‘being hormonal’ is not a thing


If you’re here you are either independently interested or had a throwing card chucked at you. If you have, I should admonish you for suggesting someone was being hormonal. But frankly, I’m kind of impressed that you came to check whether your convictions have any ground, so well done you!

I want you to know that even though we have a lot of anecdotal data about people turning into monsters at particular times of their menstrual cycles, adolescence or pregnancy, there is no known biological mechanism for how hormones should affect someone’s ability to be reasonable or nice.

It might well be the case that people go a bit weird when their hormone levels rise, but we don’t have good scientific behavioral evidence or any idea how that would work biologically.

If you’re happy to take my word for it, great! I am a neurobiologist and pretty trustworthy, you can go have an ice cream and enjoy your day. If not, I have outlined how I’ve come to my conclusions and how you can check your convictions next time so you don’t get stuff thrown at you.

Here we go

The pubmed search

If you want to know whether concept or a thought about physiology has any basis in science, your first port of call is either pubmed  or sciencedirect or if you must scopus.  They are the google of science. Yes I am aware that google scholar exists, but too often I have found complete non-science and nonsense when I’ve simply googled. Besides, this is what the real scientists use.

So you type in your keywords. The annoying thing is that you do have to use the scientific terms here. So I’ll allow a quick trip to Wikipedia to come up with the proper terms. If that fails, sometimes just googling your question plus ‘scientific terms’ may help. Mind you, even if you find a website that says your thing totally exists, if they don’t reference a proper scientific paper that you can then find on pubmed. It. Doesn’t. Count.

Ok, so in a bout of integrity, I am actually doing the thing I told you to do. I’m using the terms ‘mood’ and ‘cognition’ and ‘sex hormones’ to find out if anyone in the scientific community knows how a menstrual cycle can make someone grumpier or less reasonable.

pubmed results moodNow our first clue is that there is no paper on the first page of results that even has those words in the title. Now pubmed generally gives you most recent and relevant results but will tell you if there is a paper that has all the words you asked for in the title, even if it is really old. The fact that we have neither is telling. The most feasible option is number 6, which is a study in psychotic patients and finds effects only of male hormones; female hormones don’t even do anything in psychotic patients!

When you’re browsing these articles, it’s generally good to look for reviews. Reviews cover a whole lot of publications on a subject and summarize them. It is really important though, that when you find a review which mentions your thing, to always check the experimental work! So if you find a publication stating: “st. Claus et al (1980) found sex hormones affect cognition” make sure you check the paper mr. Claus et al published in 1980. Papers get misquoted all the time!

Back to our quest!

Read a review

So I had a bit of a rummage around and found this awesome review by dr. Pletzer

article cognition pletzerThe article is an extensive review of male and female cognition. Nowhere in the entire is article there an experimental study that shows how sex hormones affect cognition. In the end, the author can only conclude that it would be interesting to look at whether sex hormones can influence cognition and how they would do it.

This tells us a couple of things. One; this article was published, so other scientists have read it and thought it wasn’t nonsense. Two; it was published in frontiers of neuroscience, which means it’s not established knowledge. Three, there is only mention of hypotheses, which means that if the author had found anything to support them, she would have mentioned it. And I think we can all agree that she’s looked.

Careful with conclusions

It is the bane of science and sensible people in general that we want to be nuanced. That gets in the way of clear cut conclusions and snazzy one-liners. I mean, ‘ice cream makes you smart!’ sounds a hell of a lot better than: ‘glucose, a major component of many foodstuffs including ice cream, is a important source of ATP, which provides energy for certain specific processes in neurons, which is only one type of brain cell’.

A good scientist, or indeed a truthful person, outlines what he or she doesn’t know as well as what they do know. So , yes, we have some anecdotal data (which means it happened to you, your mom, a friend’s friend) on crazy ladies, adolescents and bodybuilders. There may even be some studies saying that there are definitely some distinct differences in behavior between the genders and people of different ages. Then we still don’t know if it’s necessarily their gender or age that’s making them crazy. As long as we have not shown in a well-controlled experiment that the thing that we think is doing the thing actually has that effect on the thing we say it’s doing it to, we cannot present it as a fact.

This means no telling people they’re ‘being hormonal’.

And really, that’s a dick move even if you do have the evidence. Why not just say: ‘would you like some chocolate?’ That always gets a smile.

PS: If you can find proper scientific research debunking any of the above, please let me know and I will alter the content of this blog and if need be, my awesome throwing cards

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Gender, the forgotten frontier: hormones and brain metabolism