The Science Behind PMS (And Why You’re Not Just “Cr*zy”)

CW: Mental Health Slurs

A woman asserts herself and fights for her rights. “Bro, she must be on her period,” the misogynists laugh. “No, man, she’s just PMSing!”

For decades now, women have been called mental health slurs for being too assertive or commanding, while men have been praised for the same behaviour. Words like “cr*zy,” “ins*ne,” or “bitch” are used to derail their valid emotions and ideas, reducing styles of expression to moments of mania or lunacy. This is usually followed by what is probably the world’s most antiquated statement – “She must be on her period or PMSing.” Known as period shaming, this cultural phenomenon has deeply affected the way society views women, their perceived purity, and their ability to behave as logical decision-makers. But where does this misconception come from? Are menstruators actually more likely to make unreasonable decisions while experiencing PMS or during their periods? We did the research so we can take a look at why this misunderstanding exists.

But first, let’s define it. PMS stands for Premenstrual Syndrome and is the term attributed to the physical and psychological symptoms that occur seven to fourteen days prior to a menstruator’s period. During this time, menstruators who have a higher sensitivity to hormones are unable to effectively manage the big changes that take place in their bodies. These big changes include the impact on two important chemicals in our bodies: Serotonin and GABA, both important mood regulators that are affected by levels of progesterone and estrogen. A week before a period arrives, progesterone levels increase and estrogen levels decrease. This inhibits serotonin production, leading to PMS symptoms such as depression, anxiety, food cravings, and fatigue. Meanwhile, the reduced amount of progesterone also reduces the effectiveness of GABA, which is supposed to act as a “chill pill” for neurons that cause stress and anxiety. This all makes for a cocktail of unregulated emotions and mood swings.

So that’s the science. However, during the premenstrual phase when estrogen levels are low and progesterone levels are high, the chemical makeup of a menstruator’s body is most similar, even almost identical in some cases, to a male body’s. So this begs the question, why is it during this time that women are considered less reliable? For this, we must survey the many long standing myths about periods and PMS.

This biology-based form of sexism has been traced back millennia, all the way to Ancient Greece, when doctors believed that a woman who had a “disorderly uterus” would experience female hysteria. Symptoms included many of what we consider to be modern day PMS, like heaviness in the abdomen, loss of appetite for food or sex, and nervousness. Then came Dr. Robert T. Frank and his paper “The Hormonal Causes of Premenstrual Tension” in 1931. In his study, Dr. Frank believed that menstruators would feel relief after exhibiting absurd and illogical behaviors which would obviously have to be considered when hiring women for jobs. Well, he sounds like a real charmer.  

Though contemporary research largely dismissed Dr. Frank’s blatantly biased work, misconceptions regarding PMS didn’t change much and were used as a tool to silence women and limit their potential, as discovered by numerous feminist scholars. In fact, if we were to pore over all the considerable number of papers published regarding PMS, we’d be likely to find analyses that are inconclusive and based on unscientific research methods or unreliable, invalid data.

When you look at the history of PMS and its research, it’s evident that it was predominantly founded on sexist attitudes and conducted by men with agendas of subjugation. Doctors and scientists, armed with the ability to bend the rules of research, have used faulty methods of analysis to convince generations of people that PMS is one of the reasons why women can’t be trusted to make important decisions. After all, how can one argue with the “facts” of biology? This ideology, combined with the rampant miseducation about menstruation, causes menstruators to miss out on imperative opportunities in their lives and can even be considered a systemic and institutional form of gaslighting. And let’s not forget just how frustrating the dude-bro microaggressions can be.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t discount the very real symptoms that menstruators currently experience; pain, whether physical or emotional, is not something that they should have to tolerate as part and parcel of their existences. PMS, and its more critical counterpart Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, can and should be managed, but disregarding women and their opinions because of a natural and controllable process can never be condoned. We hope this helps you arm yourself with the facts and fight those archaic myths.

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