Let's get something straight before we get into this any further: there's nothing wrong with getting emotional or feeling moody when your period is about to make an appearance, regardless of how many times society has told you that big girls don't cry (thanks a lot, Fergie). That doesn't necessarily mean you have free reign to stomp around and be cruel to everyone, Regina George style, but just remember that you're not a weak person merely because you suddenly get tearful or feel upset. These are pretty typical experiences that come with having a menstrual cycle.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 85 percent of menstruating women experience at least one PMS symptom on a regular basis. Hopefully, knowing that you're in the majority gives you some comfort. Some of the most common period symptoms include cramps, fatigue, changes in appetite, and, the real kicker, mood swings. For anyone who has ever menstruated, I doubt any of this is surprising.
But even though we've become accustomed to the emotional ups and downs every month, we may not know exactly what it is that causes such dramatic changes. Bustle spoke with Alyssa Dweck, M.D., gynecologist in New York, assistant clinical professor OBGYN at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, and author of V is for Vagina, who says there are many different things that can "cause changes in your emotional wellbeing" right before and during your period. It helps to know what they are, because we may have more control over some of them than you might think.
Here are seven reasons your period is making you feel emotional.
1. Your Hormones Are Fluctuating Wildly
"Hormones are very volatile during certain parts of your cycle," Dr. Dweck says. In particular, estrogen is known to take you for a rollercoaster ride. It rises slowly just before menstruation hits, but then drops suddenly when you start bleeding. Then it increases once again when your period ends, only to peak two weeks later. Dr. Dweck also names progesterone as another hormone affecting your mood swings, since it also drops significantly whenever your period starts. However, right before you menstruate, during your PMS days, your progesterone levels are pretty high, which could account for feeling dreary or hopeless.
I'm pretty sure even a robot couldn't even manage to ward off mood swings if she were getting jerked around that much — and as we'll see below, these changes directly affect your serotonin levels, so it's no wonder you feel emotional.
2. Your Serotonin Levels Are Diminished
Strangely enough, the hormonal changes you experience also influence how the chemicals in your brain function. "Neurotransmitters in the brain probably have something to do with PMS symptoms," Dr. Dweck says. Research suggests that serotonin drops when your period starts, due to all the hormonal fluctuations. Low amounts of serotonin in the brain are associated with depression, irritability, and intense cravings for carbohydrates, which is pretty much PMSing in a nutshell. In her book Moody Bitches, psychiatrist Dr. Julie Holland explains,
Lower estrogen levels cause serotonin levels to drop precipitously a few days before menstruation, which may be the basis of many PMS symptoms. Low levels of serotonin are implicated in depression, panic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder ... you're even more physically sensitive to pain than usual, and more emotionally sensitive to criticism. You're less resilient in the face of stresses and feel sadder, hungrier, and more scared, tearful, and angsty.
On top of all that, as levels of estrogen and serotonin rapidly fall, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) also start to disappear when your period arrives. These are two chemicals that boost your moods, put a pep in your step, and reduce anxiety. Without them, you don't exactly have a recipe for calm, cool, and collected on your hands.
3. You're More Susceptible To Pain — And You're Experiencing More Of It
Physical pain is never a pleasant thing to endure. Think about someone who has a splitting headache or a gnarly stomachache. Do you find them to be a joy to be around? Are they smiley and up for anything? No, of course not. They're probably easily annoyed by your antics and just want to be left alone. Not only are you dealing with cramps before and during your period, but hormonally, as Dr. Holland explains in Moody Bitches, "your pain tolerance is at its lowest point during PMS. Not a great time to go to the dentist or get waxed." It's a double whammy.
Dr. Dweck reminds us that being in pain can "make people irritable," so don't beat yourself up if you're feeling emotional as you're reaching for the Midol — nobody is happy-go-lucky when they're experiencing discomfort. Put on an electric blanket and sip on some chamomile tea to relax yourself through the pain.
4. You're Not Eating A Balanced Diet
"Sometimes it’s the habits you have around your period that cause the mood changes," Dr. Dweck tells Bustle. Although the low levels of serotonin in your body may be nudging you (or yanking you, depending on how you want to look at it) in the direction of pasta, bread, and apple pie, all those foods can make you feel more emotionally unstable.
Dr. Dweck says you can encounter a nasty crash after eating foods that are packed with sugar or salt, and that will leave your mood swings in pretty bad shape. It's particularly important to keep your blood sugar at an even level, because when that fluctuates, it causes you to feel icky, both emotionally and mentally. If you have a sweet craving that simply must be answered, reach for natural stuff, like dates and honey, or make your own desserts at home using only the best ingredients.
Also, try to stay away from all packaged foods in general, as these have inflammatory responses that worsen your cravings and your moods. They can intensify your cramps, and nobody wants that.
5. You're Not Sleeping Enough
Beauty sleep takes a whole new meaning when your uterus is shedding its lining. Seven out of every 10 menstruating women say they struggle to get a good night's sleep just before their period starts. Once again, blame it on the hormones. When your hormone levels change, your body can't control its internal temperature in the same way it normally can, and this results in restless or interrupted sleep.
Getting less sleep can of course make you more prone to being irritable and moody. If you're not getting enough shut-eye, there's also more likelihood that your other PMS symptoms, such as cramps and bloating, will stick around longer. Try to get to bed earlier than usual when your period is coming up, but know that it's not just about how many hours you spend under the covers. Leave the electronics at the door, shut out all the excess light, and make sure you're nice and comfy. Every little detail counts for you to get all the quality rest you need.
6. You're Not Exercising Regularly
It might not feel like it, but your period is a good time to beef up your exercise routine. It fights bloating, helps with digestion, and reduces the intensity of menstrual cramps. More importantly, though, working out can put you in a good mood. "Exercise enhances feel good chemicals," Dr. Dweck insists. Research shows that the blood flow and increased heart rate keeps away fatigue and floods your brain with happiness-inducing endorphins you desperately need at this time of the month.
Choose what aerobic activity suits you best. It could be weight training, swimming, yoga, or even a stroll outside at sunset. Lower impact movements will probably be best for you when you're bleeding. Don't feel like you have to push yourself to the limit to get the results. Remember, you're shooting for more energy and better moods, not a world record.
7. You Have Undiagnosed PMDD
In some rare cases, very noticeable mood swings are indicative of something more than just PMS symptoms. If you notice that your mood swings are out of control and they're affecting relationships in your life, you may want to talk to your doctor about premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Up to 10 percent of menstruating women suffer from this disorder, and it often goes undiagnosed. According to Dr. Dweck, "This is like PMS on steroids, where people are absolutely debilitated" due to the emotional plummets.
Dr. Dweck tells Bustle that the key to knowing that you're stepping into PMDD territory is whether your emotional ups and downs are affecting the relationships in your life. This includes anyone from your co-worker to your partner. As soon as you notice this happening, visit your OBGYN and see whether it's time to think of some treatments for PMDD.
The Bottom Line
Nearly all of us have been taken on a wild emotional ride during our period and survived, as endlessly frustrating as it may have been. While you may not be able to control all the causes of your mood swings, there are certainly some things you can do that will reduce the misery of your period. Build a healthy, happy lifestyle for yourself and know your go-to period pain hacks, so when the moody PMS bully comes knocking, you'll be ready to face it. Above all else, remember to be kind to yourself.
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