We know of PMS as that looming week of cramps, back pains, and mood swings like we can never imagine or explain. And more often than not we are attuned to believing that it is a cue to the impending periods. But in a recent therapy session, when documenting my mood patterns, I discovered something very telling—every month, without fail, I have four days when my moods are as topsy-turvy as they can be. They are two days before my periods, and two days that are two weeks after my periods, or we could say two weeks prior to it. Which was strange. What was bringing this onset of mood swings in the middle of nothing?
A long visit to the gynaecologist revealed the naivety in my thinking of it as “the middle of nothing".
The fact of the matter is, the ups-and-downs of hormones throughout our monthly menstrual cycle impacts how we feel on a day-to-day basis. For the ease of understanding, the cycle can be divided into four phases, spread across roughly four weeks, and the rising and falling estrogen and progesterone hormone levels trigger changes in levels of brain chemicals, which in turn impact emotions.
Week 1, the menstrual phase, is day one of the period to the seventh. At the onset of it, the hormone levels are extremely low—going from being at high alert during fertilisation to nothing at all—causing a significant change that can be extremely exhausting. This begins to change over the course of the week, as the estrogen levels go from their lowest to a steady rise. And this means one thing—happy hormones! The rising estrogen levels help the brain produce feel-good chemicals, like serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine. Most women experience a surge in happy feelings by day four.
Pro tip: Women experience a dip in their iron levels during this period, which adds to the sadness, irritability, fogginess, and fatigue. Eating iron-rich food can help.
Week 2, the follicular phase, is day eight to ovulation (which is usually day 14 of the month). This is the happy week. And, once again, thanks to the rising estrogen and testosterone levels. The increased hormonal activity means that you may also experience a heightened sense of smell, along with clearer thinking and communication.
Week 3 starts right after ovulation and lasts for about eight days. It is this phase that indicates my second spurt of mood swings—and, again, estrogen comes into play. We see another drop in the hormone, causing a simultaneous drop in mood-elevating brain chemicals, thus triggering a bit of the blues, anxiety and frustration. To add to the plunging estrogen, our progesterone rises throughout this phase, and depending on your sensitivity to this hormone, which has a sedating effect, you could feel mellow or possibly blue or weepy. You might feel a little better in the second half of this week as estrogen rises, but don’t expect bright joy as you did in the first week because of progesterone.
Pro tip: Elevated progesterone makes us more sensitive to dips in blood sugar between meals, which means if we get hungry, you are likely to experience sudden anger, frustration, and even sadness. It might help to eat regular meals and also have a snack or two near you for a quick bite when needed.
Week 4, the luteal phase, are the final six days of your cycle. And the second onset of my mood swings. After ovulation, the empty follicle that contained the egg begins to secrete the hormone progesterone to thicken the lining of the uterus and prepare it for the possible implantation of an embryo. If implantation does not occur, progesterone levels decline. An imbalance of estrogen and progesterone can affect your levels of serotonin and bring on strong premenstrual syndrome symptoms like anxiety, depression, irritability and mood swings. This is what we know as PMS.
Pro tip: Generally, a healthy lifestyle can help balance these effects out. So make sure to not ditch the gym during this time, and try to cut down on overly salty or sugary food.
An important thing to make note of is that these symptoms and cycles can vary from person to person, and any extremes in these needs medical intervention. However, if it doesn’t interfere with your daily life, small changes to your diet, exercise routines, and hobby time can go a long way to help improve the tumultuous effects that the hormones bring on. They did for me. Those and allowing yourself a few days of rest and pampering, when indulging in a good pizza or a juicy burger with a side of fries is just the mood lifter we may need.