It’s never easy to spring out of bed in the morning. It’s even harder when you have your period and are dealing with anything from excruciating cramps to anemia-induced exhaustion. No wonder so many of us reach for a cup of coffee when we’ve barely even opened our eyes and crack open a diet cola or six to see us through the afternoon.
But while it fills a temporary need, especially at the most sluggish time of the month, in the long run, caffeine often hurts more than it helps. Take a look at some of its most unpleasant period-related side effects:
You feel invigorated, confident and optimistic after a triple espresso or a bucket-sized Coke, because caffeine encourages the brain to release feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin. At first it seems like the solution to pre-menstrual depression and lethargy, but then it wears off, leaving you weepy, jittery and unable to sleep. Everyone’s reaction to caffeine is different, but if your biochemistry is sensitive to it, or you’re on birth control pills, you’ll process it more slowly, meaning you need less to feel its effects.
Stomachache, nausea, diarrhea – almost half of us experience some form of digestive discomfort during our periods. Scientists think this could be caused by prostaglandins, compounds that act like hormones in the body. They make your uterus contract when you have cramps, and they have a similar unfortunate effect on your guts. Add caffeine, which speeds up digestion, to the mix, and it’s not pretty.
Feel the pain
Not only do prostaglandins make it feel like a donkey’s kicking its way out of your abdomen (potentially made worse by any saturated fats you might pour into your coffee, like milk and cream), caffeine constricts blood vessels for a cramping double-whammy. If you’re drinking caffeinated sodas, you’re ingesting an excess of sugar, which also exacerbates pain. Despite what some health blogs claim, there’s no established link between caffeine and breast cysts or premenstrual breast pain, but the Mayo Clinic says there’s some anecdotal evidence that reducing your intake might help.
Your blood pressure goes up at the start of your period, and caffeine increases it, so it’s a bad time to have a high dose (more than four cups a day), however fatigued you feel. That’s especially true if you already have high blood pressure, which is linked to a greater risk of stroke, heart attack and dementia. One in three Americans do, so get yours checked when you next see your GP.
Menopause might be a dot on the horizon right now, but as you reach the end of your periods, your caffeine consumption could catch up with you. Not only are post-menopausal women who’ve been sipping on caffeine-containing sodas or coffee for years more likely to experience hot flashes and night sweats, but they’re also at greater risk of osteoporosis than women who’ve abstained. If you cut down now, you’ll be doing your future self a huge favor. (Just make sure you take it slowly as withdrawal can cause fatigue, headaches and moodiness – the very problems we reach for it to help.)
But it’s not all bad…
Having said all that, in some circumstances, caffeine can have a positive impact on women’s health. If you have menstrual migraines or other headaches that worsen around your period, non-prescription pain medication that contains caffeine can nip them in the bud. Chocolate, which contains a small amount of caffeine, has been shown to guard against PMS (a small amount of the high cocoa content kind is best). And without getting too graphic, if you get constipated when Aunt Flo’s in town, caffeine could solve that problem right quick. There are also studies suggesting that coffee could lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, type two diabetes and liver cancer, but these haven’t yet led to any consistent medical recommendations, so take the results with a pinch of Stevia.
If you’re in good health, are sticking to a cup or two a day and don’t suffer with PMS, period pain, or any other monthly issues, you don’t have to force yourself to give up caffeine. But if you have a lot of symptoms and think it might be a factor, reducing your intake during your period and the week before could be a simple way to improve your quality of life.