For centuries, people with periods have had their feelings dismissed as hysterical or ‘hormonal’. The truth is that we actually are hormonal (everyone is!) and our hormones can impact our mood and general vibe, as they fluctuate throughout our cycle.
However, mood swings and extreme PMS aren’t a normal part of having periods. They actually could be a sign of a hormonal imbalance, a mental health issue or other physical condition. Here we’ll break down the science of menstrual cycle mood swings and give some advice on how to make things feel a little smoother.
- Oestrogen naturally goes up and down throughout our menstrual cycle - and with it so do our serotonin levels
- This can cause changes in our mood, energy, libido and more - and that’s totally normal
- However, mood swings occur when, rather than hormones fluctuating smoothly and gently, we can see sharp increases and decreases.
- There are hormonal health conditions associated with mood swings including hypothyroidism and PMDD
The Science of Menstrual Cycle Mood Changes
To understand how our menstrual health and mood are connected, we first need to understand two very important hormones involved in our cycle - oestrogen and progesterone.
Oestrogen is kind of like the Beyoncé of hormones - it can make us feel confident, sexy and full of energy. This is likely because research indicates our oestrogen levels are connected to our serotonin levels - one of the body’s natural happy hormones. Oestrogen is mainly produced by the follicles in our ovaries as they mature into an egg, ahead of ovulation. This is why in the first half of our cycle (our follicular phase) we are usually oestrogen dominant and for many people it can be a time where they feel pretty good!
If oestrogen is Beyoncé, that might make progesterone Billie Eilish. It’s still a cool hormone with lots of benefits but it makes us feel a little more quiet, insular and sometimes sensitive. This is probably because progesterone stimulates the brain to produce a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which has a relaxing effect - bringing our energy and mood levels lower.
We should be progesterone dominant in the second half of our cycle (our luteal phase) as progesterone is produced by the egg that was released during ovulation. You might notice that this is a time you crave peace and quiet and find busy days overwhelming.
As we move towards the end of our cycle, both our oestrogen and progesterone levels drop - just before our period arrives. This hormonal shift can certainly have an impact on our mood (if you find yourself getting teary about dog videos just before your bleed, you’re not alone) but the intensity of these emotions can be affected by how dramatic that hormonal drop is.
Mood Changes vs Mood Swings
In a healthy menstrual cycle, we would expect this premenstrual shift to feel manageable, something you can navigate with a little self-care and self-kindness. If you find that your emotions around your period - or at any time of your cycle - are worryingly intense, it could be a sign that something is wrong and that your hormones are off kilter.
Whilst ‘mood swings’ is not an official medical term (doctors tend to refer to ‘mood disorders’, but more on that later) it’s a familiar phrase for those occasions where our moods feel out of control and like they are changing very quickly.
Mood and emotions are subjective and personal - so it’s hard to describe exactly what is normal and what isn’t. But if you feel like you spend your life on an emotional rollercoaster, it might be worth looking into your hormonal health.
Why am I struggling with mood swings?
There are a few different reasons you may be suffering with mood swings - and many of them relate back to our hormones.
Our teen years are a prime time for mood swings - and it’s unsurprising. As we enter puberty our reproductive hormones start to fire up - but it can be a little clunky at first! Until our menstrual cycle becomes more regular (which can often take a few years) the hormonal fluctuations of oestrogen and progesterone can cause our moods to fluctuate dramatically too.
Because progesterone has a calming effect, if our levels are low it can make our luteal phase harder to deal with - causing feelings of stress and anxiety amongst other symptoms.
Low progesterone can also cause your luteal phase to be shorter than normal. Ideally our luteal phase should be around 14 days - a nice slow hormonal decline into our period! If your luteal phase is less than 8 days, you might notice that your PMS feels more intense - as your hormonal dips might be more dramatic.
It’s thought that people struggling with PMDD have an increased sensitivity to the hormonal changes that happen throughout our menstrual cycle - particularly the drop in serotonin levels that can happen before our period. This could be a genetic predisposition or there might be other reasons at play.
An underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) is where your thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormones. These thyroid hormones are essential for the production and regulation of progesterone and oestrogen, so any issues with your thyroid can have a knock on effect on your reproductive hormonal balance. Common symptoms of hypothyroidism include low or erratic mood, weight gain and fatigue.
Of course, not everything can be explained purely by looking at our hormonal health. Mental health issues are very real and are sometimes the cause of our low mood or extreme emotions. If volatile mood swings are something you live with, it could be that you have a mood disorder, such as bipolar. It’s thought that 1 in 5 people live with a mood disorder - and more women than men are affected - so if that’s you, know you are not alone. Always speak to a doctor if you are concerned about your mental health.
How to make your moods smoother
If you are struggling with your emotional wellbeing, it is always worth consulting a healthcare professional, but there are also some things you can do to support both your menstrual and mental health.
Living cyclically means embracing the phases of your cycle and adapting your lifestyle choices and behaviour to match it. This might mean staying home more in your luteal phase or scheduling big work meetings and presentations for your follicular phase. Modern life doesn’t always allow us the luxury of living cyclically, but if we can you may find that life feels a little easier to cope with!
Exercise is such an important factor in both menstrual and mental health. The release of endorphins (another happy hormone) we get when we move our bodies can help to counteract low mood and reduce stress levels. It’s also a great way to relieve period pain naturally!
Just like moving our bodies is essential for keeping our mood lifted, so is getting rest. Research has highlighted the connection between sleep and mental wellbeing - as well as our hormonal balance. Aim for around 7-8 hours of sleep a night and be aware that you may need more rest and certain points in your cycle.
You might not think that what you eat has a bearing on your mood - but it’s true! There are foods that will give you a quick hit of dopamine - like chocolate - but we’re more interested in the food groups that will keep both your vibe and hormones balanced. Think fermented foods like kimchi that will keep your gut happy (did you know up to 90% of your serotonin is produced in your gut?) and bananas which are high in vitamin B6 - which helps the production of both serotonin and dopamine.
We should always try to get the majority of our nutrients from whole foods, but sometimes it’s impossible. Supplements are a great way to support your nutritional goals alongside a healthy diet. Some particular vitamins that can help support emotional balance are Vitamin B6 (as mentioned previously!), magnesium (which is also great for muscle cramps around your period) and L-theanine. Ashwagandha is another natural remedy that is known for its stress relieving qualities.