The 'Period Sleep Gap' Is Real. We Just Didn't Know How Big It Was

Finally, someone's crunched the numbers on how much sleep we lose to our periods over a lifetime.
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Anyone who’s ever had periods knows the inconvenience – and often pain – of menstruation. But it’s not just during the day that periods can be a problem. They also impact our nights, from cramps that keep us awake to leaks that force us up and out of bed to change products and sometimes our bedding, too.

Now new research shows just how much big that sleep deficit it. People with periods in the UK are losing an average of five months of sleep i their lifetime due to the discomfort, anxiety, and fear while on their period – with more than two out of three (69%) women suffering from disturbed sleep.

The Bodyform research, based on a poll of more than 1,000 UK women, found that many are forced to change the way they sleep to prevent leaking on their period, with nearly one in four sleeping in certain positions (24%), wearing old (43%) or more supportive (31%) underwear, and more than one in four (29%) use more than one sanitary towel and pads at a time for extra protection.

Highlighting the shame and stigma that still exists around periods, the research also showed that more than a third of women are embarrassed to talk about their period and how it impacts their sleep. And this shame stops many women from living their lives to the full, with three out of five saying they don’t enjoy staying over at other people’s homes or going on holiday during their period.

The research is part of Bodyform’s Periodsomnia campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the”period sleep gap” that women, non-binary people and trans men who menstruate experience.

Midwife Sarah Toler, science content lead at the period app Clue, says the link between our sleep and menstrual cycles is an under-researched topic, but that there certainly is a close relationship between the two.

“One study found that people who consider their menstrual bleeding heavy had shorter sleep duration and sleep quality that was less than ideal,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Heavier bleeding was also associated with fatigue, stress, and depression.”

Toler is no stranger to losing sleep during her period, she adds. “For me, the lack of sleep is mostly due to period cramps that always seem to sneak up in the early morning hours. If you’re bleeding heavily during the night, you’re going to wake up just from the moisture. Then you have a mess to clean up and once you get back into bed to sleep, your whole night is thrown off.”

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Le’Nise Brothers, menstrual health expert and author of You Can Have a Better Period, says that heavy periods or conditions such as endometriosis, adenomyosis or fibroids can make sleep “a time of worry and anxiety”.

“Sleep is one of the cornerstones of our health, so if anxiety around leaking or other menstrual health issues are disrupting your sleep, it’s important to find support,” she says. “You’re not alone, so don’t let shame and embarrassment stop you from getting the help you need and deserve.”

Sleep lost to period maintenance also has implications for our general health. Losing sleep on a regular basis can have serious consequences including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure or stroke. Other potential problems include obesity, depression, impaired immunity and lower sex drive.

One of the few clinical studies into this area, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, found those with heavy periods get less sleep and a poorer quality of sleep when they do eventually drop off.

The study looked at the regularity and heaviness of bleeding in correlation to sleep, based on more than 500 menstruating women.

“We found that habitual short sleep was associated with a 44% increase in menstrual irregularity, as well as 46% of women experiencing heavier bleeding, in comparison to women that get more normal amounts of sleep,” co-author Chidera Onyeonwu, from the University of Arizona, tells Huffpost UK. “We also found that women who slept worse overall showed a similar pattern.”

Starting out on the project, Onyeonwu was surprised at the dearth of research. “Considering that half of the population is female, one would expect them to be able to have access to this information in order to properly inform themselves of what’s going on in their body and how to take care of it, especially being that we know how important sleep is and the adverse effects it can have if we don’t get enough,” she says.

And the issue, as ever, is personal. “Some nights I get home at 10 from work, get in bed by 11/11:30, and have to wake up the next day at 5 to be at work by 6,” says Onyeonwu. Add period disruption into this mix for a few days each month – and it’s easy to see why so many people are left exhausted.

“Information regarding sleep health should be just as easily accessible as information on how to lose weight, and we need to work towards making this a reality,” she says. “In our study, finding a correlation between the two variables [sleep and periods] was an important first step in paving the way for further research regarding this topic.”

Now workplaces and governments need to put the time and effort in, she adds. “This means the government allocating more funding for research into women’s health and sleep, or even in the work schematic of things, looking into proper scheduling to minimise sleep deprivation and associated work related stress.”

Making workplaces more period-friendly

Navigating menstruation at work can be a tricky topic. While formalised period leave is often discussed as a solution, those who menstruate, particularly women, don’t want time off to affect job prospects or further entrench the gender pay gap. What they want it to feel comfortable having the conversation and to feel their needs are accommodated.

With the aim of educating employers, the period poverty charity, Bloody Good Period, has launched an initiative, Bloody Good Employers, a four-step training and certification programme to help bosses educate themselves and offer more proactive support in the workplace. Based on the charity’s findings, 89% of people experience anxiety of stress in the workplace due to their period.

Joe Gray, Bloody Good Employers lead, tells HuffPost UK: “UK employers need to do a lot more to ensure that individuals experiencing menstruation at work are properly supported. Making sure you support colleagues is about much more than offering menstrual leave.

“As helpful as it will be to many women and people who menstruate who do need time off, it’s also about ensuring there are period products in toilets (in the same way you would supply toilet paper and soap without question) and having policies which don’t negatively impact those who suffer from painful and debilitating menstrual conditions.”

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Accommodating periods might look like later starts, earlier finishes or a smaller work load when an employee has had only two hours sleep due to debilitating pain (from dysmenorrhea or endometriosis, for instance). Or it might mean a break in the day for someone who is suffering intense cramps.

“Perhaps most crucially,” Gray adds, “this is about fostering a culture of open communication, which not only allows employees to be able to ask for more support, but encourages managers to educate themselves to better understand menstrual health. This will mean managers instigate more proactive conversations with their teams, taking the onus off the individual, so taking more responsibility for wellbeing and professional progress too.”

How to sleep better during your period

Midwife Sarah Toler has advice for a range of different period sleep issues.

Painful cramping

“If you lose sleep because of painful cramps in the middle of the night, take an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) drug before you go to bed to prevent waking up in pain,” says Toler.

Heaving bleeding

“If you think you your bleeding is heavy and you experience severe fatigue around the time of your period, this might be a sign of anaemia,” she says. “Your healthcare provider can run some simple blood tests to see if you are anaemic and they may recommend an iron supplement.”

Leaks at night

“If you’re losing sleep because your bleeding is heavy and you’re bleeding through your tampon, cup, or pad, invest in some period underwear designed for overnight,” says Toler. “They can seem pricey at first, but they are so worth it. You’ll get a better night’s sleep, plus you can rewear them for every period for about a year. If you can’t afford period underwear, a small box of underwear for urinary incontinence will provide the same benefit.”

Disrupted sleep

“If it’s fatigue that’s causing your disrupted sleep, stay away from caffeine and alcohol, two chemicals that can really upset your sleep/wake cycle. There is some science that sleeping in a very cold room with the temperature around 67°F (19°C) can help your body sleep more deeply, so you can also try this too.”