Ask An Adult: Why Do I Feel Stupid When I’m On My Period?
The Debrief: Do you ever feel like you mess things up for no reason when you’re on your period?
Last time I was on my period, I grabbed my work pass from my desk so I could leave the office for my lunch break. Except, when I got to the electronic gates, they wouldn’t open. I was about to lose my rag, and was annoying everybody waiting behind me, when I realised I was using my dictaphone to tap out. It turned out I’d grabbed that instead of my pass without even noticing.
I’d usually describe myself as being a person who is usually pretty on-the-ball and rarely forgetful, but for the past year alongside all the other horrible monthly symptoms I get – feeling constantly sick, losing my appetite and pain so bad it wakes me up at night – inexplicably mucking stuff up has joined the party. It’s a horrible feeling.
Initially, I wondered if it was just me, but a Google search threw up a load of other women on forums asking if ‘period brain’ was a real thing. It turns out it is - and it can be really frustrating.
‘When I was last on my period I left half of my belongings at my friend’s house after staying over, including my glasses and watch, despite checking if I'd forgotten anything,’ Hayley, 28, tells me. ‘Another time, I was going to a gig venue I’ve been to several times and went to a different place entirely – I’m never normally poor at directions.’
‘Recently, I spent a good hour emptying out the contents of my purse searching for my credit card when I was on my period,’ Manchester based Alex, 27, says. ‘I came to the conclusion it was lost and called my bank to cancel it. Of course, later on I found it inside my purse.
‘Last year, I somehow managed to get into my car using my keys, but lost them before putting them in the ignition. I searched my car and garage for a good hour and a half looking for them. Then my friend suggested they could be in the door, which they were,’ she adds.
Alex also says she experiences increased clumsiness about two or three days before her period starts - and that coupled with brain fog goes on for the first couple of days. This is something I found was common with the women I interviewed (and myself). But what’s actually causing this?
‘Medical researchers aren’t 100% sure, but the current accepted view is that hormones can get across the blood/brain barrier and affect neurotransmitters,’ Dr Diana Mansour, a Consultant in Community Gynaecology and Reproductive Healthcare at the New Croft Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne says.
Falling progesterone levels right before you come on your period can affect production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which in turn affects memory. Mansour says she sometimes prescribes a low dose selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) such as sertraline, which can combat this problem.
‘A drop in estrogen also leads to fatigue, so you may also find it harder to focus in the run up to your period,’ Mansour says. The stress hormone cortisol is also triggered in the week before your cycle, which can leave you feeling more easily panicked too.
Intense cramp, especially at the beginning of your period, can also wipe you out and leave you feeling distracted. In 2014, a study from the University of Bath asked 52 adults with period pain to complete various computer-based tasks, in order to measure their ability to choose between competing tasks, their attention spans and their ability to switch their attention between two tasks. The researchers found period pain reduced their overall performance. Mine can be very painful for the first two or three days, and I know it really affects my concentration.
Other conditions, such as iron-deficiency anemia, common if you have heavy periods, and Vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause problems with energy and mental function, so it’s worth seeing your GP if this persists as they can be diagnosed using simple blood tests. ‘I felt I wasn’t switched on to 100% and was getting generally behind in life,’ Londoner Rachel, 25, says. ‘Being on your period hardly seems to quantify to others the reason why you can’t focus mentally, as its viewed as more of a physical ailment.
‘I spoke to my doctor about lacking in energy, extreme period pain, tiredness and generally not feeling sprightly. I was tested for B12 deficiency and the result was positive. I had no idea this could exaggerate the feelings of haziness around the time of your period.’
But what can you do, if anything, to help feel more like your sparky self on your period? Luckily, it seems there’s a few options you can try. ‘Brain fog can be one of the symptoms of PMT,’ Dr Mansour says. ‘Going on the progesterone-only pill can reduce PMT and also help with painful periods, so it can tackle the feelings of confusion and forgetfulness which can be associated with this.’
Getting enough sleep and exercise is also really helpful - so don’t just wallow in bed all day. ‘It might be the last thing you think you want to do, but doing gentle exercise will raise endorphins and energise you,’ Mansour says. Rachel agrees. ‘Yoga stretches definitely help me to relax – whether it’s a placebo effect or not, I’ve felt the benefit in completely switching off for an hour and concentrating purely on physical activity,’ she says.
Eating healthily is also key to beating the brain fog. Many of us want to reach for a chocolate bar when our period hits, but according to Dr Mansour this is a no-no. ‘Sugary food and refined carbs, like white bread and pastries, raise insulin which can lower your blood sugar levels and cause you to ‘crash’ and feel sluggish,’ she says. Instead, she recommends trying to get your five-a-day [‘though have more vegetables than fruits as fruit has more sugars’] and eating complex carbs such as brown rice. She also doesn’t recommend my preferred method of dealing with period pain – masking it with red wine. ‘Alcohol also contains a lot of sugars, so although you may feel better at the time it’ll be worse in the long run.’
Supplements can also help with concentration, especially Omega-3, which has been linked to boosting brainpower by some scientists ‘I take a krill oil tablet called Cleanmarine for women twice a day,’ Rachel says. ‘I’ve found I’ve had less brain fog and been more able to just get on with work that requires concentration in a busy office.’
‘The pill, exercise and sleep have worked well for me in terms of improving my PMT and bad period symptoms,’ Alex tells me. ‘In terms of practically dealing with the brain fog, I make list, set alarms and keep a calendar to stop myself forgetting important things, which is really useful.’
However, for a lot of women it’s just a case of riding it out. ‘I’ve just kind of accepted it as a side-effect of my period,’ Hayley says. ‘It hadn’t really occurred to me that I could counteract them with lifestyle changes.’
‘Ultimately, It’s good to remember that even though having this brain fog is frustrating, things will get better so keep positive,’ Mansour says. ‘There’s a lot of things you can try to help and you’re likely to get back to ‘normal’ soon.’
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