My Hormonology

When you hear the word “premenstrual”, do you instantly think of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)–and the many physical and psychological woes associated with it, such as irritability, anxiety, sadness, breast tenderness and aches?

I wouldn’t blame you if you did. After all, whenever you hear the word “premenstrual” on TV and radio, in books, newspapers, blogs and movies and during conversations, it’s usually said right before or immediately after describing the mood or behavior of a woman that someone perceives as negative.

But, today I’d like to remind you that there’s more to the six days that make up your premenstrual week than just PMS.

The myth of PMS

PMS typically takes center stage when discussing the premenstrual week since most folks assume every woman gets it every single month. But, that’s not true.

While many women experience PMS, not every woman does.

What’s more, for many women who do get PMS, their symptoms can vary in intensity from cycle to cycle–with it being a mild, moderate or severe experience. Or they may have some issues one cycle, then none the next. This could be due to changes in stress, diet, exercise and other lifestyle habits.

And, finally, unless you have a very severe form of PMS–called premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which includes debilitating depression, anxiety and/or pain–then in all likelihood your PMS symptoms aren’t a constant presence in your pre-period week. They just pop up here and there like a less fun version of Wac-a-Mole.

What is your premenstrual week really like?

So, when not experiencing PMS symptoms, what’s going on with you during your premenstrual week? Lots!

Here’s what you can expect during the six days in your cycle leading up to your next period:

More energy: Yes, you read that right. You might actually have more energy in your premenstrual week compared to what you experienced in the preceding cycle week–Week 3 (the 8 days following ovulation). That’s because your body’s level of progesterone is going down–and that’s key since this hormone has a sedating, tiring effect. So, the lower its level goes, the less fatigued you feel. In fact, one study found that there are two times when you’re most active in your monthly cycle–and one of them is during your premenstrual week! So, you might find you’re doing more errands, projects, tasks or hobbies on these cycle days.

Increased caution: A drop in estrogen can sap your confidence and optimism by dragging down levels of certain brain chemicals. As a result, you might become shy in social situations, avoid taking financial, career or other risks, stick to what you know rather than try something new and be more cautious in other ways.

Lower patience: Irritability you display in your premenstrual week is often chalked up to PMS, however, it can also be simply because your threshold for putting up with valid annoyances gets lower, so you get ticked off faster. That’s a result of lower estrogen, which triggers a reduction in mood-moderating brain chemicals that manage how patient you are. If you were irritated out the blue for no good reason or you blew your stack in a way that was totally inappropriate for the circumstances, then that would be a PMS symptom. But, simply being more apt to get annoyed when, say, a salesperson blatantly overcharges you or a restaurant reservation you made weeks ago was given to someone else and no other table is available, is normal.

In fact, I’d even go so far to say that being less patient premenstrually can be a good thing. That’s because during other phases of your cycle–especially Week 2, the days leading up to and including ovulation–you can be a bit too patient, allowing folks to take advantage of you (for instance, a roommate who’s always late on her rent or a co-worker who isn’t doing his share). By having less patience, you might finally muster the courage to create boundaries or make changes that fix problems you’ve been putting up with for too long.

Artistic potential: While research shows that creativity peaks in your Week 2 (the week leading up to and including ovulation) as high estrogen revs brain speed, you have potential to create powerful art in your premenstrual week. That’s because a drop in estrogen puts you more in touch with your emotions, helping you channel your deepest-felt thoughts and sentiments into music, poetry, painting and other artistic mediums.

Better dodging of danger: Studies show you’re better at spotting incoming danger, like a bike coming at you on the sidewalk or car veering into your lane, in your premenstrual week. Researchers believe it’s because dipping estrogen makes you more nervous about your safety, so you’re on higher alert.

Greater fat burn: You’re burning up to 30% more fat during aerobic workouts (such as brisk walking, jogging and biking) during the first four days of your premenstrual week. This is because, though dwindling, your progesterone level is still high enough to help your body become more effecient at using fuel during exercise.

Revved libido: The closer you get to your period, the higher your sex drive climbs. Research shows this is a side effect of nerve endings getting stimulated down below as your body prepares for menstruation.

What do you think–have you noticed other changes that occur in yourself premenstrually that aren’t related to PMS?

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