So far we have looked at the phases of the menstrual cycle and how we can track our cycle. In this post I am going to cover the hormones that are involved with the menstrual cycle and how they all work together to create a healthy happy period.
Hormones are responsible for almost every process that occurs within our bodies. Hormones are: 'chemical substances that act like messenger molecules in the body. After being made in one part of the body, they trace to other parts of the body where they help control how cells and organs do their work.' Not only are they related to our menstrual cycle but they relate to our appetite, sleep patterns, stress, digestion, our mood and many other things! Often hormones get a bad rap but if we treat them with respect and understanding we can learn to live in harmony with our bodies.
Let's look at our endocrine system, within this system there are major glands. These are the:
Together these glands produce more than 50 hormones that are sent to various parts of the body to carry out their designed functions. Often people don't think about their hormones until something is off kilter and we feel ill, fatigued or develop a condition that requires medical advice.
When it comes to our hormones the star players are cortisol and insulin, pregnenolone and DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, thyroid hormones and melatonin. Don't get overwhelmed. We'll break these down one by one to understand their roles!
There is a tier system to these hormones. Below is an image from Nicole Jardin (the period fixer) that clearly shows the hierarchy of these hormones.
Cortisol and Insulin
Nicole describes these as the life and death hormones. When we are in a dangerous situation cortisol will prompt glucose to be released into your body and insulin will move that glucose into your cells so that you can fight or run from the situation. Cortisol is your fight or flight hormone. The issue is that we are rarely in fight or flight situations but stress from work, traffic jams, annoyances and relationships have the same effect on the body. The trouble begins when we are in constantly high states of stress. These hormones play a role in all other hormones and their tasks such as the thyroid and ovaries. The body is clever, ovulation will be delayed if you spend a lot of time in a high stressed state as the body knows pregnancy is the last thing that you need. This is when irregular periods will arise, your sex drive withers, you start suffering with fatigue and you just start to feel downright miserable. Because of this, cortisol has gotten a bad reputation, when all it's doing is trying to protect you and tell you to take a step back. Insulin also plays a major role in how other hormones in your body behave. Insulin's main role is to regulate your blood sugar levels. When we eat, the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream so that the glucose can be turned into energy. Unfortunately we now consume too many foods that are high in carbohydrates. When we eat foods high in sugar the pancreas has to work overtime to get insulin into the bloodstream. Too much glucose can be toxic in our body and our bodies work hard to remove any excess. This causes a fast reduction in glucose and causes a blood sugar crash which can leave you feeling lethargic and hangry (oh I am a bitch when I get hangry). Did you also know that stress can raise your insulin levels? Stress raises your cortisol which in turn raises your blood sugar. As blood sugar rises, your insulin levels rise. High blood sugar is directly linked to PMS, PCOS, endometriosis, heavy periods, migraines, depression and anxiety - as you can see it can be very severe! If we improve our diet, we can stabilise our blood sugar.
Pregnenolone and DHEA
These hormones are both produced in the adrenal gland, as well as having their own role within the body they also give birth to a number of other downstream hormones
Pregnenolone - this hormone tends to be unknown by most, it is converted from cholesterol to produce other hormones such as cortisol and progesterone. It can help protect neurons from damage and helps enhance memory, motivation and mood. Benefits of pregnenolone also include quality sleep, reduced PMS, improved immunity. Natural levels of pregnenolone decrease as we age.
DHEA - this is a precursor to estrogen and testosterone but is still derived from pregnenolone. It is also known as the 'fountain of youth' as it has been shown to reduce inflammation, improve insulin and boost libido while reducing depression. DHEA levels hit their peak in our mid 20's (oh if only I knew all of this before 30 and hadn't spent so long on the birth control pill). We do not supplement with DHEA as it's an androgen (male hormones) and can increase acne, aggression and unwanted hair growth.
Estrogen, Progesterone, Testosterone, Thyroid Hormones and Melatonin
These hormones are all influenced by the hormones in tiers 1 & 2, when these hormones are imbalanced it shows itself in symptoms that we most recognise, such as poor sleep, irregularities in our periods and mood swings (oh hello hormone imbalance!) Estrogen is not actually a single hormone, it's actually a family of hormones that plays a huge role in the female sexual and reproductive health.
Estrone - This is the dominant estrogen in postmenopausal women
Estradiol - This is the prominent form of estrogen in females of reproductive age but that are not pregnant. It aids in the release of eggs from the ovaries
Estriol - This is the weakest of the three and is released in large amounts in the placenta during pregnancy.
Estrogen is the hormone that is responsible for the physical features in women, rising in young girls causing the onset of puberty. In adult women estrogen is responsible for what happens during your cycle causing ovulation and the growth of the uterine lining.
Progesterone is the other primary female ovarian sex hormone. Progesterone is most strongly linked to preparing the endometrium (the lining of the uterus) for the possibility of pregnancy. Progesterone is produced once an egg is released, the eggs follicle transforms into the corpus luteum which starts releasing progesterone. If you become pregnant then the progesterone will help support the embryo for three months. If there is no pregnancy then the corpus luteum breaks down into scar tissue. Progesterone also helps ease anxiety and promote sleep in the second half of your cycle. Estrogen and progesterone work in balance with each other, if one is higher than the other it can lead to PMS, sore beats and migraines.
Testosterone is typically only considered when it comes to males hormones however it's very important for women too. It helps us build muscle, keep skin supple and give us a lift in our mood, it helps to manage stress and it's a big player in our libido. Testosterone is what gives women the get up and go to achieve our goals and gives us a sense of power. Testosterone is produced in the ovaries and the adrenal glands, testosterone is highest just before ovulation which is why your sex drive tends to be higher around that phase in our cycle. This also increases our chance of becoming pregnant (the higher your sex drive, the more likely you are to be having regular sex around ovulation).
Thyroid hormones are released from the thyroid and are responsible for helping us feel energetic and upbeat; the two main hormones are triiodothyronine and thyroxine. The thyroid hormones are responsible for regulating the body's metabolism, heart function, digestion, muscle control, brain development, bone maintenance and your menstrual cycle. A lot of women do not associate the thyroid with the menstrual cycle, this really does show you how all the glands throughout your body are interconnected and intertwined.
Melatonin is produced predominantly in the gut and also by the pineal gland at night. This hormone regulates your cadian rhythm (your sleep/wake cycle), it helps you to fall asleep and stay asleep (something I struggle with). Your sleep/wake cycle is affected by light exposure, natural and artificial. That is why it's so important to limit the use of TV's and phones etc before bed. If we do not disconnect out melatonin levels so do not rise sufficiently making it harder to get to, and stay asleep. Low melatonin not only affects your sleep but it plays a role in ovulation, if we do not have sufficient levels of melatonin it can cause anovulation which in turn can cause infertility.
I know this is a lot to take in but I believe it's important to understand how your hormones all work together in order for your body to be safe and healthy. If we do not have a basic understanding of what hormones are involved, we cannot begin to address issues relating to our periods. In a bid to get the bottom of my personal issues I find this fascinating and helpful. I hope you do too! Please help women to better understand their bodies by sharing my posts with them. The more women are aware of their body's the better we can care for them.
Next week I will be looking at what our bodies are trying to tell us through our periods and symptoms. Make sure you subscribe so as to not miss any posts!