Rest & Our Periods: Why We Need It, How to Get It, Coping with Guilt, and the Sacred Reframe

. 8 min read

Yesterday I was a zombie—to the point where my eyes burned, my walking was off balance, others’ words were falling on my very deaf ears, and, as for my own words, they were something akin to a jumbled, bleary mess that only became less coherent as the day progressed.

I hadn’t been that tired in a long time, so, no, I could hardly say that being on my period was the sole reason for being in such a state. I got to that unfortunate place thanks to a cocktail of situations that happened to collide within the same 12 hours, zapping me of my life force. I’ll spare you all the details and just return to the point: I was exhausted, and my poor body was crying out for rest.

By the time mid-afternoon hit and my last meeting of the day wrapped, I fell into a quick nap-turned-3-hour-deep-sleep. Oops—actually, no. I take that ‘oops’ back. Thing is, when I emerged from my mini coma, I felt infinitely better, like my head had been screwed on straight again. So, clearly, that was exactly what I needed.

But though my body and mind clearly knew this all along, it took my emotional body a while to get on board.

Why? Guilt, anxiety—the usual suspects.

I had two thoughts running at the same time: 1) I can’t get anything accomplished in this state and so I may as well rest as I so obviously need to, and 2) But there’s still a ton of daylight! People are outside your window right now working! You should be too! Don’t you see that to-do list? You can’t sleep now! Who do you think you are sleeping on a Tuesday afternoon?!

I don’t need to tell you which was the healthy mind and which was the anxious mind.

Ultimately, the healthy mind won as it was aligned with my body’s needs, and my body could only tolerate so much before it shut down my anxious mind and put me to sleep, but I do remember how, in those last few seconds of being awake, my anxious mind took one last swing, and how I had to put it in its place by affirming to myself that it was okay to release.

On waking, I realized this idea I’d had to dig into the research on the correlation between our need for rest and our periods was one I really wanted to pursue, because although my sleepiness wasn’t entirely due to being on my period, at least some of it was, and I could sense that, armed with more information, I’d be more capable of being kind to myself and truly allowing myself to rest without quite so much guilt to wade through, without quite so much, frankly irritating and pointless, inner chatter.

Alas, here we are.

So, first things first, are our feelings of tiredness valid? Do we need more rest on our periods?

Yes. And yes.

Now, for the more interesting question… why?

Why do we feel more tired while on our periods? Why do we need more rest?

As you probably suspected, there are many reasons we feel more tired.

First, there are the hormonal changes that take place in the days leading up to our periods.

Dr. Carmel Harrington has said that we need at least an extra 30 minutes of sleep in the second half of our cycles, “due to the increase in progesterone, which leaves us sleepy.” And, she said, since so few of us actually get this, we get into a sleep debt, and, as a result, we “start to get all the characteristics of being sleep deprived: we're cranky, we're moody, we can be a little bit emotional—all those characteristics that are now being treated as PMS."

What’s more, right before we get our periods, Rise Science explains that our progesterone and estrogen levels plummet, which prevents melatonin from being released effectively, making it harder to not only fall asleep but stay asleep. Women need, on average, 8 hours and 40 minutes of sleep each night. When our sleep is off and we don’t get that, we will naturally be more tired and become in need of more rest to make up for the sleep debt we’ve incurred.

As to our feeling tired during our actual periods, this could be, in part, thanks to the blood loss, since blood loss can lead to iron deficiency, and low iron levels absolutely fatigue us. Or, it may go back to our sleep being interrupted—but this time thanks to those cramps we all know all too well. I, at least, can attest to waking up now and again with cramps, particularly after day 1, and I’m willing to bet a few of you, unfortunately, have been there, too.

Tips to sleep better before and during your period

Since we talked about wonky sleep being a major cause of our feeling tired and unwell during our periods, we’re now going to home in on a few ways to improve our sleep so that we can feel better during this time of month.

But first, if possible, get a little bit of extra sleep in the week leading up to your period. As Rise Science says, “By starting your period with low sleep debt, you’ll ensure that even if you do build up some sleep deprivation over the next few days, your overall number will stay low, meaning you’ll feel much better each day.”

Now, onto the tips on improving sleep.

1. Keep a consistent sleep schedule.

2. To the best of your ability, honour your natural rhythm.

I’m a morning bird for instance, and I always feel way better if I can get into bed by 9pm. My boyfriend, on the other hand, is a night owl, and he generally feels best getting into bed around 11pm or 12am. Your job may not allow for this, but if it does see what you can realistically do to honour your rhythm. It’s not just about sleep here either, if you notice you’re sleepy around 3pm and you have some degree of autonomy over your schedule, try to give yourself less intense tasks to focus on during this energy dip.

3. Stretch and/or do light exercise.

This can be helpful for alleviating period pains, but also for improving sleep. (More below.)

4. Get natural light upon waking.

This wakes you up and resets your circadian rhythm for the day.

5. Avoid artificial light in the evenings.

Opt for candlelight if possible to avoid disrupting melatonin disruption. You can also try blue-blocking glasses, installing red lights, or using salt lamps.

6. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool.

I’m a huge proponent of earplugs if you’re sensitive to sound. We’re all different though. I know my boyfriend is far more sensitive to light and so for him it’s about ensuring the room is super dark—achieved through either blackout curtains or eye masks, or both if needed! And, finally, aim to keep your bedroom at 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, an especially important factor while menstruating as our body temperature is elevated at this time of the month.

7. Eat at least an hour prior to bedtime, if possible.

Or even earlier. Alcohol can also disrupt sleep, as can, honestly, drinking anything, even water, as it can cause you to wake up to pee—something I admit I’m far too intimately familiar with, and so am working on!

8. Take magnesium.

This mineral helps with period pain, bloating, menstrual migraines, and it can help induce sleepiness. There are many different types of magnesium though so be mindful of what you precisely need and then find the right type of magnesium for you.

Should we exercise on our periods?

In short, as mentioned, yes. According to Ultra Human, low or moderate-intensity exercise a few times a week is beneficial, “This will give you the boost your body requires without causing more pain or aggravating cramps.” Alisa Vitti seems to agree, recommending light exercise on her Flo Living app. Vitti says:

Light exercise can alleviate additional symptoms, including…

  • Bloating
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

Light exercise has also been shown to increase the production of endorphins, while simultaneously reducing anxiety, depression, and pain.

Recommended exercises while on your period include…

  • Light jogging
  • Cycling
  • Swimming
  • Strength training with lighter weights than usual
  • Gentle stretching
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Pilates

Note: As a rule of thumb, aim to do gentler workouts than you normally would, as a baseline. If you feel extra tired or uncomfortable, reduce the intensity and/or length of your exercise even more. And, if you’re ever unsure, choose rest over working out.

Benefits of slowing down while on our periods

Clearly, our bodies go through a lot leading up to and during our periods. If we could learn to slow down and prioritize getting more rest during this part of our cycle, we’d not only feel less exhausted, as we’d be honouring our need for downtime, but those symptoms Dr. Carmel Harrington spoke to that have been passed off as ‘PMS’—those symptoms can be lessened.

Meaning: we could have less cramps, improve our moods, and make this time, overall, a little bit less of a slog and more of a sacred opportunity.

But, you know I get it, it's still hard sometimes to deal with the mental chatter that suggests slowing down is unacceptable. So, on that note...

How to accept our need to slow down while on our periods

I believe this comes from understanding all of the above, and especially the last bit we talked about there with reframing our periods as less of a slog and more of a sacred time.

Alexandra Pope speaks to this in her work, as does Alisa Vitti, and, in fact, so have tons of women for centuries.

If we can let go of this idea that we always need to be productive in the exact same sense, and recognize that we can be doing incredibly powerful work in a way that looks very different—in a way that is more in line with feminine energy, that’s more focused on ideating and reflecting than on, say, closing deals and ticking tasks off the to-do list—we can come to appreciate this quieter time that comes with being on our periods.

Vitti speaks to the power of this time by explaining to users of her app Flo Living that this is when our communication between our two brain hemispheres is at its greatest. She advises taking advantage of this by reflecting on how we are feeling about situations we have found ourselves in and deciding where we want to go from here.

Pope speaks more to our sinking into permission to rest during this time by likening it to our Winter season. Rather than always living in Spring/Summer, rather than pushing on as men can, she encourages tuning into the cyclical nature of the feminine, into the truth that we have these seasons to begin with. And, in the Winter, we are meant to let go of the stress of the previous month and rest in preparation for the month ahead. When we do this, we feel better.

I can absolutely attest to this. I am a better person when I rest—better in the sense that I show up for myself better, and I show up for others better. Clearly, I still have work to do here, but if my past has proven anything to me, it’s that Pope’s words here are oh so true. Ignoring our needs, pretending our Winter season doesn’t exist… it only disconnects us from ourselves, from who we are and what we want, and this yields a very unsatisfied life where we aren’t really able to connect with anyone, much less ourselves.

Whereas, when we honour our needs and rest, passively and actively—meaning when we take that time to not only luxuriate but also get to know ourselves through reflection, creation, meditation, prayer—doing truly whatsoever fills up our cups, that's when life begins to feel juicy, exciting, divine. That's when we get clear on our heart's desires, our mission, what our truest self is made of. Though this may all look very inward from an outsider's perspective, this is, to me, when we are truly in touch with life on the deepest level.

And so, if we can equate all this goodness, all this beauty, to the time of the month in which we menstruate... my god, what an opportunity we have to really love this time, and honour that love by soaking in the stillness it encourages, rather than fear it.

If you found this article interesting, stay tuned as I'm having sleep psychologist Dr. Nerina on The North Star podcast soon to delve further into all of this!