Is *Period Brain* A Real Thing?
5 min read
by Amanda Melhuish | October 21, 2020
Does menstruating affect how your brain works? No — but a lot of people seem to think it does.
As I’ve explained to my well-intentioned but occasionally annoying boyfriend, there’s a difference between owning how your period affects your mood and other people assuming how your period affects your mood. (Boyfriend, if you’re reading this, sorry for ~exposing~ you like this. And if you’re not reading this, rude.) The idea that your brain is somehow less functional during your period takes “making assumptions” to the next level. It can be traced way back to the idea of “hysteria”. So, let’s put an end to this myth once, and for all.
what is hysteria?
In short, hysteria is behind the idea that your menstrual cycle alters your mental state. We’ve all, unfortunately, heard *jokes* about periods making *women* act *crazy*, right? That stems from the concept of hysteria — and so does anything else you may encounter that even *implies* menstruating can have drastic effects on the mind.
In the 1890s, Dr. Robert Barnes gave a presentation to the British Gynecological Society claiming to see “an absolute coincidence between the menstrual period and the manifestation of insanity.” And, surprising no one, many more scientists have done ‘studies’ that suggest periods do affect our mental capabilities. (A short digression: The damage that’s been done to so many people by a lack of intersectionality in science and medicine needs to be discussed, investigated, and corrected.) This misguided idea was so pervasive, people have “treated” hysteria with everything from smelling salts to hypnosis!
a historical look at “hysteria”
To see how absurd this myth really is, all we have to do is take a look at where it came from. As described in Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health, hysteria “is undoubtedly the first mental disorder attributable to women.” The first known description of hysteria was by ancient Egyptians in 1900 BC, claiming it was caused by movements of the uterus. It wasn’t until the 18th century that hysteria started becoming more associated with someone’s mental state than their body. Today, we may know it as “period brain fog.”
checking out the latest science
Luckily, we also have more recent data to refer to. In 2017, a study led by Brigitte Leeners, MD, Professor of Reproductive Endocrinology at University Hospital Zurich, concludes that “there is no consistent association between women's hormone levels, in particular estrogen and progesterone, and attention, working memory and cognitive bias.” (Take that, 1890s!)
In the study, they tested 88 women at 4 different times during the month. By chance, this math meant 68 of the women were studied while on their period twice. Each woman was tested for three cognitive skills including memory, paying attention to two different things at once, and decision making. This study could be even more inclusive by testing people with periods across any gender identity, but nonetheless it’s exciting that the data showed no negative impact on cognitive ability during the participants' periods.
what really happens to your brain during your period
According to the aforementioned study, pretty much nada. What you’re more likely to notice during your period is run-of-the-mill PMS. Hysteria often seems to be in reference to mood swings, which are usually just a logical reaction to all the other stuff your body’s going through while shedding some of that sweet, sweet uterine lining. IMHO, those mood swings are just your body’s way of empowering you to take no sh*t. Period “brain fog” isn’t real.
does the “hysteria” stigma still exist today?
Attempts have been made to reclaim the term “hysterical” — like last year’s Rachel Antonoff x Keds Hysterical Female shoes, which proudly take up space on my shoe rack). But this is more than “just a joke,” these sexist stereotypes have real-world consequences for people with periods. The stigma still has a huge impact today. It can prevent people with periods from succeeding in the workplace. Whenever women run for President, we inevitably hear arguments about what they’ll do when they get their period. This sexist rhetoric also consistently comes up in discussions about women serving in the military too.
Most misogynistic microaggressions come from the idea of attacking a woman for being “too emotional” — in other words, hysterical. If folks are discriminated against because of these toxic assumptions, we all suffer. Because we are robbed of their intellect, contributions, and potential.
The last thing any of us should do is internalize these limiting beliefs. No one is any more or less “stable” just because of a li’l blood. If you have noticed concerning changes in your own body in correlation to your period, consult an understanding and open-minded doctor (be on the lookout for any red flags that your doctor doesn’t quite get it).
Your period is just that: yours.
by Amanda Melhuish