If you’ve noticed you get sick around your period, you’re not imagining things. How does your period affect your immune system? We take a look.
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There actually is a correlation between your period and your immune system, which means at certain points in your cycle, you’re at a higher risk of infection.
So, how does your period affect your immune system? Here, we take a look at how the two are linked and explore how you can give your immune system an extra boost.
The immune system is the foundational system that underpins our health. It is made up of organs, cells, and proteins, and helps our bodies heal from injury and fight off infections.
Without our immune systems, our bodies would have no way to protect our bodies from harmful external pathogens or dangerous changes that can occur inside the body.
In some cases, our immune systems can work against us by causing chronic diseases such as allergies, autoimmune conditions, and arthritis.
As long as our immune systems are functioning properly, we don’t notice them.
However, if it becomes weak, we become more vulnerable to infection and will become sick more often.
So, how does your cycle affect your immune system?
Let’s take a look.
The follicular phase of the menstrual cycle starts on the first day of your period and lasts until ovulation.
During this phase, the estrogen levels rise, as do your levels of antibodies. Your body will also undergo an increased inflammatory response.
This elevated immune response is though to be partially triggered by these increasing estrogen levels that occur between menstruation and ovulation.
These changes actually make your body less susceptible to infection, so you may not get sick as often during this point in your cycle.
However, high estrogen levels don’t always equate to better health. This higher inflammatory response can lead to the worsening of chronic illnesses.
During the ovulation phase, your estrogen levels drop and your progesterone levels rise, which actually limits your immune system’s defence capabilities.
When this happens, your immune system becomes partially suppressed.
According to a 2017 study, progesterone can reduce the body’s ability to fight infections.
Essentially, this occurs because the progesterone hormone works to promote pregnancy, while the immune cells work to fight off all foreign matter from entering the body.
In other words, the immune cells attempt to attack the fertilised egg and prevent pregnancy, and the progesterone stops them from doing so.
Your immune system is therefore suppressed by the rise in progesterone and decrease in estrogen, which may make you more susceptible to catching viruses.
During the luteal phase, which occurs just before your period, you may experience more colds and viruses.
The changes to your progesterone and estrogen levels can affect your immunity before your period.
During the luteal phase, progesterone rises and peaks to prepare for your period when pregnancy doesn’t occur. Your immune system is therefore suppressed and much less likely to have an inflammatory response.
This can actually be a good thing for some people; you may experience fewer symptoms from chronic diseases such as asthma, during the early and mid-luteal phase. This is because inflammation can worsen symptoms of chronic conditions.
On the other hand, this suppressed response leaves you more vulnerable to infection. That’s why you may notice you get sicker just before your period.
During menstruation, and in the days leading up to it, estrogen levels are low.
In this late luteal phase and during menstruation, people are more likely to experience worse symptoms of chronic health conditions.
This is because the body’s inflammatory responses are gearing up again, and the levels of the hormone-acting lipid called prostaglandin are increasing.
At this stage, though your inflammatory response increases, your immune system defences are still lowered, leaving you vulnerable to infection and symptomatic chronic illness.
This menstrual period also affects the circadian rhythm, which regulates our sleep, hunger cues, and hormones. This can also negatively affect our immune system.
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at what you can do to manage these immune system fluctuations through your cycle.
To give your immune system the best chance at warding off any nasty infections, try to incorporate these healthy habits into your day-to-day — especially from ovulation to menstruation, when your body’s defences are down.
Ensure you’re eating enough nutrients and consuming a well-balanced diet.
A nutritional, healthy diet is vital for the health of all our cells, including our immune cells. Vitamin C, D, zinc, iron, and proteins are nutrients that are integral to the growth and function of our immune cells.
In contrast, diets high in processed foods and low in fruits and vegetables can negatively affect the immune system.
It’s also a good idea to consume foods high in pre-biotics and probiotics, as they contain live bacteria and fibre that help maintain a healthy gut microbiome.
Foods high in probiotics include yoghurt and fermented vegetables. Foods high in pre-biotics include bananas, asparagus, and dandelion greens.
Regular exercise has been proven to strengthen the immune system and benefit your body’s response to viral communicable diseases.
Exercise stimulates cell immunity, raises your body temperature, and helps you sleep better. Each of these factors help your body better address infection.
Research tells us that moderate intensity exercise is most effective for boosting immunity. So, head out for moderate to vigorous exercise for 60 minutes or less each day, and receive the immune-boosting benefits of getting your body moving!
Be wary of prolonged high-intensity training, as over-working your body can actually suppress your immune system.
Get adequate sleep to keep your immune system and circadian rhythm in-check.
Research has proven that sleep and the circadian rhythm have a strong influence on our immune system.
When we sleep, our immune systems release proteins called cytokines. Some of these proteins help to promote sleep, and other cytokines are needed when you have an infection, inflammation, or when your body is under stress.
If you don’t get enough sleep, your body may not produce enough of these proteins. Your infection-fighting antibodies are also reduced when you are sleep deprived.
To ensure a good night’s sleep, set up a calming night routine. Avoid screens for at least an hour before bed, and ensure your room is very dark and set to a comfortable temperature to promote a comfortable sleep.
Alcohol has been shown to disrupt the immune pathways in our bodies, which can impair our ability to fight against infection, contribute to alcohol-related organ damage, and interfere with recover from tissue injury - so enjoy in moderation.
Similarly, smoking compromises the balance of the immune system, making the body less capable of fighting disease and increasing the risk of autoimmune disorders.
This one will come as no surprise, but be sure to wash your hands thoroughly and regularly during the day.
This will help to rid your hands of bacteria and germs, and prevent them from entering your body when your hands come into contact with your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Washing your hands is particularly important before meals and after being out and about. Wash your hands well by scrubbing thoroughly with soap, making sure to get under your fingernails, too.
Make your hand-washing ritual a little more luxurious and opt for an antioxidant-rich blend, like the Leif Boronia Hand Wash, or an ultra-hydrating and nourishing option like Grown Alchemist Sweet Orange, Cedarwood and Sage Hand Wash.
Stress causes your body to product high levels of cortisol, which is the body’s natural stress hormone.
In the short-term, cortisol can boost your immunity by downregulating your inflammatory response. However, when cortisol is elevated over long periods of time, your body is actually at risk of more inflammation.
Additionally, stress actually decreases lymphocytes, which are the white blood cells that help our body’s fend off infection. This puts you at a higher risk of getting sick.
Deficiencies in zinc, iron, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, D, and E can affect your immune response.
Multivitamins, and herbal supplements such as echinacea may be helpful in giving you an extra boost when you need it.
They are an immunological powerhouse that work to strengthen the spleen and lung channels, as well as the liver, heart, and kidney channels. Each mushrooms has been sourced from the traditional herb-producing regions in China.
Be sure to discuss this with your doctor before starting any new supplements.
It’s also a great idea to closely track your cycle.
Everybody is different and will react to these hormonal and immune fluctuations differently, so tracking your own individual cycle will help you identify when you may need a little extra boost.
During these times, you’ll be prepared to make healthier choices, such as adding more vitamin-rich foods to your diet, practicing more stress-reducing activities, and adding a few supplements to your routine.
So, let’s summarise what all of this tells us about our immune system and our cycle.
Simply put, the body functions in this way to promote pregnancy.
When you are in the follicular phase, the body wants to protect you from all foreign invaders to ensure you stay healthy enough to become pregnant. So, your immune system kicks into action and you’re at a lower risk of getting sick.
Around ovulation, when your estrogen levels drop off, your immune system is down regulated by progesterone. At this point, your immune defenses are down and you may get sick.
Post-ovulation, during the luteal phase, the progesterone in your body rises to prepare for your period when pregnancy doesn’t occur. This means your immune system’s defences drop, which leaves you more vulnerable to sickness.
Lastly, during menstruation, your body’s inflammatory responses return, which means you may experience worse symptoms from chronic health conditions. At this point, the function of your immune cells is reduced, so you may struggle to fight off bacteria and therefore be at an elevated risk of getting sick.
If you are concerned about how your period is affecting your immune system, chat to your doctor about your symptoms. They will be able to determine what you can do to get things back on track.