How Your Brain Changes During Your Menstrual Cycle
Morgane Leten - Nutrition & Fertility Coach
Have you ever noticed that sometimes, you feel completely lost in a fog and that even simple, everyday tasks seem complicated and time consuming? And yet, at other times, you feel like you could negotiate a promotion at work while simultaneously cooking a gourmet meal for your family and doing all the housework. Are you going crazy?
Not at all. You’re completely normal. We promise.
Over the course of a month, your cycle and hormones impact your brain, and your brain also impacts your hormones. That’s why you fluctuate from superwoman to feeling barely human throughout the course of the month.
In honour of Mental Health Awareness month, we wanted to talk about how your brain changes during your menstrual cycle. It can be easy to beat ourselves up when we’re not feeling super energized and on top of things, but these natural ebbs and flows in our energy and enthusiasm are really common each month. We want to explain why this happens and how you can manage it. When you understand your cycle and your hormones, it can also help you to be kinder and gentler to yourself, so you can feel Guud, every day of the month.
Hormones and Your Brain
A healthy brain and healthy hormone balance go hand-in-hand. You have hormones in your blood and your brain also produces hormones. If there is an imbalance, it impacts your brain. Equally, if your brain isn’t healthy, it can also impact your hormone levels. And when hormone levels are out of whack, it can cause all sorts of symptoms.
If you’re really in tune with your body and your cycle, you might have noticed how your brain changes throughout the month. For example, your focus and concentration may feel heightened during the follicular phase of your menstrual cycle which is roughly the first two weeks starting with your period. You may have also heard the terms “pregnancy brain,” or even “mummy brain.” When you’re pregnant, or shortly after giving birth, there are major and significant changes in your hormones. These changes sometimes result in “brain fog.”
What is Brain Fog?
Usually, brain fog includes a variety of symptoms like confusion, forgetfulness, and a lack of focus or mental clarity. For many women, this so-called brain fog is worse in the premenstrual phase of their cycle. Women have long complained about not being able to concentrate, having trouble remembering things or even struggling to make a decision in the days leading up to their period.
Brain fog is not a medical diagnosis which is perhaps why it isn’t treated as seriously as other conditions. It is a symptom associated with a range of health conditions including pregnancy, depression, long-COVID and PMS. The research around brain fog is limited, but first-hand accounts from women dealing with it all tell a similar tale. The mental cloudiness and lack of concentration can really impact your performance at work. Other cognitive symptoms like confusion can also impact your personal relationships. Women struggle with decision-making and even simple tasks. Something as ordinary as sending an email or deciding what to wear in the morning can feel challenging.
Low Mood and Anxiety
Changing hormones throughout your cycle can also cause feelings of low mood, irritability and anxiety. These feelings are most common during the premenstrual and menstrual phase and are common symptoms of PMS.
After you ovulate, your levels of estrogen and progesterone begin to fall. Rising and falling levels of these hormones can impact brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Examples of neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine, otherwise known as your feel-good hormones. These hormones influence mood, sleep and motivation.
If you have low levels of serotonin or dopamine, it can cause symptoms like:
- Sleep problems
- Food cravings
Later in your menstrual cycle when estrogen and progesterone pick back up again, you’ll often notice that these symptoms seem to magically disappear. Not everyone experiences these symptoms, but they are very common.
How the Pill Impacts Your Brain
First, we just want to acknowledge that the pill is an incredible invention. The pill allows women to control their fertility and as a result, it has revolutionized women’s lives in terms of education, careers and family planning. Most women are told the pill has few (or sometimes no!) side effects but this is simply not true. The pill creates artificial hormones that stop your body from ovulating. These hormones impact the activities of billions of cells in the body at once, many of which are in the brain. These hormones play a role in tons of different activities including sexual motivation, stress, hunger, attraction, aggression, mood and more. This means that being on the pill can actually make women a different version of themselves!
While the pill will affect every woman differently, some women may experience a dampened cortisol spike in response to stress. Maybe this sounds like a good thing, but this can have a negative impact on your ability to learn, remember and feel good. The research is pretty clear that no matter what, the birth control pill does impact how your brain functions so it’s important to understand how this works.
This is just one of the ways the pill can change your brain. For more information on this topic, check out Sarah E. Hill’s book called This is Your Brain on Birth Control.
Also, if you want to know more about the side effects of the pill, check out our blog post called The Side Effects of Birth Control.
Tips for a Healthy Brain
There are lots of ways to keep your brain healthy and support your hormonal health. Good nutrition and lifestyle habits can improve your brain function and potentially help you with long-term brain health.
Here are a few ways to keep your brain in top form.
Eat Brain Healthy Food
Nutrition plays a vital role in the health of your brain. A diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables is a great start, but studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet is the best way of eating for optimal brain health. The Mediterranean diet is full of Guud stuff so it’s easy for most people to shift into this style of eating. Think about incorporating lots of fresh, seasonal fruits and veggies, plus olive oil, omega-3 fats from fish and seafood, nuts and seeds. All these things have an anti-inflammatory effect and are packed with antioxidants that are scientifically proven to help support your brain health.
Get Lots of Sleep
A healthy brain needs lots of sleep. When you sleep, your brain is using that time to clean up cellular waste, repairing things and regenerating. It’s also when your brain forms memories. Even one night of limited or bad sleep can impact your brain function the next day.
What’s more, poor sleep also impacts your hormones. If your sleep is bad or you’re not getting enough, it can cause an increase in stress hormones. We realise that some sleep interruption may be impossible to avoid (if, for example, you have a baby or a sick child), but it’s important to try to get as much quality sleep as you can. Try to practice good sleep habits like going to bed at a consistent time each night, avoiding screens before bedtime and creating a good nighttime routine that allows you to wind down and relax before bed.
For more on how sleep impacts your cycle, check out our blog post called Sleep and Your Cycle: How Are They Connected?
Stay Active (Physically and Mentally!)
For optimal brain health, it’s important to exercise both your body and your mind.
First, staying physically active can have a positive impact on the health of your brain. Regular exercise supports your hormones and the brain so try to incorporate a regular exercise routine into your life. Remember that your energy levels will fluctuate throughout the month, so you can try to align different types of exercise with different phases of your cycle.
We wrote more about that in our blog post called Period Power: Train According to Your Cycle
It’s also really important to keep your mind active as well. Just like exercising your physical body, you can do lots of things to exercise your brain too. Things like reading, puzzles, social interactions or conversations with new people, trying something new or travelling are all great ways to keep your mind sharp and healthy.
We realise it may not always be possible to just turn down the volume on the stress in your life but you can start by being aware of stress. Make a list of the things that cause you stress and see what you can eliminate, reduce or push aside. Stress increases inflammation and when you’re stressed, your brain interprets it as a threat. When this happens, your primitive brain kicks in and goes into survival mode. While this can be beneficial in the short term (ie: you’re stressed about an upcoming exam so you study more), long term, chronic stress can be detrimental to your brain.
Looking for some tips on how to reduce stress? Check out our post on how stress impacts your cycle.
Get Some Omega-3 and other vitamins and minerals
Omega-3 has been scientifically proven to support brain health. You can get omega-3 from eating a diet rich in whole foods and by limiting processed foods.
Other Supplements for Brain Health
Other vitamins and minerals like B6, B12, B3, C and magnesium, can support your mental health because these nutrients contribute to normal psychological function. Magnesium also contributes to a reduction of tiredness and fatigue
If you still have questions about how your brain and hormones are connected or if you would like to talk to an expert about what supplements are right for you, get in touch. We’re here to support you and answer your questions.