How the Menstrual Cycle Affects Our Mental Health - Blood + Milk
menstrual cycle and mental health

How the Menstrual Cycle Affects Our Mental Health

Tender breasts, pesky zits, tears, excessive tiredness, cravings for something sweet, anger, weird bowel movements, sleeplessness, an unexplained wave of depression, and of course, more tears—sound familiar?

These are some of the typical symptoms that accompany the hormonal changes of our menstrual cycles, particularly right before our period occurs. More often than not, most of us have felt variations of these emotional and physical happenings in our own bodies before our time of the month. Even if you are feeling only one of these symptoms, you are suffering from premenstrual syndrome (PMS). The data ranges, but an estimated 75 to 90 percent of women experience symptoms of PMS. Here is a breakdown of the emotional and hormonal ins and outs of our cycles and how these aspects may influence our mental health throughout the month.

Ovulation: When We are Feeling Ourselves

The negative feelings associated with PMS mark the comedown of the week of our monthly sexual prime: ovulation. When we ovulate we are scientifically proven to come across as more attractive. When we come across as more attractive, we most likely feel more attractive and confident, and according to research, the impacts of these self-positive feelings show.

In fact, a 2007 study found female lap dancers actually earned higher tips when they were ovulating, i.e., at their most fertile. Another study found women are more likely to buy revealing clothing when they are ovulating, and may even choose “sexier” shoes and accessories. Research shows fertile women are also more interested in attending social gatherings—and then like a flip of a switch it’s all over—right after we ovulate our progesterone levels rise and our PMS hits. The whole wanting-to-be-social thing backfires and instead, we just want to be home under some blankets with a pint of ice cream, hygge-ing it up. (Check out #3 for how to have a hygge day—the Danish typically do it in the winter, but I wouldn’t mind hibernating in coziness once a month before menstruating either).

You will most likely experience a uptick in your sex drive, and if you’re into men, science says you may experience a heightened taste for “manlier” men. I’m picturing a lumberjack outside his log cabin in the wilderness chopping some wood with strong hands, stronger arms, a red flannel shirt, and the perfect amount of stubble (no full-on beards for me). Given the progression of my thoughts about this lumberjack, I realize I may be ovulating as I write this…

Progesterone: The PMS Culprit

Progesterone and estrogen, the primary female sex hormones, affect the parts of our brains which influence mood and behavior. So, as the progesterone in our body suddenly rises after ovulation, so do depressive feelings. One explanation for this could be that progesterone affects the amygdala (the part of our brain in charge of reactivity and our fight or flight response). The amygdala is part of our fear-based response system, and since progesterone triggers the amygdala, we become hyper-reactive in the throes of PMS. Heightened amygdala reactivity also leads to increased anxiety, which can make us more depressed. If you experience severe cases of depression and hopelessness during this time, consider speaking to a doctor since you may be experiencing more extreme symptoms of PMS.

Menstruation

When we are menstruating, there are actually very low levels of both progesterone and estrogen circulating in the body. You know how sometimes you don’t know how to feel when you’re on your period? This hormonal black hole may be a result of those feelings.

Bring on the cramps (and ice cream)—your uterus is sloughing itself and you may still be feeling the PMS effects of the heightened progesterone days beforehand. Take it easy as your body adjusts—self-care is key. Ride your emotions and feelings as they come. Try meditating to help yourself ride out the monthly emotional roller coaster.

Towards the end of our periods, the ovaries begin to release estrogen, letting the body know it’s time for our period to stop.

Estrogen: The Post-Period Savior

In contrast to progesterone, estrogen is primarily present during the first two weeks of our cycle (meaning its there after our period and through the next cycle of ovulation). Estrogen works well with the serotonin receptors. Serotonin is the “happiness” hormone in our bodies. As a result of this relationship, estrogen can have an antidepressant effect in the body. A study suggests estrogen therapy for women suffering from mild depression during menopause. Though consuming excessive amounts of estrogen to treat menopause and other hormonal imbalances could be linked with increased risk of developing breast cancer.

Estrogen positively affects the production of endorphins or “feel good” chemicals in our brains too. Given the fact that estrogen is responsible for such positive feelings, it makes sense that the severe drop of estrogen can feel like whiplash as progesterone increases after we ovulate.

How Depression Affects Our Cycles

Depression can have an array of effects on our natural cycles. Depression can actually cause women to experience irregular or missed periods. This is primarily a result of the added hormonal symptoms depression creates in the body (as if we women don’t experience enough hormonal changes as it is).

The effects of depression complicates our typical hormonal monthly cycle because prolonged periods of depression and stress suppress the functioning of our hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is an important part of our brain when it comes to hormone production and balance in the body. In the case of women’s reproductive health, the hypothalamus, supressed due to prolonged depression, may be unable to aid hormone functions responsible for our sleep cycle, emotions, sex drive, and childbirth. For example, when women are clinically depressed their bodies may have trouble ovulating, which makes sense since prolonged bouts of depression can also cause women to miss their periods.

The Menstrual Cycle and Mental Health: How To Track The Emotions of Our Cycles

At the end of the day, the emotions and the hormones in the female body wax and wane like the cycle of the moon. They can seem messy in the moment, but they are probably more cyclical than you think.

If you don’t already, try tracking your feelings throughout the month in a notebook or an app, noting how you feel on a given day. If you have an app that tracks when you ovulate, see if you can notice the positive emotional effects of heightened levels of estrogen in your body when you are your most fertile. On the flip side, see when you begin to feel the effects of PMS. In some women, the negative physical and emotional effects of PMS can begin right after ovulation up to 11 days before your period begins, in other women they can begin only three to five days before you start menstruating.

By doing this for two to three months you can begin to become more attuned to the natural cycle of your emotions throughout the month. As you learn more about how the hormones react in your own body, this may help influence what plans you make and when you make them.

A Note on Birth Control

This article lays out the natural hormonal cycle of the female body without added contraceptives, which could be anything from hormonal birth control pills to IUDs. In some way or another, these forms of contraception may affect the natural cycle of the hormones in your body, and as a result your emotions. Hormonal birth control pills have been linked to increased depression and this may be a result of the progesterone present in the pill.

If you have questions about your specific form of contraception make an appointment with your doctor.

Try tracking emotional changes throughout the month so you can share how your chosen form of contraception may be affecting your feelings and mental health. If you are experiencing severe depression or anxiety with any form of birth control be sure to visit your health care provider as soon as possible.

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