Women’s Emotions, Part 3: The Menstrual Cycle & Mood
Today we focus on the menstrual cycle. Sure, all females over age 11 or 12 have one (or at least once had one), but most do not understand how the menstrual cycle actually works and what kind of impact it can have on thinking, mood, and even behavior. It’s important that girls and women are educated about their body’s biochemistry, for it is education that leads to power—in this case, the power to take charge of our emotional well-being.
What is The Menstrual Cycle?
The menstrual cycle is, in a nutshell, “the result of an intricate, precise dialogue between your brain and your ovaries”. Notice that word—brain. If you recall, from Part 1 of this series, emotional health is a combination of one’s brain, hormones, and life experiences. The menstrual cycle is direct communication between your brain and your body, and that communication happens through hormones. Let’s take a look at the hormones in play with the menstrual cycle and how these hormones influence the brain.
Hormones of The Menstrual Cycle
The star of the show is estrogen. Estrogen influences positive moods, thinking, perception, motivation, memory, appetite, sex drive, anxiety and our response to stress. Having plenty of estrogen is what makes us feel relaxed, comfortable, and “well”. Testosterone is also a part of the show, though women have much lower levels of testosterone than men; it affects the limbic brain, which is responsible for primary drives and emotions, including libido. And finally, progesterone. Progesterone has been called “the dysphoric hormone” since it actually works against estrogen, decreasing the number of available estrogen receptors. In fact, evidence shows that in the latter part of the menstrual cycle progesterone may dismantle nerve connections estrogen has set up in the beginning of cycle. Endorphins also play a role, though they’re not hormones. You’re probably most familiar with endorphins from exercise, but these morphine-like petptides are also associated with the menstrual cycle, functioning as neurotransmitters in the brain, affecting appetite, thirst, sex drive, breathing rate, learning, memory, and the regulation of pain.
The 3 Phases of The Menstrual Cycle
Keeping in mind the functions of these hormones (and peptide), let’s look at the three phases of the menstrual cycle: the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase.
During the follicular phase, the first 2 weeks of the cycle, estrogen and testosterone rise and endorphins are released. With increasing levels of these hormones, this is the time when women tend to feel at their best—with clear thinking, easier learning, higher motivation and energy, and more calm emotions. At ovulation, usually day 14 of the cycle, estrogen, endorphins, and testosterone are at their highest levels. They then begin to decrease in the luteal phase.
The luteal phase is the second half of the cycle, when, assuming a woman did not get pregnant, the empty follicle secretes progesterone and estrogen. Not only are the “feel good” hormones receding, but as previously mentioned, progesterone actually dismantles estrogen receptors. (No wonder most women experience declining moods and thinking during the second half of the cycle). Estrogen makes one more attempt to climb after its first drop on day 14, but falls a second time (and is at its lowest) in the last, or premenstrual, week. This is why many women experience Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) 3-7 days before they start their period.
So, what does this all mean?
First, there are actually two drops in estrogen in the menstrual cycle. The first drop sets the stage for the impact on the brain of the second drop.
Second, each decrease in estrogen leads to what is known as an estrogen withdrawal state, and estrogen withdrawal can feel like coming off a drug. If you recall from Part 1, estrogen is a precursor to the neurotransmitters in the brain, like serotonin, that make us feel “well”. The two major shifts in hormones during the last weeks of the menstrual cycle literally alter the signals in the nerve pathways in the brain and can lead to alterations in mood, due to the depletion of serotonin from estrogen withdrawal. (Serotonin depletion is most often associated with Depression).
Third, (and pay attention here) research shows it isn’t the levels of hormones in a woman’s body that impacts her mood as much as how sensitive her brain is to these shifts in hormones. “…It is the particular combination of a woman’s hormone levels and her preexisting brain chemistry along with her life situation that results in her symptoms”. This explains why some women are more affected by their menstrual cycle and more prone to mood changes than others.
Mood & The Menstrual Cycle: A Study
A very interesting study from the 1930’s by a physician and a psychologist puts it all into perspective. The physician monitored the hormone states of women while the psychologist observed their behaviors. What they found was that the psychologist could predict, with amazing accuracy, where the women were in their menstrual cycles, based on behavior alone.
They found that during the first half of the cycle, before ovulation, the women’s emotions and behaviors were more focused on the outside world—on creating and contributing outside of themselves. During ovulation the women were more content, relaxed, and allowed more help and care from others. After ovulation, during the premenstrual phase when estrogen was lowest and progesterone highest, the women were more focused internally, on their own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.
This study illustrates what we women have sensed for years: We feel, think, and even behave differently in accordance with the dialogue of our menstrual cycles.
The Wisdom of The Menstrual Cycle
But this study also shows the wisdom of our female bodies. As author Christiane Northrup states, “I like to think of the first half of our cycles as the time when we are both biologically and psychologically preparing to give birth to someone or something outside of ourselves. In the second half of the cycles, we prepare to give birth to nothing less than ourselves”.
Sure, our menstrual cycles can make our moods feel a little complicated. But if we learn about our body and listen to its wisdom, we will not only have the power to take charge of our emotional well-being, but we will appreciate the incredible power our beautiful female bodies possess.
What are your thoughts on The Menstrual Cycle and Mood? Do you have any questions you’d like to see answered in a future post for the Women’s Emotions series? Connect with me by leaving a comment below! Then, join us for more of the Women’s Emotions series as we discuss emotional health across the lifespan and strategies to improve emotional well-being!
[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.drchristinahibbert.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/square-head-shot1.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Clinical Psychologist, Mom of 6, Postpartum Couples DVD Producer, Non-Profit Founder, and expert on Parenting, Women’s Emotions, Pregnancy & Postpartum, and Grief & Loss, Dr. Christina Hibbert loves songwriting, learning, and teaching what she learns. Learn and Grow with Dr. Hibbert and her community of really great people![/author_info] [/author]
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 Bendeck, T., & Rubenstein, B. (1939). Correlations between ovarian activity and psychodynamic processes: The ovulatory phase. Psychosomatic Medicine, 1 (2), 245-270.
 Northrup, C. (2001). (p. 44).