It’s the week before your period. You expect to have low energy, a bad mood, and a big appetite. You know that estrogen levels are falling and taking your feel good vibes with them. Yet, despite everything you’ve been told, you feel great, you’re even on a high—so what’s going on?
The way we understand the four phases of the menstrual cycle provides a framework for us to understand how our hormones fluctuate at specific times. For the most part, this framework focuses on the biology of the reproductive system. But what about the psychology or other lifestyle factors that can impact the way we experience our cycle?
Now that more women are having periods for longer—the menstrual years begin around the age of 12 and end, on average, at age 50—we’re talking more openly about the (often) debilitating side effects of PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. This isn’t surprising since PMS affects 85 percent of women, but what about the other 15 percent whose experience isn’t so widely documented?
How Should I Feel During Each Phase of My Cycle?
The hormonal fluctuations taking place from one week to the next provide your roadmap. However, the relationship between these hormones, your brain, and your body can sometimes cause you to off-road. This depends not only on the levels of each hormone present, but your sensitivity to them.
The pre-ovulation phase begins around one week after the first day of your period (or later if your cycle is longer). At this time, there’s a steady increase in both estrogen and testosterone, which boosts serotonin and energy levels. In theory, you’ll want to get out and do things, but what if, in reality, you don’t? The interaction between your hormones and mood will vary according to your particular mental makeup.
Estrogen interacts with a number of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, which influences cognitive functioning. Yet the levels of these neurotransmitters differ between people. Some women may therefore be more sensitive to fluctuating estrogen levels, while others may simply have more estrogen in their body. In both cases, this could kill the pre-ovulation buzz with brain fog.
Moving into the ovulation phase, estrogen and testosterone reach their peak. This is, ordinarily, your window of fertility when hormones ramp up sex drive and confidence. Alternatively, however, higher levels of estrogen or higher sensitivity to it will lead to estrogen dominance, which can cause agitation, depression, and insomnia—it’s a real passion killer.
Next comes the phase society tells you to dread: the luteal phase. Estrogen and testosterone levels fall while progesterone is on the rise. This can dampen our mood and make us feel sluggish since progesterone is a calming hormone and sleep enhancer designed to counterbalance the estrogen buzz. Yet if you’ve been suffering from estrogen dominance, or acute sensitivity to estrogen, this may bring sweet relief as the brain fog lifts.
What’s more, you could feel better and better the closer you get to your period, as estrogen levels continue to fall. Progesterone levels will also drop rapidly, freeing you from the hormone that research claims can have the same depressive impact as a hangover. This is why some women report greater clarity, productivity, and energy during the days before their period.
The higher your sensitivity or hormone levels, the more noticeable these changes become. Bottom line, however, there is no “should” when it comes to how you feel at any stage of your cycle—but whatever you do feel shouldn’t be overlooked. If you have any cause for concern, speak to your doctor about testing your hormone levels, and take a look at other lifestyle factors that could be having an adverse impact too, such as nutrition.
No PMS, No Pregnancy, No Stress
The absence of PMS symptoms during the luteal phase does not mean you’re pregnant. You may cruise through your cycle with minimal response to hormonal fluctuation because you have lower hormone levels, or decreased sensitivity to them. Either way, your menstrual cycle may be working just fine.
If you’re tracking physical and mental changes throughout your cycle, you’ll have more of an idea of your own rhythm. You may also observe how these changes vary each month, depending on your overall health, relationships, work situation, and so on. The key is to use the hormonal framework as only a guideline. Try not to get distracted by the negative narrative around periods.
Log the positive changes that occur throughout the month in order to gain new perspective on your own menstrual experience. We may be talking about periods more openly, but perhaps we need to change the way we talk about them. The highs are as important as the lows as they both teach us about our lives, our bodies, and ourselves.