Getting your period might be nature, but it can still sort of stink. Cramps, bloating, mood swings, cravings — these symptoms are just the tip of the iceberg. There is at least one silver lining, though: New research is suggesting that people might be smarter when they're on their periods, and brain scans have pinpointed specifically what changes when it's that time of the month.
To be a little more accurate, we don't technically get "smarter" when we're menstruating; I'm not going to suddenly turn into an algebra whiz just because Aunt Flo is in town. But the study, led by PhD student Claudia Barth, did find that as our estrogen levels change, so does the size of the part of the brain known as the hippocampus. In the study, the researchers conducted a brain scan of one woman every few days across two menstrual cycles. They found that as her estrogen levels rose, her hippocampus increased in volume. Similarly, once she started to menstruate and her estrogen levels decreased, her hippocampus reduced in size. Because the hippocampus is vital in controlling and creating new memories, as well as regulating mood and emotions, it's becoming clear that our brains' experiences could change significantly over the course of a menstrual cycle. But how?
For example, is it possible that at a certain time of the month, we might be more receptive and open to change? Might we find ourselves more empathetic, confident, brave, etc.? These are all questions that could possibly be answered with further research. And according to Barth, we have reason to believe that their findings could mean something bigger. "In mice, it has already been proven that it is not just this brain structure but also different behaviors which underlie a type of monthly cycle," she said.
Barth isn't alone in her findings. According to a book titled The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D., estrogen is kind of like a "fertilizer" for your brain cells. She says that during the second week of your cycle specifically, there are more synaptic connections growing in the part of your brain that's responsible for short-term memory and decision-making. You might notice better speaking skills and a boosted sex drive, as well.
So, while we haven't demonstrated that people are smarter during a specific time of their cycle, the enlarged hippocampus could still be a sign of differing brain activity in some other way. And this isn't the first study to acknowledge that.
In 2014, a UK study found that menstrual cramps affect brain function: When participants were having period pains, they didn't perform as well on tests measuring their attention span, ability to multitask, and how well they could choose between competing targets. Sure enough, other studies have found that decreasing estrogen levels are connected to brain fog and increased difficulty in learning new things. Could this mean that people are "less intelligent" on their periods? (I mean, probably not; we also know, for example, that our political views aren't affected by our periods, so our logical centers appear to function just fine whether we're menstruating or not.)
That question has yet to be answered; but one thing is for certain: Women experience observed, measured, and documented physiological changes throughout their cycle that affect their emotions, behavior, and more. While we shouldn't use our periods as an excuse for anything — and while no one should be writing you off because you menstruate, for that matter — it's important to remember that you're still undergoing changes that are beyond your immediate control. I, for example, will find myself sobbing for no reason. Nothing to see here. Carry on.
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