Image via @artbyauntflow
Note from the author: I have been sober from alcohol for a few years, and own that I am far from ‘neutral’ in my beliefs about alcohol. I am not a medical professional or scientist, and this post is not a replacement for professional medical advice. This is part of my own personal research and exploration, and we hope that you’re able to take from it what you need to. If you or someone you know struggles with an alcohol use disorder, speak to your healthcare provider. head here and here/. not the opinion of Aisle.
An increasing number of people are doing Dry January or other dry months during the year, as a way to check in with their relationship with alcohol and to explore how taking a pass on it for a few weeks affects their lives. What might they be able to expect when it comes to how alcohol affects their menstrual cycles and periods?
Let’s start with what alcohol is. This may sound obvious, however, many people who consume ethanol regularly are not aware of its properties as a drug, let alone its effects on the body. Alcohol (ethanol) is a psychoactive depressant that affects every organ in the body, in particular the brain.
Since the menstrual cycle is driven by hormones, it makes sense to look at how alcohol affects hormones for folks with menstrual cycles.
Generally speaking, alcohol increases estrogen and decreases progesterone. Is this a bad thing? As with many things, it depends on individual circumstances, including age and genetic makeup. For example, individuals with a family history of breast cancer may want to be aware of anything that unnecessarily increases estrogen. There is abundant evidence of alcohol’s causal relationship with breast cancer.
Further to this, alcohol consumption can disrupt hormone levels in the body, affecting the delicate balance necessary for a regular menstrual cycle. Increased estrogen levels can potentially lead to changes in the length of the menstrual cycle or irregularities in ovulation.
For individuals trying to conceive, these types of disruptions may pose risks, delays or frustration. Heavy alcohol consumption has been linked to fertility challenges. Excessive drinking may interfere with the ability to conceive due to hormonal disruptions or irregular ovulation.
Alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning that it encourages the elimination of fluids from organs including the liver, kidneys and bladder. Some individuals may experience increased menstrual pain or cramping due to the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
While having a drink to relax or ‘take the edge off’ may seem like a good idea, it’s not without its downsides, and can even have the opposite effect. Alcohol can exacerbate symptoms of PMS, making mood swings, irritability, and other emotional symptoms more pronounced. Alcohol is further not recommended for anyone who regularly experiences anxiety and/or depression, as it can exacerbate these states.
The Importance of Quality Rest
Another important part of this conversation relates to rest, and specifically sleep. Many people with periods feel tired during the luteal (pre-period) and menstrual (bleeding) phases of their cycles. Safe to say that most of us are already in a rest deficit in general, so taking the opportunity to listen to our bodies at these times is particularly important. What does alcohol have to do with this? While an evening glass of wine may serve to help us drift off to sleep, the truth is that alcohol messes with our sleep in a big way.
While alcohol–being a depressant–may help us to get to sleep, a few hours later the effect wears off as our body metabolizes it, which wakes us up. It’s related to the cycle of addiction; your body is essentially withdrawing from the booze ‘high’, and the crash wakes you up.
As frustrating as having the quantity of one’s sleep reduced is, it turns out that alcohol also compromises sleep quality. There are four stages of sleep, and alcohol messes with the latter two, N3 and REM, which are the most nourishing for our brains and overall restfulness. While the long-term impacts of alcohol-impaired sleep are still being studied, it’s clear that things like creativity, memory, and critical thinking may all be negatively impacted.
A note about ‘moderation’
While ‘moderate’ alcohol use is still widely accepted as a part of a healthy lifestyle, this assumption—along with the meaning of ‘moderation’—
is becoming increasingly questioned. A key example is the British medical journal The Lancet’s 2018 finding that there is no health benefit to any amount of alcohol consumption. Based on this and thousands of other research papers, in 2020 the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction updated its low-risk drinking guidelines to a maximum of 2 standard drinks per week.
From a research paper entitled “Alcohol’s Effects on Female Reproductive Function”, “In human females, alcohol ingestion, even in amounts insufficient to cause major damage to the liver or other organs, may lead to menstrual irregularities (Ryback 1977). It is important to stress that alcohol ingestion at the wrong time, even in amounts insufficient to cause permanent tissue damage, can disrupt the delicate balance critical to maintaining human female reproductive hormonal cycles and result in infertility. A study of healthy nonalcoholic women found that a substantial portion who drank small amounts of alcohol (i.e., social drinkers) stopped cycling normally and became at least temporarily infertile. This anovulation was associated with a reduced or absent pituitary LH secretion. All the affected women had reported normal menstrual cycles before the study (Mendelson and Mello 1988). This finding is consistent with epidemiologic data from a representative national sample of 917 women, which showed increased rates of menstrual disturbances and infertility associated with increasing self-reported alcohol consumption (Wilsnack et al. 1984). Thus, alcohol-induced disruption of female fertility is a clinical problem that merits further study.”