Menstrual periods can bring on bothersome and even debilitating symptoms, from acne to an upset stomach to an increase in intense emotions. But the existence of “period brain,” a purported decrease in a woman’s cognitive abilities around the time of and during her period, is still controversial.
A recent European study refutes the idea of period brain, finding that menstruation has no influence on a woman’s cognitive performance.
For the research, published this month in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, a team from Hannover Medical School in Germany and the University Hospital of Zurich in Switzerland followed 68 women through two consecutive menstrual cycles. Researchers asked them to complete 10 tests that measured three aspects of their cognition: visual memory, executive functioning and attention assessments. Testing included remembering changes in a set of data, pointing out similarities between two items and reacting to visual and auditory cues as quickly as possible.
Researchers noted the women’s hormone levels and observed whether there were any changes in the participants’ cognitive processes during the tests.
Based on the test results, the scientists concluded that levels of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone in a woman’s body have no bearing on her working memory, cognitive bias or her ability to pay attention to two things at once.
Researchers recognized the need for larger sample sizes and more studies to fully understand the impact of menstruation of the brain, saying, “although there might be individual exceptions, women’s cognitive performance is in general not disturbed by hormonal changes occurring with the menstrual cycle.”
Does your period affect your performance?
Despite the study’s findings, some women say period brain is real and were quick to criticize the study for invalidating their experiences and symptoms during their periods.
Holly Oehme, a 28-year-old from Minneapolis, shared that during her period, she often finds it hard to concentrate. “I’m so sluggish,” she said. “All I want to do is sleep. During my period, I have a hard time studying, working or even remembering what my daily routines are.”
Gabby Salas, a 23-year-old call center employee in Tempe, Arizona, said her period creates a fog that impedes her productivity on the job. During her period, she said, she’ll often ask people to repeat themselves several times or she accidentally repeats herself during calls ― something she wouldn’t otherwise do.
“Any other day, I’m able to dodge the feeling of being distracted,” Salas said. “But during my period, I find I’m unable to control how distracted I’m feeling.”
During my period I find I’m unable to control how distracted I’m feeling.” Gabby Salas
Diane Glazman, a writer from San Francisco, went a step further and actually documented changes in productivity during her cycle. The 52-year-old recently entered menopause, but prior to that, she kept a close eye on her how her period affected her cognitive functioning.
“I was never really conscious of ‘period brain’ until I started tracking my daily word count totals while working on a novel and noticed that my productivity dipped in the week following my period,” she said.
“It was consistent and predictable, and, once I noticed the trend, I realized in the week following my period, my focus was more diffuse, making it more difficult to keep my attention on the writing for sustained periods of time.”
What other experts say
Some women may find that their performance suffers during their period, but Dr. Maria Menke, medical director at Center for Fertility and Reproductive Endocrinology at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC in Pittsburgh, says that assuming your period will affect your productivity could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading you to subconsciously put your life on hold and worsen the problem.
“You don’t have to reschedule an important meeting or an event because of how your performance might be affected during your period,” she said.
That being said, she notes that some women do experience debilitating physical symptoms that can affect their quality of life and, in turn, their performance. In those cases, she recommends that women speak with their doctors.
Options like exercise, birth control and other medications, like over-the-counter pain relievers, could help some women with side effects from their period, she said.
While the European study looks at hormone levels, it does not examine how different symptoms of menstruation, including fatigue and cramping, might also influence women’s performance, notes Annika Johnson, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at George Fox University in Portland. Johnson, who is working on a dissertation on dysmenorrhea (painful, recurring menstrual cramps) and how the condition affects young American women, is excited to see more research regarding menstruation.
However, Johnson says this particular study has a long way to go. The research uses far too small of a sample size and doesn’t sufficiently consider extenuating circumstances and symptoms to be able to apply the findings to all women, she argues.
“The study is looking at a really small set of cognitive functions,” Johnson said. “The study didn’t account for pain, and a decent amount of women experience endometriosis. Pain can cause insomnia or impair sleep, and in turn, this will affect cognitive function.”
Pain can cause insomnia or impair sleep, and in turn, this will affect cognitive functioning. Annika Johnson, doctoral student in clinical psychology at George Fox University
Johnson believes that future studies would benefit from looking at more than two consecutive menstrual cycles and including women who experience different symptoms during their periods.
The idea of accounting for more cycles in future studies is a process that Menke also supports, noting that a woman’s period can vary throughout the seasons and from cycle to cycle.
Both Menke and Johnson agree that, regardless of the study’s findings, it’s important not to dismiss the multitude of symptoms, feelings and experiences that women can encounter during their periods.
“All research is helpful, and it’s important to have these types of conversations about periods, but we still have so far to go,” Johnson said.