Of all the things in the body that hormones affect, sleep is one of the most important.
Without quality sleep, it is difficult to regulate appetite, to burn fat, to feel good, and to be happy and calm. Poor sleep can cause inflammation, poor blood sugar control, depression, anxiety, and a whole host of other issues.
Women suffer from insomnia at nearly twice the rate of men. This may in part be due to social and psychological factors, but it is also no doubt also due to the physiology of female hormones.
Fortunately, even though it’s nearly impossible to find great information about female hormones and insomnia on the web, the basics of are actually quite simple. Here is what you need to know about female hormones and insomnia.
Female hormones and insomnia: low estrogen levels cause insomnia
Low estrogen levels cause insomnia. Why? Because estrogen helps move magnesium into tissues. Magnesium is crucial for catalyzing more than 300 reactions in the body, the synthesis of important sleep neurotransmitters and the sleep hormone melatonin included.
When this happens, it is both harder to fall asleep as well as harder to stay asleep throughout the night.
Female hormones and insomnia: when estrogen levels get low
Estrogen levels can fall for a number of reasons. Here are the most common:
Female hormones and insomnia: psychological stress
High amounts of psychological stress can cause the female body to shut down reproductive function. This happens because the body would prefer to wait until less stressful time before becoming pregnant. It is much easier to become ill or die while pregnant if you are in a stressful environment.
You can read more about psychology and how it can affect sex hormone function in this post: psychological stress and hypothalamic amenorrhea.
Female hormones and insomnia: metabolic stress
High amounts of physical stress like under-eating, over-exercising, low fat or low carb diets, intermittent fasting, dramatic weight loss or low body fat percentage can all cause estrogen levels to drop precipitously.
It is super important for the female body to feel relaxed and fed. If it does not feel fed, it will think that it is starving. And if it thinks that it is starving, it will stop producing reproductive hormones, so as to stop you from becoming pregnant at a time in which it may be dangerous.
All sorts of activities that involve undereating of some sort – whether from calorie counting or chornic dieting – thus become a threat to your ability to sleep, especially if they are a chronic problem.
You can read more about the threat of starvation to female sex hormones in this post: metabolic stress and hypothalamic amenorrhea.
Female hormones and insomnia: fluctations with the menstrual cycle
Women of reproductive age often experience fluctations in their ability to sleep on a monthly basis. I know that I certainly do.
Most women report most difficulty sleeping in the day or two before menstruation, and during the first days of menstruation.
This is because these are the days in which estrogen levels are the lowest.
On day 1, the day of bleeding, all sex hormone levels are very low. Over the course of the next two weeks, before ovulation, estrogen levels rise. After ovulation, estrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate. Sometimes during this phase, progesterone levels may be elevated enough in order to off set any benefits from the estrogen, but usually the estrogen is strong enough to enable you to sleep.
At the end of the cycle leading up to the days of bleeding, however, most hormone levels are back down very low, including estrogen, making sleep difficult during these days and in the days that follow.
Female hormones and insomnia: menopause
Menopause is infamous for causing insomnia. Hot flashes often play a role in this, but even without hot flashes many women and toss and turn for years.
Menopause causes insomnia because the ovaries stop producing estrogen and progesterone at this time. Very often, after menopause the body readjusts to low estrogen levels and more easily picks up on a light estrogen signal. But it can take a significant amount of time for that to happen, which can be super problematic if you enjoy sleeping.
One solution to this problem is to try hormone replacement therapy. I am not an expert in pharmaceutical solutions to menopause, however – so I cannot in good conscience recommend particular brands or dosages. I will say that I think a low dose for a short period of time is probably okay and will not cause any problems, though HRT can cause symptoms such as breakthrough bleeding and is also under investigation for being linked to incidences of female cancers such as breast cancer.
One more natural solution is to experiment with phytoestrogens like legumes (chick peas, black beans), nuts (macademia nuts, cashews), small amounts of soy or flax in your diet, or even moderate alcohol consumption. These foods act like estrogen in the body and may be able to help give your sleep the estrogenic edge you need. Each woman’s body is different so you won’t know how these affect you until you give them a shot.
I recommend starting with one bowl of chickpeas a day if you are coming from a ‘clean’ paleo diet, and with something a bit more robust, like a tablespoon of flax, a day if you are coming from a Standard American Diet. The reason there is a difference in those recommendations is that women who have been ‘clean paleo’ will be more sensitive to phytoestrogens than ones who regularly consume them as a part of the SAD.
You will also want to make sure you are eating at least 40 grams of fat a day so your body has all the fat it needs to make estrogen, as well as at least 50 grams of carbohydrate (100 for women who are still of reproductive age), to keep your metabolism, thyroid, and reproductive hormones burning strong.
For more on some recommendations I make for menopause, check out this post on menopause and hot flashes.
Other hormones, systems, and insomnia
Of course, there are other hormone problems that can cause insomnia. Disorders of testosterone production, growth hormone production, and thyroid hormone – especially if hyperthyroid – can all have a negative effect on your ability to sleep.
Plus of course there are many other causes of insomnia beyond hormones. Neurotransmitter imbalances, electrolyte imbalances, stimulating substances like caffeine or MSG, blood sugar spikes, stress, anxiety, and dysregulated circadian rhythms can all be significant problems. I have suffered from each of these in my own journey with insomnia.
Nevertheless, the menstrual cycle, menopause, and the sensitivity of the female body to stress are all very common reasons that women lose sleep. And it all boils down to one thing: estrogen.
Estrogen, estrogen, estrogen.
Working on correcting or taking care of the estrogen-lowering issues discussed above can and will go a long way towards soothing your insomnia needs.
And, as ever, I am super curious as to what you think! Do you have experience with female hormones and insomnia? What things have worked for your insomnia?