Use your monthly cycle to help learn something new

My Hormonology

Use your monthly cycle to help learn something new


I love learning new things. For me, it makes life more interesting. So, I’m continually finding something else to master. Okay, maybe not master. But, at least get the hang of. It’s why I learned how to code HTML, translate Russian poetry to English and saw my way through some basic cello.

My latest venture is learning to play the drums. (See video above.)

As I’ve been banging away on my drum kit, I’ve been paying attention to where I am in my monthly cycle. That’s because the rise and fall of three key reproductive hormones–estrogen, testosterone and progesterone–in a menstrual cycle impacts a wide variety of factors that affect how quickly you learn something new, how well you remember what you’ve learned, mental and physical speed, dexterity, coordination and, probably most important, confidence in yourself.

This means that if you know how your hormones impact you in all these ways, you can use these effects to your advantage to learn more easily and enjoy the learning process more.

Since you’re likely to be learning something new now or will be at some point in the future, I’m giving you this Hormonology Guide to Learning Something New.

This guide shows you what you can expect as you learn, study and practice during your monthly cycle–plus, how to make the most of your hormonal benefits and overcome hormonal challenges, so you’ll be more successful at learning whatever it is you want to know.

Read on to find out how your hormones impact you each week of your cycle as you learn something new….

Week 1
Day 1 (first day of period) through Day 7
Estrogen starts out at its lowest point and rises throughout

At the start of your Week 1 (when your period starts), you may feel a bit tired or slow due to a fatiguing combination of low estrogen and iron loss due to menstruation (you shed this energizing mineral as you bleed). This could make you dread having to somehow summon the energy to grasp new concepts or movements for whatever it is you’re learning or you may put off studying or practicing what you’ve already picked up.

However, as your Week 1 goes on, your estrogen rises and your period peters out–and together this helps lift your mental and physical energy. For some women, this energy boost kicks in early–just one or two days after menstruation. Others may find that it takes a bit longer. But, for all women, if you eat an iron-rich diet (which includes beans, tofu, fortified cereal, lean beef and chicken) all cycle long, you’ll likely find that your energy level doesn’t dip quite as much and rebounds more quickly during these early menstruation days. (Avoid iron if you have an iron-metabolizing disorder, such as hemochromatosis.)

No matter which cycle day your energy gets lift-off, once it does, you’ll enjoy learning something new a lot more: A hormone-fueled improvement in memory and mental agility helps you understand new ideas more easily, an increase in self-confidence and a desire to be challenged pushes you to ask more questions and experiment, and you’ll look forward to lessons, studying and practicing to fill your hunger to master a new skill.

You tend to be more patient with yourself on these cycle days, understanding that it takes time and practice to get to the level you want to reach–but, you have few doubts you’ll get there.

Overcome hormonal challenges: To get past the fatigue that can slow you down at the start of your Week 1 so you can hit the ground running, consider drinking orange juice with pulp, blueberry juice or dark cocoa since all contain compounds that increase energizing oxygen to the brain, get plenty of sleep the night before (save your binge-watching for a higher-hormoned cycle week) and take regular breaks (say, for five minutes every half-hour or hour) to walk around since this helps reverse stagnation that can worsen tiredness.

Week 2
Day 8 through ovulation (which is Day 14 in a 28-day cycle, sooner in shorter cycles, later in longer cycles)
Estrogen rises till it hits its peak; testosterone rises at the end of this week and peaks

This is arguably the best week of your monthly cycle to learn something new. Thanks to high-and-rising estrogen as well as a turbo-shot of testosterone at the end of this week, you’re absorbing information more easily and your memory is the sharpest it will be all cycle long. As a result, it’s easier to retrieve past information you’ve learned and build upon it with new information.

You’re also brainstorming more easily and are more creative, so you may think of imaginative ways to study the topic you’re learning or add to it.

You have more mental agility as well as physical speed, coordination and accuracy. This means you’ll excel at both intellectual and physical lessons and tasks.

High levels of hormones give you more energy and stamina than you’ll have in other cycle weeks, and you may capitalize on this by taking more lessons or practicing far longer–and even forgoing eating and sleeping to clock more study time.

On top of all this, your confidence is soaring and you’re optimistic about your abilities. Sure, you know you’re not perfect–yet–but one day you’re going to be so amazing, you’ll be asked to replace your teacher. And, you’re likely already getting your speech ready for the awards you’ll be receiving for being the best of whatever it is you’re currently learning because surely no one has seen innate talent like yours before.

Your high hormones make you enjoy a challenge, rev your ambition and boost your mood–all of which makes you enjoy learning something new more now than at any other time in your cycle.

Overcome hormonal challenges: Because you’ve got so much extra mental and physical speed as well as sky-high self-confidence, you could be tempted to zip through your lessons, which can lead to skipping important steps, missing key instructions or assuming you’ve understood what you’re supposed to be learning even if you haven’t gotten it all down pat. So, try to slow down, pay closer attention to details and ensure you’re getting all the information you need.

Also to be aware of: High estrogen in your Week 2 can amp up stress and anxiety by triggering greater arousal in the brain. This means that despite your high confidence, if you typically get anxiety while taking tests or performing in front of others, you may find these are even more difficult to do during your Week 2. If you can, put off tests or performances till your Week 3 when estrogen is lower and sedating progesterone rises, mellowing you out. But, if you can’t reschedule, then try sipping chamomile tea, which has mildly sedating natural compounds and/or breathing deeply and slowly, which calms your body’s anxiety-provoking fight-or-flight response.

Week 3
Starts the day after ovulation and lasts 8 days (which is Day 15 to Day 22 in a 28-day cycle)
Estrogen and testosterone plunge during the first half; estrogen rises again for the second half; progesterone rises throughout

Compared to Week 2 of your cycle, you’ll likely notice that your mental and physical speed slow down considerably, your memory isn’t as sharp as it was and your desire–and ability–to study and practice for hours on end without sleeping or eating disappear. Why the drastic changes? Point a guilty finger to a steep drop in estrogen, which saps your energy, and a steady rise in progesterone, a sedating hormone that tires you out.

This sudden slowdown may have you questioning your ability to master new material or skills, but, truth is, these hormonal changes don’t mean you’ve suddenly lost 100 IQ points and won’t be able to learn just as much as you did during your Week 2. It just means you won’t have the hormonal winds at your back making learning automatically easier. You’ve got to put in a bit more effort to get the results you want.

However, all that said, there is one hormonal change that actually makes one aspect of learning easier during your Week 3: You get better at concentrating on details and finer points of what you’re learning. That’s a result of the combo of lower estrogen and rising progesterone–which calms your brain, so it takes less effort to focus on information that was too dull to dwell on during your mentally antsier Week 2.

Overcome hormonal challenges: Rising progesterone is likely going to make you want to call it an early night due to its tiring effects, so plan your studying and practicing accordingly: While you may have found it easy to stay awake poring over notes or practicing till dawn in your Week 2, you’ll want to fit in any required studying a lot earlier in the day in your Week 3.

Also key: Eat regularly! You may have been able to skip a meal (or two or three) without noticing during your Week 2, however, rising progesterone can make you more sensitive to drops in blood sugar between meals. This means if you go too long without eating, you can experience sudden extreme fatigue or mood changes that make it difficult to learn new material or stick to your studying schedule.

Week 4
Final 6 days of your cycle
Estrogen and progesterone descend throughout

There’s no denying that you’re still the smart, capable, talented woman you were in your Week 2–however, it’s going to take some convincing (maybe a whole lot of convincing) to help you remember that. The reason? Plunging estrogen. As the level of this hormone drops, it drags down levels of mood-moderating brain chemicals, which can seriously ding your self-confidence and patience. Every flub feels more exaggerated, making you think you’ll never learn whatever it is you’re studying.

It doesn’t help that it can sometimes feel like your brain is on the absent-minded professor end of its scale during this cycle phase.

For example, as estrogen falls, you’ll likely notice that it takes a bit more effort to concentrate, so you may end up reading the same line three or more times before you finally register what it’s saying. To perk up mental alertness as you study, chew gum. Research conducted on students shows that this simple step improves concentration by boosting brain energy. That’s because the movement of your jaw muscles as you chew activates certain pep-revving areas of the brain. Opt for a mint-flavored gum and some research suggests the zingy scent will help you focus even more.

Your memory can also take a slight hit as this hormone level descends. However, you can overcome this by keeping more detailed notes and reading what you’re learning out loud, which a University of Waterloo study shows helps you remember it more easily.

Remember that amazing physical speed, dexterity and coordination you enjoyed in your Week 2? Time to put on protective padding for your Week 4! A plunge in estrogen not only slows reaction speed, it makes you a tad less agile, which can lead to bumps, misses and general clumsiness. But you can get past this hormonal hurdle by focusing more on where your hands, feet and other body parts are supposed to be rather than just assuming they’ll go there automatically.

The good news? Progesterone is falling throughout this week–and with less and less of this fatiguing hormone to drag you down, you may feel like you have a bit more mental and physical pep compared to when you were in your Week 3. As a result, you’ll have more energy to put into studying, practicing and learning.

Overcome hormonal challenges: Your biggest challenge is likely trying to be more patient and understanding with yourself when you’re trying to master a new skill. When you’re having trouble getting something on the first attempt, try to avoid talking negatively to yourself (such as, “I’m such an idiot”) and instead pretend you’re actually talking to a much-loved family member or friend. A little self-cheerleading can help keep your mood from falling, which is important for avoiding that horrible downward spiral of I’ll-never-get-this-so-I-should-just-give-up.

If you’re feeling especially frustrated with yourself, instead of trying to learn a new aspect of the subject or activity you’re tackling, consider practicing skills you learned previously and honing those. This will help remind you that you actually are smart, capable and talented while also giving you the opportunity to improve upon what you’ve already learned.

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