Can't sleep? Having memory lapses? Your hormones may be to blame. They can wreak havoc on how you feel, think and function at different times in your menstrual cycle. Luckily, these changes are predictable. “By anticipating your hormonal ebbs and flows, you can head off ailments such as cramps and headaches,” says Scott Isaacs, M.D., an endocrinologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and author of Hormonal Balance (Bull Publishing, 2002).
Experts explain how to make the most of these fluctuations so you'll have more energy, brainpower and self-confidence all month long.
During Your Period (days 1-7)
What's happening with:
The first day of your period is the start of your monthly cycle. Estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest levels. In addition, prostaglandins, hormone-like substances that cause uterine contractions, are triggering cramps and fatigue. Your immunity may be lowered, since autoimmune-related conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and eczema seem to flare up at this point, says Luis J. Rodriguez, M.D., a clinical associate professor of endocrinology at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston. You may also be more susceptible to motion sickness due to bloating, which can cause fluid buildup in the middle ear. British researchers found that women were most likely to suffer from motion sickness just before and during their period.
Take action: "Get plenty of rest, reduce stress, and stick to a healthy diet," advises Dr. Rodriguez. Try eating foods rich in vitamin C (citrus fruits, broccoli, tomatoes) and zinc (oysters, red meat, wheat germ). Studies have shown these nutrients may boost immunity. To prevent cramps, start taking ibuprofen or naproxen a day or two before your period to inhibit the production of prostaglandins. If you‘re prone to motion sickness, try to put off long car trips, flights or cruises; if necessary, take Dramamine, which minimizes the effects of motion on the body, or ginger, which calms stomach nerves.
Studies show that low estrogen levels may be causing bouts of forgetfulness or brain fog.
Be diligent about keeping a to-do list and setting reminders in your daily planner. Creating word associations or mental pictures of things you don't want to forget may also help. To recall the address 1225 Turner Street, for instance, you might say to yourself, "I turned my life around on Christmas (12/25)." Eat breakfast-skipping it has been linked to a decrease in cognitive performance-and include egg yolks or oatmeal. They're both excellent sources of choline, a B vitamin that helps maintain memory.
"For most women, libido drops around menstruation," says Dr. Rodriguez. That's because estrogen increases female sex drive, and levels are low at this time.
Post-Period (days 8-14)
What's happening with:
Your Body: Your energy is at its monthly high, thanks to rising levels of estrogen and low levels of progesterone (a hormone that has a calming effect). Your athletic ability may also be at its peak. Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found that aerobic capacity is greatest during the first half of the cycle. You're also looking your slimmest: Premenstrual water weight is gone. Take action: Put your athletic advantage to use by taking on a physical challenge like mountain biking or trying that Beyond Boot Camp class. You're also most likely to conceive during the second half of the week, so if you want to get pregnant, this is a good time to start trying (your fertility window continues until day 15).
Memory, concentration, articulation and verbal fluency improve when estrogen is elevated, according to a recent report in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. In one study, young women scored best in a test requiring them to recall a series of numbers and letters when their estrogen levels were high.
Take action: Tackle difficult projects at work. If you have to give a presentation or speech, try to schedule it during this week.
Research shows that women are less likely to experience depression or withdrawal symptoms at this point in the cycle. That's because as estrogen rises, your mood and outlook become more positive.
Take action: If you rely on an unhealthy or self-destructive habit like smoking or nail biting to relieve stress, try dropping it during this week.
Mid-Cycle (days 15-20)
What's happening with:
Some research suggests that women burn more calories during this week. "This may be due to the elevated body temperature associated with ovulation," says Michelle P. Warren, M.D., a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. You may have minor cramps and/or spotting for one or two days when the egg ruptures out of its shell, says Neil Goodman, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist at the University of Miami School of Medicine in Florida and chair of the reproductive medicine committee for the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.
Take action: If you're trying to lose weight, make the most of this time by eating less and exercising more. Be sure to stretch and incorporate exercises that strengthen major muscle groups and make joints less prone to injury, such as squats, lunges and leg extensions. Studies show that serious knee injuries are more likely to occur now, since high estrogen levels can make joints loose.
Assertiveness, competitiveness and ambition are strong, courtesy of high amounts of testosterone. This male hormone, always present in your blood at low levels, surges slightly right after ovulation.
As testosterone drops and progesterone levels start to climb (peaking around day 21), you should start to feel more serene.
Take action: Devote some time to yourself. Take solitary walks in the woods, write in your journal, or enroll in a meditation class.
Pre-Period (days 21-28)
What's happening with:
Progesterone and estrogen levels plummet right before menstruation, triggering physical changes and a myriad of maladies including headaches, insomnia, fluid retention and acne flare-ups. Your tresses, on the other hand, are radiant. The initially high progesterone levels stimulate the sebaceous glands to produce more oil, promoting shiny hair, says Audrey Kunin, M.D., a dermatologist in Kansas City and founder of Dermadoctor.com. An alert for asthma sufferers: One study found that women are more likely to experience serious asthma attacks right before their periods due to low progesterone, which plays a role in enabling bronchial muscles to relax and combatting cell inflammation.
Take action: Cut back on caffeine, since it disrupts sleep and aggravates PMS symptoms, and go to bed at the same time every night (this will help ward off insomnia). To help banish bloating, avoid carbonated drinks and salty foods. For clearer skin, cleanse your face with a gentle exfoliating wash to get rid of bacteria and open up pores, recommends Dr. Kunin. If you have severe headaches, ask your doctor about wearing an estrogen patch for a few days before your period: It’s been shown to ease them. Asthma sufferers should wash bed linens to get rid of triggers like dust mites and pet dander.
Your concentration may be poor and your attention span short due to hormone swings. Some studies have found that women with PMS have trouble learning new material or completing mental tasks.
Take action: Hit the gym or take a brisk walk around the block. Research shows that exercise improves concentration, creativity and cognitive skills by pumping more oxygenated blood to the brain. Eat foods rich in vitamin B6: It plays a crucial role in mental functioning, from neurotransmitters to brain-cell activity. Good sources of the vitamin include bananas, baked potatoes and salmon.
The hormonal roller coaster may also bring on irritability, weepiness and mood swings. Plus, the brain chemical serotonin is in short supply, making you crave sweets and starches.
Take action: To curb your urge for sugary or high-calorie foods, increase your intake of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Eat small, frequent meals to keep blood-sugar levels even; this will ward off overeating. If you still crave chocolate, make it dark: It has the most concentrated forms of chemicals that have been shown to boost mood, says Dr. Isaacs. Those feel-good hormones will be on the upswing again soon, as you start the cycle all over again.