This is how the moon actually affects sleep patterns, menstrual cycles and emotional wellbeing – and how to use its powers to better your life…
Our guest editor, Fearne Cotton, has always been mesmerised by the natural world, the universe and the concept of infinity – so it makes sense that she’s keen to find out more about how the cycles of the moon impact our lives.
“We know that the tides of the sea are caused by the gravitational forces of the moon on the ocean,” she pointed out to us, “and our bodies are mostly made up of water. Surely this means that the moon will have a huge effect on us, too?”
During our discussion about the feature, Fearne explained that she wasn’t just interested in learning about how the moon can affect her emotionally, though: she wants to know more about the physical impact it can have on women, too. Can it affect our menstrual cycles, for example? Can the phases of the moon really alter our sleeping patterns? And, perhaps most importantly of all, how can we learn to honour the moon and the natural world – all whilst getting back to our pagan roots and embracing all it has to offer us?
With this in mind, we reached out to renowned moonologist Yasmin Boland, who has been teaching people about the magic of the lunar cycles for almost two decades.
Here’s what we learned from her…
Does the moon impact our sleep patterns?
You don’t have to be a werewolf to feel restless when the full moon rises: in a recent study, researchers found that, on nights when the moon is full, we lose (on average) around 20 minutes of sleep.
Researchers also found that it took about five minutes longer for participants to fall asleep around the time of a full moon than around a new moon. Deep sleep was, on average, 30% decreased around the time of a full moon.
So why is this?
Well, people sleeping in the lab nearer to the day of a full moon had lower evening levels of melatonin, a hormone important to circadian rhythm that drives the body’s cycles of day and night and, therefore, wakefulness and sleep.
“We have evidence that the distance to the nearest full-moon phase significantly influences human sleep and evening melatonin levels when measured under strictly controlled laboratory conditions, where factors such as light and personal moon perception can be excluded,” said lead study author Christian Cajochen of the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Basel in Switzerland.
What does the moon do (if anything) to our menstrual cycles?
For generations, a woman’s monthly cycle has been tied to the moon cycle likely because they’re about the same length, with a “typical” menstrual cycle lasting 28 days and a lunar cycle lasting 29.5 days.
Even the actual words ‘menstruation’ and ‘menses’ come from the Latin word ‘mensis’, which means ‘month’ and relates to the Greek word ‘mene’, which means ‘moon’. But is there really any link between our periods and the moons?
Well, a 1986 study and a 1980 study actually did find that a woman’s menstrual cycle was likely to be in sync with the moon’s phases – although each contradicted the other entirely, with the first finding that women were more likely to menstruate during the new moon, and the latter that women were more likely to ovulate during the new moon.
And, somewhat damningly, a 2013 study in the journal Endocrine Regulations that monitored 74 women’s cycles for a full year found no correlation between the menstrual cycle and moon phases.
However, before you write off the moon’s role in our menstruation cycles entirely, it’s worth considering how much our world has changed over the years.
An intriguing 1990 study in the journal Psychiatry Research found that bright light at night can help regulate the menstrual cycle. In the study, women with abnormally long cycles of about 45 days who slept with a 100-watt bulb turned on at night in their bedroom from Day 13 to Day 17 of their cycle successfully shortened their periods to about 33 days.
Could this mean that, before the invention of electricity and the light bulb, the moon had a bigger impact on our bodies? After all, bright light is thought to boost production of the hormone melatonin (which regulates the start of menstruation, the length of ovulation cycles and menopause, according to the University of Maryland Medical Centre) – and a very bright full moon would have had far more impact on our evenings in a world without televisions, iPads, smartphones or lamps.
Perhaps there really is something to the Old Wives tales after all, eh?
How does the moon affect our emotions?
For a long time, it has been thought that a full moon can make people a little crazy. And, while it may not turn you into a Teen Wolf, it certainly seems as if there may be some truth behind the idea that we are emotionally connected to the moon.
Yasmin explains: “People find that at the new moon they often will feel a little bit lost or adrift, a little bit empty. I personally think that’s because we are so connected to the moon, and when we can’t see the moon we can feel a bit funny. It’s also the start of a new thing so you’re kind of going into the unknown, and that can be a little bit challenging – at the start of the moon cycle, you’re thinking, ‘what am I creating, how do I want my life to go?’ So you’re kind of throwing yourself into the darkness, into the abyss of the moon.”
Yasmin continues: “The key phase between the two quarter moons (one week before the full moon and one week after) can be a time of crisis, where you might have to deal with problems relating to the thing you’ve been trying to manifest.
“The calmest time in the cycle is the balsamic moon, the last phase of the waning cycle, just before the moon disappears. Balsamic means soothing and healing – if you’re thinking about booking a retreat, the waning moon, and in particular the balsamic phase especially, would be a good time to go off and heal and soothe yourself.
“The most energetic time in the cycle is with the crescent moon. You’re probably going to feel really fired up about life and all the things that you can achieve. There’s a lot of energy around the full moon as well, but it’s not necessarily so easy to harness because that’s when emotions have their explosion.”
How can we harness the energy and power of the moon?
Once you’ve learned the basics of how the moon cycle works, Yasmin suggests that it’s time to get an app and start to take a note of how you feel at a particular point in a particular cycle. The most important thing is just to pay attention – if you start to work with it then you start to feel it.
In particular, Yasmin says that we need to start making a note of when the moon is in the new moon phase. This happens once a month, and at this point the moon is actually not visible because of the angle between the earth, the moon and the sun.
“This is traditionally the time when wise women and healers, midwives, potion makers and witches would cast spells, because it’s the start of the moon cycle,” explains Yasmin.
“The moon has two cycles – waxing and waning – and the new moon is a good time to set your intentions, as it marks the start of the two-week waxing cycle.
“Waxing means increasing, and the key word for this cycle is intention. It’s about setting your intentions in the three or so days of the new moon phase, then going hard on doing whatever it’s going to take to manifest your intentions in the time before the full moon.”
Once the waxing phase is over, says Yasmin, we get the “emotional explosion” of the full moon, which is “almost like the orgasm of the lunar cycle in terms of a peak in energy”.
“This is the peak time of the lunar cycle, and it is at this point that you should take a moment to see what’s happened in the last two weeks and check in with your intentions.”
Once the full moon is over (it usually lasts for a few days), the moon goes into the waning cycle, growing smaller in the sky every night until the next new moon two weeks later.
“The key word for the waning cycle, from full moon to new moon, is surrender,” says Yasmin. “It’s about connecting to the divine and your higher self, as well as letting go, releasing and coming to terms with things, making peace, sharing your knowledge and generally going a little bit easier on yourself. It’s not necessarily the time to start new projects – that’s the waxing cycle.
“The waning cycle is very much about letting things go and looking at what didn’t work out.”
Yasmin adds: “If you want to go up one level, learning not just what phase the moon is in, but also what sign it’s in, can be really powerful as well.
“My app/website (Moonology) will send you a daily message telling you what phase the moon is in and what sign it’s in, and then it will give you a little interpretation.”
Are there any rituals or meditations linked to the moon?
Yasmin says: “I encourage my students and clients to do ‘the full moon forgiveness practice’, where they reflect on any upsets they’ve built up over the course of a month. Usually there’s someone to forgive, whether it’s ourselves, or someone else. The idea is to release any blocks or any negativity – anything that’s stopping you from being the clearest expression of yourself that you can be. Perhaps you had an argument with a friend – you need to forgive them or forgive yourself. Ideally you would contact them and let them know so that you can release it.
“However, if you don’t want to be back in touch, it’s still a good idea to think about forgiving them, because any resentment that we carry around in our body can become a block and you need to release it. You can do it for the last month or your whole life, for parents, ex-partners and jobs which didn’t go well.
“Forgiveness raises your whole vibration, while negative emotions like jealousy, anger and guilt weigh us down and negatively affect our vibrations. In order to manifest, you need to raise your vibration to the level of the emotion you want – for example, if you want to feel joy, you need to raise your vibration to joy, but if you’ve got loads of emotional baggage it’s hard to do this.”
Why is the moon so intrinsically linked to the feminine?
As many of us may already know, the moon is a feminine symbol, universally representing the rhythm of time as it embodies the cycle. The phases of the moon, likewise, symbolise immortality and eternity, enlightenment or the dark side of Nature herself.
Yasmin explains: “I think working with the moon is something that’s always been really innate in women – it’s something women have done traditionally and in astrology, the moon represents (among other things) femininity and the goddess, so it’s interesting that it’s generally women who are more attracted to working with the moon than men, especially on an astrological or symbolic level.
“One hundred years ago women would work with the moon almost as a matter of course. They were taught as children when the best time was to plant seeds or pluck your hair, make spells or make potions for healing.
“It was a very common thing for women to do.”
Historically, a lot of terrible things have been done to womankind – but none stand out quite as much as the persecution of the so-called witch. Think the hangings at Salem. Think the violent 15th-century European witch hunts. Think the horrifying instruments of torture – such as the dunking stool – used by men to bully witches into ‘confessing’ their sins. Think the fact that, in many parts of the world, these vile practises still occur today: 500 ‘witches’ are killed in Tanzania each year.
It’s all too understandable, then, that this has heavily impacted womankind’s relationship with the moon.
Yasmin points out: “From about 1300-1800 we had what was called the ‘burning times’, when women were burned at the stake. There are no actual figures for how many women were burned at the stake for being witches, but some historians say it was in the millions. So women basically became very afraid of doing anything that might be perceived as witchery or magic, and anything related to the moon was part of that.
“But as I like to say, they can’t burn us anymore. And now, somehow, something has happened and the moon is back in fashion.”
Why has the moon become so important to modern-day feminists, pagans and wiccans?
The Greek deity Diana (who began as a goddess of the hunt and later evolved into a lunar goddess) has become a focal point for many feminist Wiccan groups, including the aptly-named Dianic Wiccan tradition. These women choose to honour Diana in her role as the embodiment of the sacred feminine, and associate her with the powers of the moon.
Similarly, the Celtic goddess Cerridwen is considered the keeper of the cauldron of knowledge, as well as the giver of wisdom and inspiration. As such, she is often associated with the moon and the intuitive process, and many modern Pagans honour Cerridwen for her close association to the full moon.
And it seems as if more and more women are becoming comfortable in celebrating these spiritualist rituals.
“Women all over the world are starting to do moon work, moon circles, moon gatherings, full moon ceremonies, new moon ceremonies and so on,” says Yasmin.
While exact figures are hard to come by, the last available data from the 2011 UK census showed people self-identifying as witches for the first time, alongside other options such as Pagan, Wicca and Druid. Indeed, according to a recent Stylist report, spell classes are seeing an influx of young, urban, professional women keen to learn white magic. This is simply the practice of ritual magic – be it using crystals, candles, cards and so on – to cause a desired outcome. White witches also tend to worship Mother Earth (also known as the Goddess) and conduct full moon ceremonies, which involve charging sacred items like crystals or jewellery under the moon, and creating potions from reiki-activated water that promote healing.
Yasmin continues: “I’ve been writing about the moon for about 20 years now, and when I first started I was almost a lone voice apart from people who were fully self-realised Wiccan witches. I don’t follow Wicca, and interest outside of Wicca wasn’t really that common. But I’ve just seen it explode in the last two to three years.
“It’s actually coincided with the new women’s movement we’re seeing around the world, such as #MeToo and Times Up. It’s like women are once again finding ways to connect to their power, and it’s my belief that by working with the moon you actually do reconnect to your feminine power.”
The moonologist adds: “It’s as if we all sense that there’s a connection and everyone wants to find out about it again – in some ways it’s a reaction to what’s been happening politically around the world. Women are becoming more unified, and as we become more unified we want to learn how to work with the moon again.”
For one day only on Tuesday 27 March, Fearne Cotton has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Happy Place– a digital sanctuary, focusing entirely on wellness, happiness and good mental health.
For similarly inspiring and uplifting content, check out Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place, available on Apple Podcasts now.