My friends and I call it the ‘Great Portuguese Pregnancy Scare in Japan’—and while we laugh about it now, it wasn’t so funny in the moment. Recently, I traveled for 15 months through six continents as a travel journalist and I was lucky to spend a month in Lisbon, Portugal, followed by a month in Kyoto, Japan. Thanks to the remarkable sunsets, cheap wine, and the charm of the locals, I quickly found myself having a romantic fling with a Portuguese man who chased me out of the gym to ask me on a date. He was strikingly handsome and moderately bilingual, and for a month, we enjoyed each other’s company—and then some. After bidding him adieu, I made the multi-flight, multi-day journey to the South Pacific, where I quickly became transfixed in a different way: with the history, the food, the wonderfully weird customs of this reserved country. I was so distracted, I completely forgot that something didn’t arrive…my period.
When it comes to cycles, I’ve been lucky to be incredibly predictable to the day—and sometimes to the hour. Until this month, I had never skipped a period (or even been more than a few days late), so when I realized I was three weeks past due, I ventured to the pharmacy in search of a pregnancy test. With the magic of my Google translate app and some miming inspired by Bridget Jones, I went home with a pack of 10 Japanese pregnancy tests because apparently, they don’t sell singles.
I wasn’t pregnant—thankfully—but I did spend the next year trying to figure out my now jetlagged, confused, and unpredictable cycle. What I learned was how much our periods can be impacted by wanderlust. And that while I might have been the only woman to pray she wasn’t pregnant with a Portuguese baby while living in Japan while sitting on the toilet and trying to decipher the symbols of my fate—plenty of frequent-flying women see changes in nature while on the go. Here’s what you need to know:
What Happens to Our Periods When We Travel
I agree with OB-GYN and author Dr. Felice Gersh when she says ovaries are amazing organs. She explains they are intimately linked to the master clock in the brain—which sits atop the optic nerve and senses light and dark. What’s this mean? The ovaries are paying attention to our bodies, our outside influences, and anything that messes up our routine. “Traveling often through multiple time zones, altered sleep patterns, and eating at varied times of the day and night plays havoc with the circadian rhythm. Ovaries are very circadian in their functions and when the master clock is disrupted, so too become the peripheral clocks, including those within the ovaries,” she explains.
And though hopping between countries (and in my case, continents) is exhilarating, travel can also be stressful. From flight delays to customs headaches and introducing our bodies to new foods and environments, OB-GYN Dr. Alyse Kelly-Jones explains how extra angst causes the release of hormones, which wreaks havoc on our system. Top that with little to no sleep as you try to see and do everything your destination has to offer, and your body is having a bit of a meltdown. As with anything, everything in moderation and with balance is essential: “Remember, each month, when you make an egg, this is controlled by a careful balance of hormones. If these hormones aren’t in balance, then your normal menstrual cycle can come too soon or be delayed,” Dr. Kelly-Jones adds.
What Happened When I Stopped Moving
I spent 411 days abroad, and during that period, I visited (or lived in) more than 21 countries. To recover, I hibernated at my parent’s house for a few weeks, and during that time, my period reemerged with a vengeance. I track my cycle, and I noticed that while I was ovulating, I felt incredibly sick, almost to the point of having to run to the toilet. Believe it or not, Dr. Kelly-Jones says this is extremely normal. Because my cycle was complicated for so long, she explains I likely had buildup on my uterine lining.
“Think of it as the lawn around your house—if it keeps growing, then there is more lawn to mow. So if your body continues to stimulate the lining to grow because of a delayed cycle, there is more lining to come out,” she explains. “The cramps are about this thicker lining having to be expelled, and they are caused by the release of prostaglandins, which can also make you nauseated.”
Now that I’m in the process of laying down roots, everything is back to peachy-keen. I can rely on my period to arrive just as it did before I took off on my grand adventure—and all of those uncomfortable symptoms have subsided.
What To Do When You Travel
Even though my packs are unpacked and I’m happy to take a break from the digital nomad life for a while, my career (and frankly, my lifelong curiosity about the planet) will always take me to foreign lands. Now that I’m aware of how my period might change while I’m on the road, I’m better prepared and I can take certain measures to keep me healthy—and consistent (ish). Here, a few to consider yourself:
Get some sleep
Sure, it’s not always possible on a redeye. Or when you’re trying to fit in three European cities in a week. Or when you can’t remember what time zone you’re in. But Dr. Kelly-Jones says sleep does wonders for our ovaries. Not only does it help us to maintain regularity, but when our periods do arrive during travel, they won’t be as painful.
Try not to freak out
Though the thought of carrying a child halfway across the world definitely caused a slight meltdown on my case, Dr. Kelly-Jones says when we get upset or stressed, our period reacts by retreating. As much as you can, try to stay away from chaos since she notes getting uptight about things like delays and disruptions only makes matters worse. “Have a plan for relieving your stress either through exercise, meditation, or mindfulness,” she suggests. For me, a generous pour of red wine and a face mask at the hotel or Airbnb does the trick.
Eat your meals
When you’re PMSing, you might not need the nudge to nom down, but when our bodies are attempting to adjust to a new bedtime and wake-up call, we aren’t always hungry at the appropriate times. This could prompt us to skip meals or eat at odd times, which in turn, makes our periods wacky. Dr. Gersh says this can take form in irregular or heavier periods, as well as intense cramps. “Try to eat at the same time each day to maintain the circadian master clock. Even when you’re in a new time zone, try to generally keep to the same schedule,” she explains. “Maintaining a regular eating habit helps keep cycles normalized even when life is disorganized due to travel.”