This is Your Brain on Hormones Written by Anna Ritner, L.Ac
Have you ever heard a woman say, “I feel like I’m a completely different person right before my period compared to who I was two weeks ago”?
You know what? She’s absolutely right. If you are a woman who feels you have “irrational thoughts” during your PMS week, read on to discover why you might actually want to start paying closer attention to those feelings…
Although most women are already familiar with the physical changes that can occur during their cycles –such as fatigue, sore breasts, or irritability– many of us haven’t gotten the memo that our very brain chemistry also shifts and evolves in parallel to our hormones. Of course, we intuitively understand this truth about our bodies! But because the stigma of being labeled “hormonal” is so strong, most of us try to force ourselves (or self-medicate ourselves) into a monotone mental and emotional state that doesn’t allow for the natural ebbs and flows that nature intended.
As if we need more proof that we women are infinitely complex, fascinating and creative, may we present this brief snapshot of your shifting brain chemistry throughout your menstrual cycle.
Cycle Days 1-5 (your menstrual flow)
During the first day your period, all of your hormones dip down to low and relatively equal levels. Many of us also feel low and tired, and we will especially feel that way if we’ve exerted ourselves too much in the previous cycle.
With your hormones dimmed down, this is the best time in your cycle to slow down, clear your calendar, and reflect. From a brain chemistry perspective, this is when the Left and Right brain have the most synergy, so, in other words, it’s when your emotional side and your logical side are in greatest communication.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, it is the beginning of the “Yin” phase of our cycle, which is all about reflectivity, reception, nourishment and feminine energy. Trust your body and heed her messages.
Cycle Days 5 to 14 (the follicular phase)
Ahhh….let the good times roll! During your follicular phase, your body is pumping itself full of estrogen, which helps to proliferate your endometrium, and makes you juicy and ripe, both physically –to prepare for fertilization– and emotionally.
Studies have shown our verbal fluency peaks during this time, making it a fantastic time to schedule in a speaking engagement, presentation or potentially difficult conversation. You will likely feel energetic, sharp, and (research shows!) you’ll be more likely to slap on some lipstick and think: “I’m feelin’ myself!”. The increase in estrogen also gives us a keen sense of smell, helping us pick up on the most delicious pheromones in the room as we head toward our fertile peak.
Cycle Days 14-25 (Ovulation and Luteal Phase)
Right around midcycle, when a woman is ovulating, the upsurge in testosterone and other libido-enhancing hormones can mess with our brains a little bit. Namely, we get turned on! For fertility purposes, this is a wonderful thing.
But conversely, keep in mind that the biological imperative for reproduction at this time can mess with our heads. Did you know that around ovulation, we view men’s faces differently? Also, the part of our brains responsible for executive decision-making powers down, making us more attracted to “masculine”-looking faces and more likely to make risky sexual decisions. Because we’re so strongly biologically swayed at this time, it is NOT a good time to make any big relationship decisions.
On the other hand, this is the phase where Progesterone is at its peak, making us more organized, detail-oriented, and outgoing. In other words, it’s a good time to take care of biz–so go ahead and reorganize your closet by the tenets of minimalism…..take that group fitness class and crush it….or spend some extra hours at work getting a new project sorted out. Heck, you can even get away with staying up a little later to watch your favorite TV show.
As the ovulation window passes and Progesterone continues to rise, we lose all those verbal fluency and concentration skills, as well as our outgoing and social inclinations. This is time in the cycle that can feel very confusing for women, as, from a Chinese medicine perspective, the Yin energy of the follicular phase transforms into the Yang energy of the luteal phase. We head into the zenith of one brain state and then quickly shift into its opposite, leaving many of us feeling imbalanced. When you’re trying to conceive, keep in mind these emotional feelings are normal and expected. By the way, acupuncture can help!
Cycle Days 25-29 (Pre-Menstrual Phase)
If you’re attempting to conceive, this is the moment in your cycle where you will find out whether or not you are pregnant. If a woman is not pregnant, this is when progesterone and estrogen levels plummet, which actually feels like getting dropped off a cliff to some of us. If you were hoping for a pregnancy and did not conceive this cycle, your feelings of disappointment might be additionally heavy due to the increased presence of cortisol, a stress hormone that can make us feel cranky, emotional, “headachey” and sleepless.
According to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, your brain’s medial orbitofrontal cortex has an activity surge during this time, which may help us manage our emotional status despite the huge changes in our hormones during this time.
When we know what to expect and we embrace the ebb and flow of our hormones and fluxing brain chemistry, we can actually plan the important moments in our lives based on which phase of our cycle will naturally buoy us the most. As is with most things in life, when we move with the flow of nature, we find our greatest harmony.