Try paced breathing: This is where you breathe in slowly and deeply, filling your lungs, then breathe out slowly. Chronic problem sleepers who practiced this easy technique for 20 minutes prior to bedtime slept more soundly and experienced far fewer nighttime awakenings, reports the journal Psychophysiology.
How it works: Slow, deep breaths calm an overactive sympathetic nervous system (responsible for your “fight or flight” stress response) that’s keeping you from fully relaxing.

[Photo: Moyan Brenn]