04 Mar The role of Sleep in reversing PCOS symptoms
When it comes to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), we’re often only going to get so far in reversing symptoms (from those pesky chin hairs & chest hairs to that jawline adult acne to cycles that are so long or simply MIA to the weight that just won’t shift, for some) until we’ve got quality & quantity of sleep optimised.
Sleep is one of *the* most important foundational factors in reversing PCOS symptoms. But it’s so often overlooked – and I get why that can be. Sleep can often just seem too simple. Because if we’re completely honest with ourselves, as human beings, we can sometimes choose to overcomplicate things before ensuring that the simple (but not always easy-to-implement) stuff is in place first.
That’s why I want to underscore sleep’s importance here, especially related to PCOS.
I see women all the time who are in a flat out panic asking “What tests should I do?” “What supplements should I take?” “Should I include this food? I heard it’s really good for X? And what about this one?”
(Sidenote, one of my primary focuses of journeying with women to reverse their PCOS symptoms is to do the work that allows us to take meaningful action from an empowered starting point of care & kindness towards your body rather than one of – understandable – fear & frustration.)
Now, don’t get me wrong, the food, the testing, the supplements absolutely can, and often do, have their place on your PCOS journey but we want to ensure that your body is in a state that allows us to get the absolute most out of these interventions. And good quality & quantity sleep is one of the things that certainly sets us up for that.
It’s just like how you’d consider someone actual bonkers if they decided to build a home, and before the foundation has gone down, let alone a wall gone up, they were chatting about which scatter cushions would go where.
Well, the same is true of sleep. Even though heading down more intricate rabbit holes might be necessary in order to understand your individual PCOS picture in context of your body and your story? The non-negotiable, foundational starting points, simply cannot be overlooked. And this includes sleep.
I’m by no means saying that getting enough shut eye alone will cause your PCOS symptoms to melt away overnight just like you melt into Harry Style’s arms in your dreams (No? Just me?).
Simply put, the long and short of it is that if you’re wanting to do something meaningful about reversing your PCOS symptoms from your angry adult acne; your thick, dark hairs that keep sprouting from your chin, chest & upper lip; your cycles that are 2, 3, 6+ months long; and that weight that just won’t shift (for some)? One of the simplest (and best) things you can do TODAY is to focus not only on the quantity but also the quality of your sleep.
But, you somewhat already know this. You know how downright awful you feel after a shoddy night of sleep. Yes, there’s the fatigue but there’s also how poor sleep impacts your mood, choices, creativity, ability to fight off whatever bug the stranger on the tube coughed/sneezed into your face on your sardine-commute into the office.
And while you might be able to get away with side-stepping decent sleep for a couple of nights here & there, if it becomes a regular occurance, eventually your body is like hey, hold up! Sleep is N-E-C-E-S-S-A-R-Y. Essential. Non-negotiable. Not something to be messed around with.
The Importance of Sleep for Overall Health
Sleep allows for:
- Regenerating your immune system
- Helping your organs clear out waste products
- Healing wounds & repairing cells
- Optimising learning abilities & strengthening the formation of memories
- Supporting your body to make the most of using the foods & fluids that you give her
Restoration underscores the main role of sleep across all systems within your body. Sleep is like a deeeeeeeep clean for your body every single night.
So, we’re on the same page? Sleep is NB NB NB. But why am I being so extra about sleep when it comes to PCOS?
The Role of Sleep with PCOS
Well, the long and short of it is that, especially over time, not enough sleep can exacerbate, if not contribute to worsening all PCOS symptoms.
Yip – that’s right: more acne, thicker/darker hairs, longer/lighter cycles, weight that’s going nowhere… And all because of not enough shut eye.
Well, let’s first go back to what PCOS actually is: a condition where we have too many androgens* that interfere with ovulation (the releasing of the egg from the ovary).
*Androgens consistent of testosterone, androstenedione and DHEA. They’re often referred to as “male” hormones but this is not correct. All human beings have these hormones and in women, they’re vital for everything from energy, focus, sex drive to muscle mass. But, just as with anything in the body/life, when we have too many of androgens, they can cause chaos.
So again, PCOS is a condition where we have too many androgens that interfere with ovulation (the releasing of the egg from the ovary).
What we then should be asking is what’s causing those androgens to be high in the first place?
Well, the two main things responsible for upping those androgens are inflammation and insulin resistance.
Inflammation – in the short term, we’re all about it: it’s our body’s natural way of protecting itself through activating the immune system. You’ve experienced it as the redness, heat and tenderness after stubbing your toe or getting a paper cut. But long term, it’s not our favourite because it interferes with how our hormones speak with each other. And in the instance of PCOS, we then experience as hairy chins and chest and bellies, or angry jawline acne, or male-pattern baldness or no ovulation.
Insulin is a hormone that helps the cells in our body bring in something called glucose which they then use to make energy. Insulin resistance is when this process happens less efficiently. As a result, we end up with a whole heap of insulin being produced and this excess insulin causes those “male” hormones to increase and again, we experience this as the all-too-familiar hairy chins and chest and bellies, or angry jawline acne, or male-pattern baldness or no ovulation.
And THIS is why sleep is so important when it comes to PCOS: sleep deprivation can increase certain inflammatory markers (thereby worsening inflammation, and ultimately PCOS symptoms), and, insufficient sleep can cause more insulin to be released thereby contributing to insulin resistance, and exacerbating PCOS symptoms.
The Importance of Sleep & Food in the Context of a Holistic Approach in Reversing PCOS Symptoms
So THIS is why you might be eating the most wholesome, nourishing, perfect-for-you food on the planet but if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’ll likely only experience some improvement in your PCOS symptoms.
That’s not to say screw the food and focus solely on optimising sleep. Remember, we’re always considering all the components that will come into play in your individual PCOS picture, and food most definitely still has its place. But understanding the vital role of sleep (together with other foundational factors that we’ll go into), can help you to be more gentle and more patient with yourself, and your body, on your journey of using food & lifestyle factors to reverse/reduce your PCOS symptoms, and live that satisfying life that you’re so deeply craving right now.
But even with this knowledge of the importance of sleep, and the non-negotiable necessity of it on our PCOS journeys, we can still sometimes behave like tantrum-throwing toddlers, or rebellious teenagers, when bedtime comes a-calling.
Sometimes there’s a reason for it (like life just being HARD) and sometimes there’s not.
The Impact of Bluelight on Sleep Quality & Quantity
And one of the ways that hugely influences our motivation to get to bed on time is screens.
Now I’ll be the first to raise my hand in admitting that I’ve ended up watching both seasons of Fleabag back-to-back, into the early hours of the morning JUST BECAUSE. And (although this rarely happens these days) there are other times when my eyeballs are legit burning & bulging out my sockets but I just keep on s-c-r-o-l-l-i-n-g.
But here’s my beef with exposure to glowing screens late into night time:
- Modern day devices (laptops, phones, iPads, TVs etc) emit blue light.
- Blue light reduces the production of melatonin.
- Melatonin is a hormone that not only helps to regulate sleep but it’s also pretty vital for supporting your immune system and, recent research shows that it plays a role in the health of your egg that’s released at ovulation.
- So if you’re exposing ourselves to screens well into the depths of night, this is very likely reducing melatonin production, and not only does it impact quantity & quality of sleep but it can also impair ovulation (the very thing we’re trying to support in PCOS).
But before you pop on those blue-light blocking glasses or install the apps that make screens go all orange, and reckon you’re good to roll? Please do ask yourself whether the content on the screens (that can range from meaningless memes to really intense research) is actually setting you up best for a solid night’s sleep, even with the blue light blocked out? Or does it make your mind go into overdrive, or stress, or compare, or feel lonely and then you struggle to get to sleep, blue-light blocking glasses or not?
But in coming back to that first point of how these things sometimes just happen and a deep psychological analysis as to why, isn’t helpful or even necessary. But it’s about being honest with ourselves as to whether ongoing screen-exposure is just a once-off or whether it’s more habitual.
And in the instance of a once-off late-night Netflix binge or mammoth Insta scroll, the best thing you can do?
NOT TO MAKE A BIG DEAL ABOUT IT!
Our inner critic, will literally jump at any and every opportunity to lash out about what a failure we are, and how we’re never gonna get better, and how it’s best we give up right this very moment because we’re so very hopeless.
(And depending on where we are in life, sometimes that voice can be so loud & obnoxious but with a heck of a lot of accepting, befriending and eventually opening ourselves up to our own love, then over time, this inner critic has less & less of a say.)
So if we can acknowledge this inner critic when she shows up, BUT choose to hold the late-night instance a lot more lightly? Then instead of cowering in the face of defeat, we rather get to anchor right back into our desires for our body and reversing our PCOS symptoms by using food & lifestyle factors, and we get to try again today.
On the other hand, it can be a bit more tricky to become unstuck when these late night screen escapades are habitual (and involving screens or not).
In these instances, we absolutely HAVE to be intentional about making changes. There’s no need to go all sergeant-major on yourself though. One of the core values of Marula Wellness and the work that I do with one-to-one clients is sustainability. So often, women will contact me and say that they’ve tried a whole bunch of different things but “nothing seems to stick.” Here’s the thing though, sustainability isn’t just about making things “stick”, it’s ensuring that what we’re doing and implementing is in alignment with your desires for your body, where you’re at in your life and being guided by all that your body is currently communicating to us through your PCOS symptoms.
Meaningful & Practical Ways to Optimise Sleep on your Journey of Reversing your PCOS Symptoms
So here are five of my super simple ways for you to a great night’s sleep and be one big step closer to reversing your PCOS symptoms and everything that that doing so will allow for for you:
From a place of curiosity, carry out a sleep analysis for a week
Remember, this isn’t about judging yourself or your current way of getting to bed. We’re here to create awareness because through doing so, we’re more able to make meaningful changes that make sense to you and your life. For a week, take stock of what you get up to in the evenings. Pay attention to how long you’re on screens before bed. Consider things like whether you have a regular bedtime or not, or what’s going on.
From here, meet yourself where you’re at
If you’re currently on your phone/laptop/TV/iPad right up until you hop into bed, then begin by aiming to give yourself 10 minutes of screen-free time before bed. Gradually increase this every night or every few nights, until you’re at the golden 2 hours of screen-free window before bed. If you’re getting to bed at midnight because you’re mopping the kitchen, doing laundry or filing bank statements? See how you might be able to shift a few things around during your week because none of these activities are going to have you sailing into dreamland with ease. Again, to begin with, we’re asking only to bring that bedtime forward by 10 minutes/night, if that is what is most do-able for you right now. Build on that from there, ultimately aiming for a 10pm bedtime.
Tune into sleep’s impact on you day-to-day
This is to provide extra motivation for giving sleep the Queen Bee Priority Status it deserves. If you have a crappy night’s sleep, or you get to bed late, tune into how you feel the next day compared to when you’re well on your way to dreamland by 10pm, pushing out ZZZs solidly throughout the night. See what happens with your mood, emotions and even your symptoms: do you notice a worsening of your acne? Is digestion impacted at all? What happens with energy and food choices? If we’re able to make connections between all of this and sleep, not only do we have the science that underscores sleep’s importance, but we get to experience it firsthand for ourselves.
Create a bedtime ritual that’s beautiful
My one-to-one clients love bedtime because of this. We focus on making the time before bed really nourishing and satisfying to them, through the use of beautiful rituals. This often involves anything from lighting candles, burning essential oils, playing calming music, drinking delicious sleepy teas, doing gentle yin yoga to journaling. We do this anchored in a place of worth: that we are worth the time & effort to create this space that allows our body to slip into sleep with ease. We’re also aiming to do this at a similar time each day because our bodies love rhythm.
Assess your surroundings: light, noise, temperature & activity
Now we already know that I’m not the biggest fan of blue light but we also need to see what’s going on with other artificial light, as this too can negatively impact sleep. Start by dimming lights in the early-ish evening. Take stock of street light streaming into your space and invest in blackout blinds, together with an eye mask so as to get your room as dark as possible. And if there’s noise, simply from living in a big city, get some decent ear plugs or look into whitenoise machine. Ensure that your room isn’t too warm as research has shown how this can impact quality of sleep and the onset of sleep. Finanlly, make your room a sanctuary that’s reserved for sex and sleep alone.
I cannot emphasise enough how vital sleep is on your journey of reversing your PCOS symptoms. I so hope that this article has not only shed some light on this but also given you some really practical and helpful ways of optimising your sleep. If you’re keen for more support on your PCOS journey that’s totally individualised to you? Get in contact so that we can arrange a complimentary discovery call about working together. I’ll get the low down of what’s going on for you and share how I can support you in harnessing the magnificence of using food & lifestyle factors to reverse PCOS symptoms so that you can live into the fullness of your being!