“Why does period pain leave me feeling so drained, with frequent nightmares?”

Written by Stylist Team

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and filing these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 31-year-old woman explains how intense menstrual cramps and vivid dreams leave her unable to function on her period.

A little about me:

  • Age: 31
  • Occupation: Digital content producer
  • Number of hours sleep I get each night: 6
  • Number of hours sleep I wish I got each night: 8
  • Any officially diagnosed sleep-related problems: I grind my teeth and have very vivid nightmares.
  • How much water I drink on average per day: 1 litre
  • How much exercise I do on average per week: 1-2 hour walking per day (I always aim for 10,000 steps, using my phone’s pedometer to track it), and 1 hour of Kung Fu on Thursday mornings.

Day 1

I wake up at 5am, an hour before my alarm, feeling sick and with intense stomach cramps: my period (always heavy, always terrible) has come a day early. I head to the bathroom to sort myself out, then return to bed for what I assume will be a 30 minute nap. Instead, I fall into another three hours of sleep, sleep through my assigned alarm, and wake with a start when I realise what I’ve done.

Despite the extra snooze time, I feel groggy, almost as if I haven’t slept at all. I don’t drink caffeine if I can avoid it, so instead make myself a mug of lemon and honey, and take a few painkillers. I sip it as I prep myself for the first of two morning meetings, and before I know it, it’s 1.30pm. And, other than my breakfast drink, I haven’t consumed anything, let alone moved from my desk. Oops.

I have a glass of squash and some more painkillers, before taking the dog outside to play for an hour. Then, it’s back to work: I only break once for two slices of toast, which means I finish work roughly on time at 5:45pm. And, while I’d usually take the dog out, my partner does it for me as I’m in too much pain. All I want to do is curl up in a ball and press a hot water bottle as tight to my tummy as possible.

Around 7pm, I uncurl from my foetal position to make a vegetarian chilli for dinner, which I pair with a multivitamin tablet. Then, at 9pm, I meet up with two of my old uni friends on a video call: we haven’t chatted all together for ages and it’s really good to see their faces. Despite wanting to go to bed more than ever tonight, I’m glad I didn’t cancel.

I head to bed around 10.30pm (half an hour later than usual, but hey, it’s Friday), after more painkillers, but it takes ages to get comfortable. Around 11.45pm, I hop out of bed to do a few stretches on the floor, in a bid to ease the cramping a bit. Then I get back into bed and toss and turn some more. My partner can sleep through anything, and is out for the count, so I try to ignore the pain and instead snuggle up to them and match my breathing to theirs.

It helps. Sort of (according to my phone, I’m awake around 2.45am although I don’t remember it). Eventually, I drift off to sleep, and have some seriously intense dreams about the end of the world. Again. Which makes sense, I suppose, considering how 2020 has gone so far.

Day 2

I wake up around 5am, thanks to a whining dog and an aching stomach, so stagger downstairs to let the former out. I sit on the couch holding my stomach (cramps are bad again) and wait for his return, and wind up falling asleep until 7.30am.

As it’s Saturday, we treat ourselves to egg and cheese muffins for breakfast while watching Gogglebox, which I pair with a hot chocolate. Then, I hop in the shower and do a bit of tidying while I wait for my hairdresser, who shows up at 11am to sort my roots out. This takes about two hours, and I feel antsy when the foils are finally off. I leap up and decide to start reorganising the entire house, and set to emptying every cupboard and drawer to see what can be chucked, what can go to charity shops, and what needs to be put back away.

This keeps me occupied until 3pm, when I suddenly realise I haven’t clocked up anywhere near my 10,000 steps. My partner has already taken the dog out, so I grab a few reusable shopping bags and walk to our nearest supermarket, just to get the steps, and wind up buying way too much for me to carry. Which means that, essentially, my walk home also feels like a weight-lifting exercise.

When I’m back in, I tidy some more, then make a chilli cheese pizza for dinner at 7pm. We watch a very upsetting true crime documentary as we eat, and it leaves me feeling emotionally drained. And this, in turn, makes me feel far less happy with my decision to upend the house: the bedroom is still strewn with clothes and it takes another couple of hours to get it into a state where we can actually sleep in it.

I crawl into bed at 11.30pm, utterly exhausted, but not before I’ve treated myself to a hot cloth face wash (best way to get rid of all that dust!). It takes a long time for me to get to sleep and I’m plagued by bad dreams. Again.

Day 3

I jolt myself awake at 3am due to an extreme nightmare, and it takes a while for me to calm myself back down. I grab the notebook next to my bed and, without putting on my glasses or light, scrawl a few notes about the dream for myself to find when I wake up properly later.

This proves to be a creepy mistake as, when i wake up at 8am and read the note I’ve written to myself, the phrase “Something’s coming through the floor” sends shivers down my spine.

To cheer myself up, I join forces with my partner to make a veggie breakfast of scrambled eggs, homemade hash browns, mushrooms, and halloumi. We sit on the sofa to eat it, which isn’t like us, and stare at the TV for a bit (clearly we’re both tired), then I head upstairs for a hot shower (which helps with my cramps) before my Zoom call with a friend at 10am.

I feel much better after my chat and, when it’s done around 12pm, head downstairs, clip the dog to his lead, and take him out on a long walk in the wind and rain. We get up to 8,900 steps, which annoys me, but then I remember I still have the rest of the day to make up the final few.

Back home, my partner is hanging out with his brother, so I grab myself a chocolate bar and settle down to play video games for a bit. By the time he’s finished (6pm), we’ve just time to make dinner (reheated veggie chilli) and catch up on our days, before my family Zoom quiz starts at 8pm. Because yes, we’re still doing quizzes. Even now.

It’s a fun game and I stay on the call a little while after it finishes so I can catch up with my dad, who’s working abroad. Then, at 10pm (later than intended), I head to bed and fall asleep pretty quickly, according to my bedtime schedule, although I’m up in the night around 2am again. No idea why.

My dreams are vivid but not scary, and mainly revolve around work. Which makes sense, I guess, as tomorrow is Monday and my mind is firmly on that.

Day 4

I wake up at 5am when my alarm goes off, stagger to the bathroom, and splash cold water on my face to wake myself up. Then I head into the office to start work at 6am, and find myself panicking as it’s taking me longer to get into the swing of things than usual. So much so, in fact, that I forget to eat or drink anything until 12.30pm. Oops.

In a bid to maximise time, I decide to power through lunch so that I can clock off on time at 2.30pm. Then, I grab a biscuit, leash up the dog, and take him out for an hour-long walk. My step count noses its way past 7,000 steps and I’m keen to keep going, but the dog is tired and I have to get home, so we trot back to the house.

At 5pm, my partner and I do something we haven’t done since February: we go to the cinema. Our local Everyman is basically empty, and we enjoy what feels like a private screening of On The Rocks (which is amazing!). As it’s a Monday, we’re unexpectedly served up a free pizza and beer each, which definitely makes up for the lack of lunch!

Once the film is over, we take a stroll around the village (step count now at 9,090), before grabbing some ramen to take home with us. We’re home and sat at the table by 7.40pm, and then spend some time chatting and playing with the dog before heading up to bed for 10pm.

Again, my app shows that I’m awake a couple of times in the night, and I have very vivid dreams. And, yes, they’re all about work again. What does this mean?!

Day 5

I’m usually the earliest of early birds, but whenever I’m on my period I swear I could sleep forever. It’s a struggle to ge tup today at 6am, so I snooze my alarm a few times before eventually crawling to the bathroom, washing my face, and downing some painkillers.

As it’s getting dark earlier in the evenings, my partner and I take the dog for an early morning walk (which clocks up to 4,980 steps). We get home around 8am, and I make my partner a porridge pot to go, before whipping myself up a small plate of eggs on toast (with a pinch of chilli and turmeric).

Once I’ve eaten, I read news on my phone until work begins at 9am, then power through until 1.30pm, when I take the dog out for his second walk of the day. Despite staying out with him for just under an hour, my pedometer is still only at 7,800 steps when I get back home.

I skip lunch (the eggs have kept me feeling full) and work through until 6pm, as I want to get one last project finished before tomorrow. Then, I play with the dog in the garden for a bit, and practice my Kung Fu moves, as I’m due to be graded soon. 

When my partner gets in around 7pm, we rush around and do some tidying, before sitting down to a vegetable and paneer curry at 8.15pm. We sit at the table, but bring the iPad along so we can watch a few episodes of a cheesy horror series we’re bingeing as we eat: the sort of show you can talk over without worrying about missing anything major, you know?

We head to bed early: after doing a hot cloth cleanse and brushing my teeth (did I mention I use an app to ensure I brush for the right amount of time? I actually fear I have a problem now!), I’m in bed for 9.40pm. Unfortunately, though, my partner and I soon realise the dog has sneaked into bed at some point during the day with muddy paws, and are forced to hop out at 10pm, shake the dry mud off the sheets, and replace them with clean ones. Grr.

I stick an audiobook on with a sleep timer, and am unconscious long before it ends. Again, I wake up in the night (as per the app), but I don’t remember it when I wake up at 6am… it’s my first morning without cramps, although energy levels are still low. 

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: 

“Where to start? Lots going on here and you are clearly a perfectionist who puts yourself under a lot of pressure to make things just so. 

 “This is reflected in your bruxism (teeth grinding), nightmares and period pains.You need to give yourself a break – discipline is good but your relationship with control isn’t doing you any favours. Why not keep a regular journal to download thoughts, feelings and emotions and maybe even include some gratitude practice?” 

Dr Nerina adds: “Massage and complementary therapy every now and then could help the period cramps, too. And please stop measuring your sleep. Apps such as those you mention are not accurate and are fuelling your anxiety. 

“Go gently, watch more comedies, or even rom-coms. Make sure you go to bed thinking that the world is a good place – your sleep will reward you for it.”

If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email us at [email protected] with ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan is a renowned physiologist and sleep expert and regularly hosts sleep programmes and workshops. She is the bestselling author of several books about sleep, including The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep (Gaia, 2018).

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

Images: Getty

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