If you’d asked me a few years ago what I thought about my period, I would have given you this summary: it comes about once every month, usually takes me by surprise, affects my sex life; I curse not having tampons stashed in every handbag and I reach for the Panadol, try to ignore the whole thing and get on with life.
In short, it’s really bloody annoying. Pun intended.
One of the side effects of both getting really, really stressed, getting sick, changing career direction and slowing life down a few hundred notches has been the ability to spend time noticing how my period actually affects my whole month, not just part thereof.
In doing so, I’ve had a few ‘aha!’ moments which mean that instead of anxiously berating myself for cancelling plans and staying in PJs, feeling blue or wondering why today I’m in the mood to go out and have an espresso martini or three, I can at least in part track it back to my cycle.
Menstrual cycle hormones and functions
It’s also lead me to wonder about the utility of some of the information on the school curriculum. Perhaps in addition to say, how to solve a quadratic equation, understand the key themes of Anna Karenina, sew a button back on a skirt in a hurry and change a tyre, it might have been useful to have learned a) how to deal with heavy periods at work and during exams and b) that your menstrual cycle isn’t just an inconvenient side effect of being born with double X chromosomes, and that it can in fact be a very useful source of information and wisdom about your body.
We’re so busy fighting fires on the career front, being tough, being strong, being everything we’ve always thought we’ve wanted to be, that we don’t actually listen to what our bodies are trying to say.
Women are cyclical in nature: our behaviour, moods and motivation shift along with our hormone patterns. “This is an amazingly valuable piece of knowledge and a wonderful resource from which we can draw to meet our goals” according to Flo Living.
So, by charting our own cycles and becoming familiar with these shifts, can this help us to work cleverly around our menstrual cycle?
It’s an icky affair
Many of us often want to put the whole icky affair to one side, because we think there are better, or perhaps more important, things to worry about (work, career, goals, going to the gym, what we’re having for dinner…basically anything else) and that’s a fair enough position, because discussion around menstruation is stifled, at best.
In many parts of the world periods are not just swept under the rug, but are a deep source of shame. In Nepal, the exiling of menstruating women was recently banned, according to Al Jazeera. And UNESCO reports one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school during her period. This can equate to up to 20 per cent of the year. Little wonder then, when Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon without using sanitation products and was labelled disgusting, that it’s really something we don’t want to think about.
And often we don’t: until we start trying to have a baby, or our period stops in its tracks; if we experience Polycystic Ovary Syndrome or reach menopause. That is, we don’t pay attention until we are forced to take notice.
But the effects our hormones and our periods have on our bodies is enormous.
PMS and depression may be caused by a hormone imbalance
And it’s not just five to seven days – whether it’s ovulation, your fertile window, or the period just before…your period, what’s happening with your hormones can and will affect your mood. According to the Mayo Clinic;
“Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a severe, sometimes disabling extension of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Although regular PMS and PMDD both have physical and emotional symptoms, PMDD causes extreme mood shifts that can disrupt your work and damage your relationships.
In both PMDD and PMS, symptoms usually begin seven to 10 days before your period starts and continue for the first few days that you have your period. Both PMDD and PMS may also cause bloating, breast tenderness, fatigue, and changes in sleep and eating habits. In PMDD, however, at least one of these emotional and behavioral symptoms stands out:
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Anxiety or tension
- Extreme moodiness
- Marked irritability or anger”
Why are our period mood cycles still a mystery to most of us?
Back in the day, everything would have been a lot easier if I had recognised the signs of PMS and other low points in my cycle. Maybe we’re a little bit afraid of being soft, or being seen as crazy hippies. Of paying attention to the things that actually make us women.
We’re so busy fighting fires on the career front, being tough, being strong, being everything we’ve always thought we’ve wanted to be, that we don’t actually listen to what our bodies are trying to say. Added to that, we often put ourselves on the backburner, not resting enough and putting the needs of others before our own. That means we can be vastly unconscious of what is going on inside and how it’s manifesting on the outside.
If we can learn to schedule our work around these periods, we should – in theory at least – be more efficient.
As I mentioned above, having a little time off I’ve had the opportunity to listen to my body. I found it really useful to monitor my moods for a few cycles. At first, when PMS came around, I thought I might actually have depression but it turns out that my monthly surge of hormones was to blame. Now that I’m aware of this, I can anticipate the blues and adjust my schedule and personal expectations accordingly – being prepared is half the battle won.
Our changing hormones can affect our performance
According to the Talented Ladies Club, “our hormones affect more than just our emotional moods. They can also impact on our work performance.
Research shows that we are better at particular tasks at different phases of our menstrual cycle. So, if we can understand the best times of the month to tackle particular jobs, we can work smarter and achieve much more.
And if we can learn to schedule our work around these periods, we should – in theory at least – be more efficient!”
Understand the phases of your menstrual cycle, use it for strategic advantage
Our menstrual cycle generally lasts between 23-35 days. Everyone’s cycles and symptoms are different but, generally speaking, they look a little somethin’ like this;
Estrogen is low so you may be feeling pretty sorry yourself.
Your period should have ended and estrogen rises. With it, appetite can stay reasonably low, while sex drive, confidence, and willingness to take on challenges as well as be sociable, climb. Schedule drinks with friends here. It’s also a great time to tackle tasks like filing and accounts and re-organising your workspace.
Coordination also reaches a monthly high, which might explain why when the same hormone hits a low in week three I don’t even bother trying to reverse parallel park and feel like a general klutz.
Because you’re buzzing, you can tend to overthink at this time or even experience a bit of anxiety, if you’re prone to it, and because ovulation – think high sex drive and peak fertility – biologically you might also be fighting off the green-eyed monster at this time too. Yep, because we’re ready to reproduce at this point, we’re also primed to fight off ‘threats’ (yeah, that means other women). This is a good time to tackle challenging projects, plan job interviews, new projects or public speaking, because you’ll probably be feeling top of your game.
Around day 14 = ovulation
From this point, estrogen dips. Yep, this happens twice in a cycle, which might explain why you feel some PMS symptoms more than a week before your period starts. It does rise again though before falling just before menstruation (am I the only one who struggles to pronounce this word?) This is a time when we are more intuitive and inward looking. Utilise it to make decisions and plan strategies.
Progesterone, a sedating hormone, rises this week as estrogen drops sharply. You may feel sleepy. Make yourself some healthy treats to get you through.
Progesterone is surging and you’re probably feeling a little blah and bloated. Exercise could help.
This video is also super helpful to understand the ups and downs of your cycle.
How to chart your menstrual cycle and make those hormonal mood swings work for you
Go old school and note down your cycle manually or if you’re into apps these are some of the best for monitoring what’s going on, whether you’re looking at fertility or purely tracking. You’ll be all over the female hormone cycle chart:
Period Diary: (free)
Period Tracker: also has a ‘pregnancy mode’ (free, in app purchases)
Clue: a Berlin-based VC-backed start-up that has no red hearts and no butterflies (like many of the others…). I use this one – it’s a good female hormone cycle chart. My husband also (voluntarily) has it on his phone so that he can track my cycle. This means he’s slightly more forgiving if I bite his head off out of the blue for, say, leaving crumbs on the bench. #imnotcrazy
Spot On: for iOs and android, made by Planned Parenthood
And if you’re looking for an app for contraceptives Natural Cycles out of Sweden is your go-to. female hormone cycle chart
How to minimise period symptoms
Essential oils like clary sage, lavender and peppermint are said to help hormones. If you’re curious, you can find out more here.
As always, check with a health practitioner before using oils or medicines and if you’re concerned about your menstrual cycle or mood, review your symptoms with your doctor.
Are your monthly moods a mystery? Join the club! Head over The Squad Facebook Group to chat more about de-coding your cycle and how to make it work for you.
You might also like Beat The Afternoon Slump With These Healthy Energy Boosters and Follow These Three Rules To Stay Healthy On Your Next Work Trip.
How to work cleverly around your menstrual cycle and use it as a strategic advantage