How the menstrual cycle affects sleep and how to balance hormones naturally
Women are more likely than men to experience insomnia and daytime sleepiness.
As our hormones change throughout the month, they affect our sleep in many different ways.
(Men can have hormone imbalances that affect their sleep, too. But as women, we’re uniquely affected by the fluctuations of hormones during our cycles.)
How hormones affect sleep
Many of my clients notice that they sleep worse during some parts of their cycle, usually around their period. This makes sense because this is when both estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest point. If their hormones are depleted, then the even lower levels of those sex hormones can lead to insomnia.
The fluctuations in hormones throughout the cycle also affect the amount of time we spend in different phases of sleep:
At the start of the menstrual cycle when estrogen is low, there’s a decrease in REM sleep.
During ovulation, estrogen rises and we can feel less sleepy and have more trouble falling asleep. Also the time you spend in stage 2 and REM sleep increase.
In the luteal phase after ovulation, progesterone increases which can cause more sleepiness, an increase in body temperature and a decrease in melatonin which can lead to trouble falling asleep and waking up at night.
As estrogen and progesterone drop right before your period, they can lead to night wakings and a decrease in stage 3 sleep.
Some women have more trouble sleeping during the follicular phase of their cycle (the first 2 weeks). This happens when there's estrogen dominance, which means that estrogen is significantly higher than progesterone. Besides insomnia, other symptoms of estrogen dominance are PMS, heavy periods, breast tenderness or cysts, uterine fibroids, and bloating.
I talk about other hormone imbalances that affect sleep in this post.
Why testing is so important
So the number one question I get is how to balance hormones. If you go to a doctor, they're likely going to prescribe hormone replacement therapy. If estrogen is low, you take estrogen. If progesterone is low, you take progesterone.
I've had many clients whose doctors prescribe them hormones without even testing! They're doing it based on symptoms. This blows my mind because many symptoms of low estrogen and low progesterone are the same. And if you take the wrong hormone or too much of a hormone, it leads to even greater hormone imbalance. Testing is key!
I’ve also seen many clients who are way over prescribed hormones. I’ve seen postmenopausal women whose progesterone is at premenopausal levels. Many doctors think that too much progesterone isn't a bad thing but progesterone and estrogen need to be in balance. Too much progesterone can lead to anxiety and insomnia. Hormone balance affects our neurotransmitters: progesterone eats up neurotransmitters so it needs to be balanced with estrogen which preserves neurotransmitters.
What causes hormone imbalance
The main reason why hormones become depleted is stress and inflammation. When your body is constantly making cortisol to deal with stress, it takes those resources away from your sex hormones. Our bodies will always prioritize survival over reproduction. This has happened in my clients whose sex hormones are all depleted, not only estrogen progesterone but also testosterone and DHEA.
How to balance hormones
So my first goal when balancing hormones is to find where the stress and inflammation are coming from and address that. That's why I also look at gut health because inflammation in the gut is a major stressor in the body. The other tests I do look at other causes of inflammation such as liver function, heavy metals, food sensitivities and more. And then we also look at diet and exercise and how much mental stress my clients have to minimize all sources of stress.
I may recommend supplementing with bioidentical estrogen and progesterone that you can get over the counter to help my clients sleep and feel better in the short-term. But my long-term goal is for my clients not to have to take hormones and other supplements forever.
Birth control does not rebalance hormones. Instead it suppresses natural estrogen and progesterone and stops ovulation. So birth control may get rid of symptoms of hormone imbalance but it is not getting to the root of the problem and it can make the imbalances even worse long-term.
Supplements for hormone balance
The main supplements you can take to balance hormones naturally are adaptogenic herbs. You may have heard of some of these like ashwagandha, holy basil, rhodiola, maca and some medicinal mushrooms. They're called adaptogenic because they survive in harsh conditions such as high altitude, extreme cold, brutal winds, etc. They produce compounds to help them deal with their stressful environment. So when we ingest these plants we also get the compound that help us deal with stress.
My favorite adaptogenic herb for women, especially if cortisol is out of whack and hormones are out of balance, is maca. I especially recommend Maca from a brand called Femmenessence. They make different formulas for pre menopause, perimenopause and post menopause. Maca has been shown to not only help balance cortisol but also sex hormones.
Seed cycling for hormone balance
Another way to promote hormone imbalance is to seed cycle. Seed cycling is the practice of eating specific seeds during the two main phases of your menstrual cycle to help promote the healthy balance of estrogen and progesterone levels. It’s a gentle and completely natural way to help support healthy hormone balance.
On days 1-14 of your cycle (follicular phase-menstruation to ovulation), take:
1-2 tablespoons ground flax seeds
1-2 tablespoons ground pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds and flax seeds help improve your estrogen levels while preventing excess estrogen. Flax seeds contain lignans which bind to excess estrogen.
On days 15-28 of your cycle (luteal phase-ovulation to menstruation), take:
1-2 tablespoons ground sunflower seeds
1-2 tablespoons ground sesame seeds
Sesame seeds are a rich source of zinc which help boost progesterone production and also contain lignans that help block excess estrogen while progesterone rises. Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin E and selenium. Vitamin E can help boost progesterone production, while selenium helps detox the liver of excess estrogen.
Tips for seed cycling:
If you don’t have a 28-day cycle, you can adjust the length of time you consume each seed combination based on your cycle length.
If you don’t have regular cycles, you can follow the phases of the moon. You’ll start day 1 with the new moon.
Use raw, ground seeds and store them in the refrigerator.
Seed cycling takes time to work with your body. It can take at least three months of daily use to start noticing the benefits.
A company called Agni makes tasty seed cycling boxes that you can order to make it easy!
While supplements and seed cycling can help, the way to balance hormones long-term is to correct the other imbalances in your body and reduce stress and inflammation. This is exactly what we can help you with.
We run 4 functional medicine tests to find what’s causing stress and inflammation in your body. And we help you handle mental stress better and stop worrying about sleep so that your mind doesn’t sabotage your sleep.
Schedule a free consultation to find out how the Complete Sleep Solution will find what’s keeping you awake at night and help you sleep better soon.