Alcohol and Menstruation
The menstrual cycle is a highly regulated system with many moving parts, which is heavily influenced by hormones. So, where does alcohol come into play?
Your tendency to pour that tall glass of wine after a long day, especially during your cycle, might be influenced by more than you think. There’s some evidence to show your hormones may play a role in some alcohol-seeking behavior. Read that again. Your HORMONES may also be contributing to your likelihood of consuming alcohol. During your cycle, your hormones are constantly changing. As some increase in concentration, others will decrease. You see, your period requires a good amount of energy to perform effectively. Our brains will actually tell us to eat more carbohydrates to create this energy… but how we interpret these cravings can change from person to person. Some people will eat candy and chocolate (hence the stereotype), others might crave pasta (another comfort food stereotype), while others crave good old sugary alcohol. So yes, your possible alcohol-induced poor choices right before your period might not be 100% your fault.
So how bad is alcohol on my menstrual cycle?
Well… It’s not the best. Alcohol has been shown to directly impair the functions of hormone-releasing glands and target tissues. Alcohol can also cause inflammation and dehydration, which is terrible for all the things… including vital organs. Alcohol has also been shown to increase levels of estrogen and lower levels of progesterone. Heavy drinking has also been attributed to irregular menstrual cycles, menstrual cycles without ovulation, and the complete cessation of menstruation altogether. Not to mention, heavy alcohol use can result in weight gain and even osteoporosis (weakening of the bones) over time. Alcohol’s ability to cause hormonal deficiencies, fertility troubles, missed periods, failure to ovulate, and numerous other adverse health effects could make you think twice. If this can happen to otherwise “healthy people,” what about those with underlying conditions like diabetes or insulin resistant PCOS? Well, alcohol can alter blood sugar levels – which can have deadly consequences if not monitored appropriately. In fact, acute alcohol consumption combined with sugar boosts secretion of insulin (a hormone responsible for lowering blood sugar levels) and can cause temporary low blood sugar. In severe cases, hypoglycemia can lead to a decreased level of consciousness and even coma.
I’m not a heavy drinker, so no need to worry, right?
Well…not so fast. Alcohol has also been shown to affect women who engage in social drinking as well. In a 3-week study, some women who drank about 3 drinks per day were found to have abnormal menstrual cycles and a delay or even lack of ovulation. Another study found a large portion of nonalcoholic women who socially drank stopped cycling normally and became temporarily infertile. The cessation of ovulation (release of an egg from the ovary) was caused by reduced or absent secretion of luteinizing hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland. Without this hormone, ovulation can’t occur, and consequently, you’re essentially rendered infertile for the time being. I’m sure by now, it’s becoming quite evident that alcohol may have a much more significant impact on our health than we typically give it credit for.
So, what do I do if I realize I drink more before my period?
First, this may sound odd, but track your alcohol consumption and see. Secondly, check to see if you are drinking more before your period or during ovulation. If you do, try more natural carbohydrate alternatives such as fruits, dried fruits, yogurts, whole-grain pasta, juice, and other healthy options. Consider it a peace offering to your ovaries since it gives your body what it is actually craving in a healthier way. Also, be sure to drink plenty of fluids to distract your mind. These healthier options can make your period shorter, easier, and more tolerable in general.
As you can see, alcohol use, whether acute or chronic, can result in a cascade of harmful health effects. In truth, more research on our hormones, menstrual cycle, and alcohol is warranted to fully understand the connection. Until then, it seems the old adage applies quite well here; everything is good in moderation – including alcohol.