Periods and low energy

Why does menstruation make you feel so tired?

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
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An introduction to periods and low energy

Do you feel drained whilst you are on your period? Many women feel the same but it’s important to look after yourself as best you can – understanding what’s really going on is important. Lack of energy is one of the most common complaints for many of us, whether we are on our period, male or female or whatever, so it can be quite confusing and hard to work out the root of the problem! There are a whole host of factors that could potentially be to blame and it’s important to take the time to slow down and look at the bigger picture in order to try and figure it out.

On this page I look at period-specific issues that could be making you long for your bed and then I go on to discuss what dietary and lifestyles changes help as well as some useful herbal remedies.

How can your period cause a lack of energy?

There are a number of ways in which your menstrual cycle could be contributing to a lack of energy.

  • Hormones – Hormones are often the root cause of many symptoms of menstrual periods. This makes sense as these hormones fluctuate in a similar way each month and if there is some imbalance then you could suffer recurring symptoms each time you menstruate.  In terms of sex hormones, the two main ones are oestrogen and progesterone. Oestrogen is often referred to as the ‘stimulating’ sex hormone, whereas progesterone is the ‘calming’ one. Basically progesterone is there to balance oestrogen and the two should coordinate quite nicely. Sometimes we need one to be dominant, for example for ovulation, but they should be in sync with each other most of the time; if one dominates when it shouldn’t or levels are too high or too low, it can be quite problematic. In the few days before your period, oestrogen is at an all time low. Your stimulating hormone oestrogen being down can leave you feeling zapped of all energy. This is can be made worse if progesterone is particularly high relative to the levels of oestrogen. This is common in the menopause but can occur in many women, especially if you are prone to very light, irregular periods
  • Anaemia – If you have particularly heavy periods you are at risk of anaemia. Anaemia means you become deficient in red blood cells, which means you are low in iron which is crucial for carrying oxygen around your body. As a result of this, tissues around your body can fail to recover and get the oxygen they need to function and as a result you can feel tired and lethargic
  • Energy expenditure – Although not massively so, your energy expenditure goes up slightly in the second part of your menstrual cycle. Around day 14 of your cycle you ovulate. During this time your body temperature increases and you burn more calories. From then in you are in the luteal phase of your menstrual cycle, and research suggests that during this phase (which lasts up until the first day of your period) your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) can increase by up to 9%! That means by the time your period arrives you have expended 9% more energy for several days and it can take its toll, leaving you feeling more tired than normal
  • CravingsCravings for not so healthy foods such as chocolate, refined sugar and stodgy carbohydrates often crop up in the days before your period is due, partly because of fluctuating hormones making you more vulnerable. But what happens to your energy levels if you give into these cravings? Consume some refined sugar and your blood glucose spikes –  you might feel fine and full of energy for the next half an hour, but then there’s the crash –your blood sugar hits rock bottom, you are left feeling lethargic and your cravings are back with a vengeance. Soon you get yourself into a vicious circle and your blood sugar and energy levels end up all over the place
  • Symptoms affecting other behaviours – Can other symptoms of your period affect your energy levels? Cravings are one example but there may be others such as cramps, heavy periods or bloating. Your sleep could be affected or you might shy away from exercise, both of which can affect your energy levels. Your periods shouldn’t affect your day to day life and you should be able to take part in activities as normal. If symptoms of your period are so bad they holding you back, you could have premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Webb, P. (1986) 24-hour energy expenditure and the menstrual cycle. Am J Clin Nutr. 44(5): 614-619

Diet and lifestyle factors

There are some simple home remedies you can implement to give you the boost of energy you need around the time of your period.

  • Diet is crucial – It’s really important to include lots of nutrient-packed fresh ingredients in your diet. Eat little and often to keep your blood sugar stable, generally 3 meals a day and healthy snacks in between work well for most people and ensure you include protein in every meal which can help keep you fuller for longer. Include plenty of iron-rich foods including dark green leafy vegetables, beetroot and beans. Ensure you are drinking enough water and avoid alcohol, refined sugar and caffeine too which will only upset your blood sugar levels
  • SleepGetting enough sleep is important to support your energy around this time. Aim to get 8 hours of sleep a night on average in order to feel refreshed and ready to take on the day ahead. This is especially when you are most likely to be feeling extra tired such as in the lead up to your menstrual period
  • Do some exercise – This might be the last thing you think would help if you are feeling tired but actually, exercise can provide you with the energy you need. Exercise gets your blood pumping and allows you to better utilise your energy stores. Exercise can also help you get a better night’s sleep.

Natural remedies to help

If feeling overly tired is a common monthly routine for you then it might be time to try out some natural remedies:

  • A good iron tonic – Many women are at risk of anaemia if they have heavy periods and the recommended daily amount (RDA) for iron is higher for women than men. Find a good quality iron tonic which will be well absorbed and in a form that is unlikely to cause digestive upset
  • Agnus castus – Having anaemia contributing to your lack of energy often comes hand in hand with heavy periods and very heavy periods are often a sign you have an oestrogen imbalance! Agnus castus is a licensed herbal remedy which is used to help relieve symptoms of PMS.

Please note, if you are taking hormonal contraceptives such as the pill, hormone-balancing herbal remedies may not be suitable for you.

How can my doctor help?

If your energy slumps are becoming too much it might be time to visit your doctor. Depending on whether or not your lack of energy appears to be in sync with your menstrual cycle, your doctor can run any necessary tests.

Hormones might well be to blame in which case hormonal contraceptives may be offered. Other contributing factors such as low vitamin D, low B12, thyroid issues or anaemia can get flagged up and treated accordingly too.

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Here's what I recommend

As the A.Vogel  Women’s Health advisor, I recommend Agnus castus to help relieve premenstrual symptoms such as painful periods.

Learn more

Did you know?

Did you know the average age of starting your periods has changed? A 100 years ago, 16 was the average age for a girl to get her first period in the UK but now this has dropped to just 12! Incredible!

15 interesting facts about your period

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