Soaring temperatures, dehydration and feeling hot and sweaty isn’t ideal while on your period. Here, we speak to Dr. Shirin Lakhani, an expert in intimate health, to learn more about managing midsummer menstruation.
Your menstrual cycle can already pose significant physical and psychological impacts on the body: heavy bleeding, bloating, dehydration, PMS, fatigue, pain and numerous side effects of period-induced hormone fluctuations, but add to that hot summer temperatures and things start to feel a lot worse.
Despite a small study in Russia finding that menstrual cycles could be influenced by sunshine, it’s more generally accepted that hot weather itself doesn’t have a direct impact on your period, but that it can aggravate certain symptoms such as acne, headaches, PMS and water retention. It can also increase stress levels, and of course makes wearing pads and tampons even more uncomfortable.
Many people on their period already experience an increase in body temperature during, and in the lead up to menstruating so the hot weather can make it feel like a double assault. “When you ovulate (around mid-cycle), you have a progesterone spike, this in turn can cause an increase in body temperature,” explains Dr Shirin Lakhani, an expert in intimate health. “And for the next two weeks your body temperature can stay slightly higher.”
It’s something Vanessa, 31, from Colchester struggles with every summer. “My period is usually very painful, but it feels even worse during hot weather,” she says. “As soon as a cramp comes on I tend to feel even hotter – more like I’m having a hot flush. And during the night, sleeping in a hot bedroom, having hot flushes and pain is very draining, especially as it can last up to seven days.”
Vanessa, who works in the fitness industry, continues: “I don’t use pads as they can feel very warm, sweaty and sticky, and I always feel like it could get smelly – which it doesn’t, but it makes you always think twice. Even tampons are a nightmare, as is feeling sticky. I just try and stay indoors in comfy clothes and avoid sitting in the sun. I will avoid exercise outside at all costs – it just brings on more pain and makes me even hotter.”
And these aren’t the only challenges. “Hot weather causes blood vessels to swell, which results in headaches, bloating and digestion issues; with a lot of people suffering from constipation when they menstruate,” Dr Shirin reveals. “When combined with the changes in oestrogen and progesterone levels that occur during your period, body fluid can gather outside the blood vessels causing you to have a bloated stomach and puffiness in the face, feet and hands.”
Dr Shirin, who works at Elite Aesthetics, also explains how PMS can seem worse. “Mood dips are a common symptom of PMS and hot weather can compound the sense of irritation, causing your hormones to be even more disrupted than usual,” she says. “Feeling more stressed can increase cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which has a knock-on effect of seeing progesterone dip, meaning that oestrogen dominates. This can actually result in a hormone imbalance that leads to worse period symptoms and can also affect self-confidence.”
It’s something Imogen, 26, from London is all too aware of. “Periods in summer are stressful – the heat makes mine much less bearable and my cramps feel worse. I always get anxious about booking holidays or fun day trips which may involve swimming or being in swimwear because I’m extra bloated and it makes me super self conscious,” she shares. “The weather means changing pads more frequently, and they are generally uncomfortable, or I worry about leaking and not being able to access a loo to swap a tampon. My skin definitely gets negatively impacted while I’m on my period and hot weather makes it even worse.”
She’s not alone. 65% of people report a worsening of their acne during their period and Dr. Shirin explains why the heat doesn’t help. “We sweat more and our skin produces more oil, this excess sweat and oil can lead to our pores becoming blocked and result in breakouts,” she says.
“Just before your period starts, oestrogen and progesterone levels drop, trigger your sebaceous glands to secrete more sebum (the oil-like substance that keeps skin lubricated), and too much of this results in clogged pores and breakouts. The hormonal changes while on your period mean that your skin is more inflamed than usual and the production of the bacteria that causes acne is higher than the rest of the month. All of these factors combined mean that period and hot weather is a melting pot for skin breakouts.”
To tackle this Dr. Shirin suggests cleansing thoroughly with oil-free cleansers, and exfoliating regularly to remove excess oil and debris from the pores. “Alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid are useful for clearing up acne because they weaken and dissolve the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, speeding up cell turnover,” she advises. “Ice or cold compresses can help to reduce spots too, as can trying to avoid touching your face.”
For Grace, 33, from Telford in Shropshire, summer periods have meant an onset of headaches and fatigue. “If there’s a particularly hot week that I’m on my period, I get really tired and my head hurts,” she explains. “I’m fit and healthy, and my periods don’t cause me any major distress the rest of the time, but if it’s been a hot day, I can end up needing to go indoors and lay down to get my temperature down and ride out the headache.”
Dr. Shirin has an explanation: “During a hot day we sweat more than usual and so we can become dehydrated. This can cause you to feel more tired and lethargic and to suffer from headaches,” she explains. “If you combine this with being on your period, which is the time when your body needs more energy, then you’ll feel even worse than you usually do. In addition to this, the hormone changes that you experience during your period already makes you more prone to suffering from headaches – during a heatwave this is exacerbated because of the dehydration on top of it, which constricts blood vessels allowing less blood to reach your head.”
Dr. Shirin advises upping fluid intake, avoiding coffee and alcohol and also keeping an eye on diet to help increase energy levels. “Avoid refined carbs such as white bread and white pasta because they can cause sudden spikes in blood sugar level and negatively impact already low energy,” she explains.
“Sugar is also pro-inflammatory so it can potentially exacerbate a lot of symptoms including cystitis. Fatty meat and fried foods are best avoided because pain and water retention can be made worse by a diet high in saturated fats.” She suggests opting for foods that are rich in potassium to stay hydrated: “These include bananas, avocados, tomatoes and leafy greens. Also, oily fish, such as salmon, tuna and sardines, which are rich in omega-3, have anti-inflammatory properties so may help to reduce bloating and pain.”
And Dr. Shirin has some more general advice too: “Get a good night’s sleep in a cool room, avoid stressful situations like using the tube, wearing loose fitting clothes, taking regular showers and change your sanitary towels or tampons every few hours,” she says. And although it’s the last thing on most people’s mind, she also encourages exercise. “Endorphins are released by your brain, and these block pain receptors, which can help to reduce the pain of period cramps caused by uterus contractions.”