If you menstruate, you will have noticed a number of factors changing throughout the month.
The menstrual cycle can impact the body from head to toe. Some people notice changes in their hair, skin, poop, chronic disease symptoms, mental health, migraine headaches, or the way they experience sex at different points in the menstrual cycle.
So it’s no surprise that our mental and emotional wellbeing would also be affected by changing hormones throughout the cycle.
Hormones are chemicals that carry messages from the brain to the organs, controlling the function and health of these organs. They are the body’s system of ensuring that the cells of the different organs are working as they should. Hormones control basic human functions (such as eating, sleeping), complex functions (sexual desire and reproduction), and also our emotions and mood.
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How are our emotions and mind affected by different reproductive hormones?
First and foremost, it’s important to know that the different stages of the menstrual cycle are characterised by different hormones.
Phase 1 – Menstruation: Low levels of all hormones
Phase 2 – Follicular Phase: High Oestrogen, Low Progesterone
Phase 3 – Ovulation: Peak and drop of Oestrogen, Low Progesterone
Phase 4 – Luteal: Low Oestrogen, High Progesterone
It is believed that these hormones have different effects on our minds and mood.
Before we dive into the research, it is important to note that, it still remains poorly understood how the menstrual cycle, which provokes the changes in sex hormone levels, affects emotional cognition.
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Throughout the menstrual cycle, the brain changes – as does everything from spatial skills to sexual desire. Graphic by elara.care
Phase 1 – mind and mood during menstruation
The levels of oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone — the three major hormones that control the menstrual cycle – are all at their lowest point at his stage.
Being on your period is not the most ‘comfortable’ time of the month. It can bring numerous bothersome and even debilitating symptoms, such as acne, acute pain and an upset stomach just to name a few.
However, is our mental ability and energy levels affected by it? The short answer to this question is no.
The long answer is a little more complex.
Oestrogen levels are closely linked with women’s emotional well-being as oestrogen affects parts of the brain that control emotions. As they rise you may start feeling happier and as a consequence more energised, creative and confident.
This does not, however, mean that your cognitive ability decreases during your period and rises once it’s over. In fact, a recent European study showed that menstruation has no influence on a woman’s cognitive performance.
However, if you are experiencing discomfort and/or pain, this might impact, understandably, your ability to concentrate on a task.
More research is needed to understand how women feel and operate during this time of the month.
Phase 2 – mind and mood during the follicular phase
This phase is characterised by high oestrogen and low progesterone levels.
Oestrogen has multiple effects on the brain and plays an important part in regulating moods. Although we are lacking enough research to fully comprehend how oestrogen affects women, there are a few things that we do know.
Some of oestrogen’s effects include:
- Increasing serotonin and the number of serotonin receptors in the brain
- Modifying the production of and the effects of endorphins
- Protecting nerves from damage, and possibly stimulating nerve growth
Moreover, according to research by Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, the hippocampus (area of the brain that plays a crucial role in our memories and mood) grows slightly each month as oestrogen levels rise, and shrinks as the production of the hormone decreases.
The estradiol rising in the body can help to tamp down the effects of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, Dr. Schwarzbein says, and that could also play a part in preserving happy moods.
Generally, we feel like we can get a lot more done during this stage of the month. Physically, mentally and emotionally.
If you’re like us, at this stage you’re probably wondering “if ‘oestrogen = happy’, then why not take more oestrogen?’
When your body’s oestrogen levels aren’t balanced in relation to your other hormones, you could experience a number of uncomfortable symptoms, such as:
- swelling and tenderness in your breasts
- decreased sex drive
- irregular menstrual periods
- increased symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- mood swings
- anxiety and panic attacks
- weight gain
- hair loss
- cold hands or feet
- trouble sleeping
- sleepiness or fatigue
- memory problems
Phase 3 – mind and mood during ovulation
The luteinising hormone prompts the release of an egg from the ovaries into the fallopian tubes for fertilisation. Estradiol is present in significant quantities around the time of ovulation, and it can interact with other hormones to increase your libido.
“Estradiol makes insulin more effective,” Dr Schwarzbein says. “Then the insulin tells the body to release more testosterone, and testosterone is one of the hormones that regulate sex drive.” Some experts surmise that this may be nature’s way of encouraging women to have sex during their most fertile time.
Recent studies have concluded that women are indeed more likely to display sexual behaviour just before ovulating and may have a greater tolerance to pain too. You might also be more likely to buy clothes, makeup, and other items to help yourself feel more attractive, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
Ovulation can have a significant impact on the brain and body
Ovulation brings other surprising effects: Research from Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute shows that around the time we start ovulating, between day 14 to day 25, we see men’s faces through a different lens.
The frontal cortex, which typically manages our self-control, declines a bit, leaving us freer to be attracted to more masculine-looking faces and more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour, the study authors say. Also, as our inhibitions lessen, our memory strengthens.
A German study cited in Shape shows that the grey matter in our brain grows, particularly in the hippocampus, leading to improved memory, largely because we are pumping out high levels of oestrogen. Sadly, this window of opportunity—say, to impress friends with our Jeopardy wisdom—closes quickly once we start ovulating and our oestrogen and testosterone levels decrease.
Phase 4 – our mind and mood during the luteal phase
The Luteal phase of your cycle is characterised by the rise of progesterone. This is also the stage when many women, 85%, will experience pre-menstrual stress (aka PMS).
According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG). PMS comes with physical symptoms like painful joints or breasts, headaches, and sleeplessness, however, the sense of being overwhelmed by anxiety, stress, or anger that’s most troublesome during this time.
So what’s actually going on in the brain that makes PMS such a struggle?
It all pretty much comes down to one hormone – progesterone.
In fact, recent research into hormonal contraceptives found a clear link between them and depression, which is not surprising as all hormonal contraceptives contain progesterone, and some are progesterone-only.
Why does progesterone make us feel anxious and depressed?
How and why progesterone alters moods is currently understudied, however, there’s a growing body of research.
One recent discovery from this research is that progesterone can trigger the small, almond-shaped part of the brain called the amygdala.
The amygdala is the brain’s chief alert system. It responds to cues in the environment, quickly assessing whether they might represent threats, and triggering fear and anxiety as a consequence.
Progesterone seems to enhance amygdala reactivity, which could explain why we feel stressed for small and sometimes even unidentifiable reasons during this time of the month.
“I have no idea why I feel so sad and upset” – does this sound familiar?
According to research by Torbjörn Bäckström from the University of Umeå in Sweden, it seems as though progesterone has the same effect on the brain as depressive drugs like alcohol and sleeping pills.
As progesterone gets broken down, its metabolites become active in the brain. And, it appears, they bind to a system called the GABA-A receptor.
Poromaa explains that the GABA-A receptor is a little like the brain’s police force: it regulates, making sure there isn’t “too much excitement” going on. Drugs that bind to it cause it to step up the policing. Bäckström’s research suggests that metabolites of progesterone may be stepping up the ‘policing’ of GABA-A. Making you feel less enthusiastic and happy.
Diet and vitamin supplements may help ease PMS. Complex carbohydrates—like certain grains, as well as beans and lentils—could help with that, as they are broken down more gradually than sugar, bread or pasta.
Calcium (found in yoghurt and leafy green vegetables and supplements) and magnesium might alleviate mood swings and physical symptoms like bloating from water retention.
Cutting down on caffeine, alcohol, fat, sugar, and salt (so, all the classic comfort foods!) could also help to regulate blood sugar.
Final thoughts on how hormones can affect our emotions and mental wellbeing
Studies on menstrual cycle-dependent changes in cognition have yielded inconsistent results and there is still more research that needs to take place in order to better understand how hormones affect women mentally and emotionally.
Taking note of how you are feeling mentally, emotionally and physically at different stages of your cycle can help you better understand how and/or if changing hormones affect you.