How can travel impact your menstrual cycle?

Travelling

Most women know that travelling, especially across time zones, is disruptive to their body, but did you know that travel can cause irregularities in the menstrual cycle? This is mainly because travel can affect your circadian rhythm, which often causes sleep deprivation and can increase the risk of illness. It may also result in increased stress and anxiety. All of these things can unsettle your natural hormone levels and may disturb your menstrual cycle.

Circadian Rhythm

Often referred to as your ‘body clock’, the circadian rhythm is a cycle (of about 24 hours and 15 minutes) that influences your body’s natural instincts about when to sleep, wake up, and eat (along with many other things). It also plays a part in regulating your body’s hormonal fluctuations, including the key hormones involved in menstruation, and how your body changes in response to intervals of light and dark (e.g. night and day). Dramatic deviations away from the amount of light exposure that the body is used to is a major cause of jet lag and can influence when hormones are released. As well as that, travel and jet lag often result in a lack of sleep (especially when you are travelling eastward and/or across multiple time zones), which can confuse your normal physiological balance.

Travel-induced stress and anxiety

Any kind of travel can affect two of your primary hormones – melatonin (sleep) and cortisol (stress) – and this can have an impact on your menstrual cycle. The symptoms of jet lag (which include trouble sleeping, loss of concentration, fatigue, disorientation, decreased alertness and GI distress/problems with digestion) can act as additional stressors on the body and can also cause extra psychological stress. 

Worry and anxiety, as a result of symptoms of jet lag or due to the uncertainty of travelling, can affect the HPA axis, which is the feedback system that is responsible for the hormone fluctuations in menstruation. Therefore, to avoid the impact that travel can have on your menstrual cycle, you may want to think about things that help you to de-stress, especially if you are a nervous traveller.

Passport and Suitcase

Travel illness

Travel related illness is another factor which can cause irregular menstrual cycles. Long haul travellers in particular are more susceptible to picking up an airborne virus, as they are around more people in an enclosed space for a long duration. New environments and new climates can also bring additional challenges to your immune system. When you’re fighting a virus, your body uses a lot of energy and resources and, as a result, processes like menstruation can fall by the wayside. Therefore, if your immune system is working harder when you are travelling, this physiological stress on the body can contribute to menstrual cycle dysfunction.

Athlete running up stairs

Top tips  

A disrupted cycle or even a missed period around the time of travelling is usually insignificant in relation to overall menstrual health. While it is not ideal, it is common, and often occurs when travelling across multiple time zones. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts when adjusting to the physiological imbalances that are causing irregularities in your cycle. However, getting enough sleep, eating well-balanced and regular meals, and doing some exercise can all help get your body back on schedule. If possible, some exposure to bright light early in the day in the new time zone can be extremely beneficial in helping your body adapt. Once your internal clock has adjusted to the new environment, your menstrual cycle should sync up shortly after. Remember, as a rule of thumb, it takes one day to adjust your body clock by one hour, so if you are travelling from the UK to New York it will take about five days for your circadian rhythm to re-wire itself. Don’t underestimate the stress that this shifting process can have on your body.

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