Advertisements about menstrual products often paint an interesting image of people on their period. They are inexplicably happy, carefree and ever-ready to climb the nearest mountain while somehow wearing the lightest coloured clothes. Anyone who has experienced menstruation-related symptoms knows that this picture is usually far from the truth.
While the experience of menstruating differs from person to person, the most common symptoms are abdominal pain (cramps), sore breasts, acne and mood swings.
A symptom that perhaps does not receive the same level of attention is that of ‘brain fog’ or the feeling of haziness, forgetfulness, and loss of concentration. Such changes in behaviour both before and during your period are usually pegged to fluctuations in the body’s hormone levels.
For 22-year-old Unnati Rajput, a law student from Mumbai, India, the side effects are predominantly experienced during exam period. “I started to notice my inability to concentrate coinciding with my menstrual cycle after being diagnosed with PCOS. It is very stressful because this is something I cannot control,” she told Re:Set “I feel like I’m blanking out and my brain grasps things at a slower rate. It’s this numb, blank feeling that lasts for one to two days at the beginning of my cycle.”
I hate when I’m on period and everything makes me so sad like I just watched the Mulan preview and I started crying bc all she wanted was to save her father ?
— ♡ Karen ♡ (@karencv__) December 23, 2019
Hers is not a unique tale, many women that Re:Set spoke to shared similar mental symptoms:
Forgetfulness is a symptom that stands out for 29-year-old Niharika (last name withheld upon request), “I would mix up conversations with different people. [I would] pick up an incomplete conversation with one person and later with somebody totally different.” The Bengaluru-based engineer said that in the days leading up to her period, her short-term memory would especially be affected like remembering what happened in the book she’d been reading or recalling [board game] scores.
A 2014 study conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden drew the conclusion that behavioural changes have been demonstrated over the course of the menstrual cycle. But, the difference in the performance of [certain] tasks was negligible. It also pointed out that higher levels of progesterone, as present in the day leading up to the period, are associated with increased emotional memory and increased amygdala reactivity, which is responsible for the response to emotional stimuli.
Bangalore-based gynecologist, Dr. Shaibya Saldanha opined that research does not cover every aspect of the issue and that hormones do make a difference in the emotional state and mental state throughout the cycle. “Emotions are [a result of] more serotonin and dopamine and other chemicals in the brain, that [can be] affected by hormones,” she told Re:Set. “There are known instances of headaches called estrogen headaches, there is excessive bloating, digestion issues.” These changes, caused by fluctuations in hormonal levels, also impact the mind and productivity, Saldanha remarked.
The link between period brain fog and productivity
Often accompanying painful cramps and mood swings, we asked women how period brain fog affects their productivity. 22-year-old Mumbai-based writer Caroline (last name withheld upon request) said, “[I’m on my period right now and] I’ve been attempting to fill [a] questionnaire for the last 30 minutes, a feat that would have otherwise taken me 10 or 15 minutes to accomplish. I’ve switched between three tabs so far and achieved absolutely nothing.”
“I’ve switched between three tabs so far and achieved absolutely nothing.”
Whether it is work and studies or just everyday tasks, women have admitted to feeling guilty when their productivity wanes during this tumultuous time. Kerala-based junior doctor, Meenu Syriac, 24, told Re:Set that for her, period brain fog occurs intermittently and not every cycle. She reflected that the beginning of her period is accompanied by a reduction in attention span, irritability, and low productivity. Lethargy coupled with mood swings “make it very hard for me to be productive…I try to fight it and work as normally as possible,” she reflected.
I'm already always an emotional mess, but when I'm on my period it's so much worse lmao. Like I just read a post about someone's pet being put down and immediately started crying and got on the floor to pet my cat and tell her how much I love her ?
— el ? (@elpoppunk) December 23, 2019
However, researchers who have tried to determine changes in productivity-related factors during menstruation have found little evidence to support the claims. Research by the University of Salsburg, Austria tested women based on cognitive tasks such as spatial navigation and verbal fluency during the length of their menstrual cycle. They noticed no significant performance differences throughout the cycle. This is further cemented by research showing that there is no consistent association between women’s hormone levels, like estrogen and progesterone, and attention, working memory and cognitive bias. The research here has largely examined productivity from the scope of performance and not in relation to other factors that could also impact productivity, such as moods and the emotional state of the person.
Asked as to why there could be a difference in the findings of related research and women’s lived experiences, Syriac commented, “The studies quoted have a very small sample size. [I] would love to see more meta-analysis [to determine overall trends across varied data sets].”
Saldanha further explained that studying the effect that the menstrual cycle has on women’s minds has to go beyond assessing the performance of basic tasks. “If you tell me to cook food, [during] three [different] times in my cycle, I will do it. I’m not going to forget salt and put in sugar. But, if you ask how I’m behaving with my family and friends or how I’m coping with the stresses of running a house, it definitely makes a difference [in terms of functioning].” She concluded that putting these down to just mood swings is oversimplifying the issue, “We call it ‘mood swings’ as if women are just some sort of a pendulum, run by their ovaries, and I think that’s extremely unfair.” Science has proven that hormones affect mood, which in turn affects productivity. The link between hormones and moods, along with how menstrual cycle impacts them could do with deeper examination.