My close friends and family will know that I am very sensitive to late nights and missed sleep. I can remember being at the world's longest church service, 9 lessons and carols, and after about 6 lessons, it was 10:30 PM and I decided I had had enough. In the front row of the church I started to cry... sad, sad, tired tears.
This was the first of many exhaustion-fueled cry fests, and was where (from my memory), my mother decided that I was like a pumpkin. Like the pumpkin in Cinderella, you know? I can be a beautiful chariot, but when the clock strikes midnight, or about 10:30 PM in my case, I turn into a pumpkin.
Secrets and the stress of this horrible thing on my leg caused me to experience proper insomnia for the first time in my life. I would go to bed tired, but wouldn't be able to fall asleep. When the sun came up I'd get a red bull, or buy candy from the school vending machines to try and wake me up, but every night I would continue to struggle to sleep, managing 30 minutes to an hour of sleep most nights.
It all came to a head the night I went to see my best friend perform in the high school play. I was really proud of her afterwards and gave her hug. Then it was like I had reached my breaking point of exhaustion and the flood gates opened. I could not stop crying.
All this drama because of sleep, or lack there of it.
Since then missing out on sleep has become an indicator of stress, it has been a guaranteed indicator of getting sick, and is therefore one of my main research obsessions. I love to read about sleep.
Here's Why We Need Sleep
Humans, on average, spend about 26 years sleeping. It has been cited to be the time when our body recovers by repairing and building new tissues and cells and memories so that we may enter into a new day better than we were the day before. Sleep is also cited as a crucial time for healing, specifically in our dreams. Our dreams are this crazy part of sleep that are thought to exist so that we have more time to process complex emotions and situations we may have been in, or are thinking about being in in the future.
Sleep is absolutely vital. There are terrifying studies out there that show what happens to a human when they get absolutely zero sleep, and if you somehow get no sleep for 11 consecutive days, you can actually die.
But the consequences on little sleep can actually begin from just a few nights of sleep lasting less than 7 hours a piece.
For some reason we praise the individuals who are able to "function" on very little sleep. They "get shit done", and are real "disciplined, go-getters". A new study has actually found that getting less than 7 hours of sleep over multiple days can lead to impairment that is worse than drunk driving.
This is because the brain is desperate to sleep. It is a vital function and it will stop at nothing to get those recovery processes done, regardless of what you think you're capable of.
When you don't get enough sleep your brain will shut down certain areas of the brain while you're awake in order to allow those areas to achieve micro-sleeps. Unfortunately this can mean that things like fine motor skills, decision making skills, and good judgement can all be impaired throughout the day. You may think you're doing fine on very little sleep, but the chances of you snacking without realizing, or engaging in risky behaviour go up because the areas of the brain that would otherwise control cravings and risk assessment are turned off.
How Can We Get More Sleep?
I like to think of myself as an expert sleeper. I can reflect on my day and know exactly how well I will sleep that night, if it will be easy, or difficult to fall asleep, and how refreshed I'll feel the next day.
There are a lot of factors that go into the perfect night sleep. I'll go through what contributes to my perfect sleep conditions, and then you can pick and choose what you can adapt and control in your life. Everyone is different in some aspects, like the firmness of pillows and the bed, but there are some biological aspects of sleep that are fairly universal. I'll try to keep to those, but throw in a few personal items as well.
1. Get a blue light filter for all devices.
There is some speculation about the efficacy of blue-light blocking glasses, but I still encourage people to get a blue light filter on their phone and their laptop and to set it to sunrise (filter off) and sunset (filter on). Yes, it creates a weird orange hue, but it also means that your brain won't be confused about whether the sun is up or not.
Blue light is the light that is emitted by the sun and lets our brains know that the sun is up and it is daytime and we should be alert. When our phones, laptops, and tablets emit that light, it basically tells the brain that the sun is never going down.
2. Try not to eat too close to your desired bed time
This is one that I firmly believe in, as the hormones in your body that control sleep work with the hormones in your body that control hunger and satiety. So if you eat late at night, you interrupt the production of melatonin with a new leptin cycle (the satiety hormone).
I have always found, with the exception of drunk snacks in bed (although these have their own consequences), that I have a really hard time falling asleep when I eat right before bed. Some people may not experience this, especially if they have worked late night snacks into the routine of sleep, but for me, eating right before bed is a guaranteed bad sleep.
3. Avoid processed sugars before bed
Everyone knows that sugar can cause a "sugar-high", so not eating it before bed makes perfect sense.
What isn't talked about as much is the fact that eating processed sugars before bed can actually throw off the metabolic and recovery processes that go on in the brain during sleep, and has been shown to lead to irritability and anxiety the following day. This is something that I always notice. Especially after an evening out with friends, sometimes I come home and get sweets to snack on before bed, and the next day I usually have to deal with a few existential crises.
4. Make sure your room is cool and dark
This is a big one for me. I find that I am very easily disrupted by light and a room that is too hot or too cold. This is why I cover all lights on power bars, and chargers, ensure that I have very good blinds on the window, and if I can control it, I make sure there's no light sneaking in under the door from outside.
As for the temperature, this is something that is different for everyone. The home I live in here in Sweden is kept quite warm through the winter months, so I typically sleep with my window open, or light PJ's while I sleep.
They have done studies on this and apparently the ideal sleeping temperature is between 15.5 degrees Celsius and 19.4 degrees Celsius. I'm not keeping a thermometer in my room to know what exactly the temperature is, so I just make sure it's cool and then I can usually fall asleep much faster than when I'm in a warm room.
5. Make sure I have my stress in check
We have all had those nights where we have 1,000,000 things running through out minds and we just can't fall asleep. This is normal and bound to happen, but you can take steps to limit the number of nights this happens to you.
I try to make my pre-bedtime routine as stress free as possible.
My Fitbit has a relax setting on it that takes me through either 5 or 10 minutes of breathing, and I have found that setting to be helpful when journaling and meditation podcasts are not getting the job done (sometimes the person leading the meditation can have an irritating voice on the wrong day).
There's a reason why my PT clients would always be asked about their sleep (and their water intake) when they trained with me.
Sleep is so important. I hope that this article has done its job conveying that message and I hope you all may have sweet dreams tonight!
In last week's blog I gave you a quick look into my life on PMS. The madness, loss of control, and extreme fatigue all played their part in feeding into my feeding frenzy. This got me thinking of all of those times when I was just a wee lass playing soccer. We used to have regular running practices because apparently training endurance once a week was beneficial to our soccer skill. Yes, I am still holding onto some distain for those 15-30 minute runs once a week that totally cut into my MSN time.
Anywho, when one of these practices lined up with my period, I thought I had been given the crimson ticket out of that session. Jokes on me though because Mom knew otherwise. She preached to me that going for a run would actually relieve some of my PMS symptoms and that I would feel better afterwards. This could have been true but I think my stubborn-ness never let me fully accept it back then. To this day I am testing this theory that exercise is a natural remedy for cramps, or primary dysmenorrhoea, back aches, head aches, fatigue and many of the other symptoms associated with PMS.
Being the curious little lady that I am, I decided to do some research and discover the truth about exercise and PMS. Can we give all the credit to exercise? Does it all come down to the "runner's high" masking the symptoms? Does it simply distract us from the symptoms long enough to send a signal to the brain that those pain receptors really don't need to be our main concern? I will attempt to answer all of these questions by diving deep into the research, and using my own experiences to finally give us women the truth we need!
The Research - A side note
So I have to mention that when I first started my research, the very first article I read was incredibly negative. As a fitness professional I do not think that exercise is the end-all-be-all cure for everything, but this article would state the results of a study and then discredit them by criticizing the sample size or how old the study was. You can follow the link in the sentence above to see what I mean.
That being said, I did my best to not allow my own bias towards exercise cloud my judgement of the following articles that I used for this research. Shall I remind you of my stubborn-ness and how I would rather not have another "told you so" moment from my mother dearest (they really do seem to know best most of the time though).
Okay now I'll explain the research :)
I'll be honest, it was not easy to find well written, truly conclusive studies on this issue. I was able to find a study on runner's high that we may be able to draw our own conclusions from in term of how it relates to PMS. In this study, our furry, genetically similar, tiny friends (mice - duh) were split into two groups. Half of the mice ran on their little wheels for 5 hours. Yes - 5 HOURS. After the run, the small mice displayed far less anxious behaviour, and were much more resilient to pain than their non-exercising friends in the other half of the study.
So when we look at the common symptoms associated with PMS - anxiety, back pain, cramps, and lack of interest - we could be led to believe that the runner's high associated with aerobic exercise could simply be masking our symptoms.
So now that we know that running really can, temporarily, alleviate some of the PMS symptoms (yes mom - you told me so), let's see if strength training, as a form of distraction, can also help with these unruly tokens of fertility and female sexual health.
Pain, in the body, is the result of a pain receptor sending a signal up the spinal cord, into the brain, where it interprets the pain, and then sends a signal back to the origin that creates a sensation/reaction to protect us from experiencing any further pain or discomfort. I like to think that we experience cramps and back pain every month to prepare us for the potential pain and discomfort that we will have to endure when we get pregnant. It fits in nicely with all of the other crazy things we have to deal with as women who, biologically, are always on high alert for the coming of a child. You know, the way our hips are set wider to keep a baby comfortable, but also make squatting more biomechanically challenging. Oh! And what about all that hard-to-lose weight around our middles that is always there just in case a little mini-me decides to plant itself in my uterus and need the extra insulation.
So - back to pain and exercise. In a study researchers applied heat to the participant's arms while they completed memory and brain-distracting tasks. After the test the participants reported perceiving less pain while working on their puzzles, than before. Okay. So this means, that while the brain is distracted, it has no time to deal with your menial pain signals (put very simply).
So, in our amateur conclusion-drawing club, we are now tasked with tying this study to the fitness community's claims that exercise can help with PMS. Here is where I think it is conditional. If you are going to exercise while fighting to remove your insides from your insides, then it better be stimulating. Push yourself through a really tough workout where you try new exercises, or push through new weights. If you're going to out-smart your pain signals, you have to do it right!
Alright, now for my favourite, and often neglected aspect of PMS. Nutrition. I recognize that this is about how exercise can help with PMS and not nutrition, but I am going to mention this because I believe that when you decide to use exercise as a way of improving your life - in any way - you should always look at your eating habits as well.
In my own experience, the way I eat has always affected the intensity of my PMS symptoms. If I am getting all of my vitamins and minerals, drinking a lot of water, and keeping my alcohol and caffeine consumption to a minimum, then I hardly even get a headache. I may get a signalling cramp to let me know that I have gotten my period, but that is it. In contrast to that, when I am over indulging in bread-y foods, junk food, and drinking, then I experience all of the symptoms to the point where I feel completely helpless. The soreness, lack of energy, lack of interest, and feelings of anxiety are debilitating and I have to remind myself, in the moment, not to make any big decisions in this time.
So is there any scientific backing to my little theory?
YES! (sort of). Again, with PMS it is hard for science to put their finger on any one cause of the symptoms, and therefore it is difficult to say if there is any one cure for the symptoms. It is suggested that proper calcium and vitamin D intake can prevent PMS symptoms due to the hormonal changes that occur in the luteal phase of a women's cycle. These hormonal changes - ie. the increase of estrogen - draw calcium from the blood and bones. Therefore having adequate calcium in our system to replenish those stores could help relieve some of the symptoms associated with PMS. Vitamin D is important because that helps our bodies absorb calcium into our bones.
The next nutrient we need to watch out for is the B vitamins (thiamine, folate riboflavin, niacin, B6 and B12). These vitamins are integral parts of food metabolism, as well as neurotransmitter production and function. Scientists looked at how all of these vitamins could influence and potentially reduce the incidence of PMS symptoms and found that increasing thiamine and riboflavin at levels slightly above their RDA - 1.9mg/day and 1.4mg/day respectively - can help reduce symptoms by at least 30%. B6 was also shown to reduce women's PMS symptoms when consumed in doses of 80mg/day. This is likely due to it's role in neurotransmitter production, as I mentioned before.
Finally, in a study published by the Journal of Women's Health, 200mg of magnesium supplementation was shown to decrease breast tenderness, moody-ness, weight gain, and bloating in women.
So there you have it!
The research is done, and some conclusions have already been drawn, and now it is time to give my final thoughts on an issue that I am so happy to have explored further.
Based on everything I have read on the issue it sounds like PMS is no excuse to not go to the gym! Whether you are going in for a cardio session or going in for a big weight lifting session, getting in your workout will give you some time to work on yourself and forget about the cramping, and back pain. You may even get a break from the anxiety and moody-ness due to the "runner's high"! What I have learned from this, and what I think every one should get on board with in all aspects of their life, is that nutrition really is the most important part. What you put into your body will dictate the severity of your symptoms. Make sure you are getting enough iron from your dark leafy greens, and red meat; stock up on your B vitamins, calcium and vitamin D by keeping your vegetables and fruits colourful and fresh; and work a little more magnesium into your diet through supplements or broccoli. Well balanced nutrition really is everything.
I hope this has been as informative and helpful to you as it has been for me!
Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next time!
Riri's Discoveries blog documents Riri's discoveries as she develops her skills as a marketer, and finds new and sustainable ways to stay healthy.