I’ll admit it: My brain doesn’t work as well when I have my period, especially during the first two days. In fact, I’m writing this through a hormone-induced brain fog right now, and it took me several times as long as it should have to remember the phrase “brain fog.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to expect this monthly slump. When I can, I even plan around it, say, I’ll leave myself a little extra time in my schedule because jobs that usually take an hour might take two. So I was a little surprised to see a new study published last week, claiming that there is, in fact, no link between menstruation and lowered cognitive function.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, examined 88 women (to note, a pretty small sample group) with no health issues that would impact their hormone levels over the course of two menstrual cycles. Researchers measured the subjects’ hormone levels against tests of their cognitive functions and concluded: “There is no consistent association between women’s hormone levels, in particular estrogen and progesterone, and attention, working memory and cognitive bias.”
These findings gave me pause. On the one hand, the study can be interpreted as a triumph for women, after years of facing harmful stereotypes about being weaker because of their periods, or unable to do complicated jobs because their hormones might get in the way.
But there’s another side to this argument. Some of us—including me—have lived experiences where our cycles have affected our lives. Are we telling these women that challenges they’re facing are all in their heads, so they should just get over it? It’s been shown that women’s pain is often taken less seriously my medical professionals because it’s assumed that they’re exaggerating, or overly sensitive. Are attempts to prove that menstruation doesn’t mess with your brain function, even when women claim that it does, part of that same pattern of erasure?
I asked a few other women in a Facebook networking group I belong to the same question. Some did feel that this is a victory for women who’ve been written off in the past. “I think the world needs one less reason to dismiss the intelligence of women,” Sheila Regan, 39, a writer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, told me. She also was quick to point out that this study is one of many. (And directed me to a fewmore).
But many others shared my surprise to see something we’ve felt sure is happening supposedly disproven. “I definitely feel like I get spacey when I’m at the start of my period—I just seem to lose focus. It feels a little bit like the fog I remember from the first trimester of my pregnancy,” Emily Popek, 39, a communications specialist in Oneonta, New York told me. Another agreed: “I have PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and find that I have a bit of brain fog amongst my other symptoms. I’m not sure if the brain fog is because I’m more mentally and emotionally stretched thin—obviously I’m going to have fewer inner resources when I’m trying to manage some pretty severe PMDD symptoms, like the suicidal ideation that used to come out of nowhere. But it’s quite possible the brain fog is a symptom in and of itself,” said Meghan O’Dea, 30, a news blogger in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Some women told me they experience this mental fuzziness with every menstrual cycle. “Since I was 13 or so, I’ve referred to the bulk of my period as making me feel zombie-like. I zone out and can’t quite find my footing and disconnect emotionally from pretty much everyone and everything,” Rachel Lewis, 24, a social media specialist in North Carolina said. Others told me it only was obvious in certain circumstances: “It feels harder to make decisions when I’m on my period. I keep going back and forth in my head about stuff, whether it’s what to have for lunch or whether or not to text someone about something that’s bothering me,” Anna Albaryan, 25, a freelance writer in Los Angeles, told me. Either way, this is a lot of women who are experiencing something very real.