What's really going on with women's hormones?
- Published: 16 January 2010
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Many women often feel their hormones are ruining and running their lives. They blame them for their mood swings, their inability to control their appetites, their recurrence of thrush or cystitis every month, and their chronic depression and despondency. But few women really understand why their hormones have so much power over the way they feel and think, writes Linda Crockett.
The menstrual cycle is a pattern that women’s lives revolve around, changing their physical body, their emotional capacity and the way they experience the world around them. These changes occur through the weekly fluctuations of hormones and brain neurotransmitters of the menstrual cycle. For most women this innate rhythm remains in the background of their consciousness and only becomes significant when it is associated with negative symptoms such as premenstrual syndrome, period pains, heavy bleeding or menopausal sweats. But through the menstrual cycle women’s chemistry changes so comprehensively on a weekly basis that it can affect not only the health of their bodies, but also their relationships and tolerance to those around them, the clothes they choose to wear each day, what they see when they look in the mirror each morning, the amount of energy they have for life, and the power and might of their will to live.
This compelling nature of women’s hormones has to do with their underlying function of reproduction, a process that really is about survival of the species. With such an important task at hand it shouldn’t surprise women that the changes made by their hormones during the menstrual cycle for the endeavour of reproduction, will also bring with it wide-ranging affects on their general health and wellbeing.
On a physical level, the ultimate goal of the menstrual cycles is the development of an ovarian follicle into egg and its potential to be fertilised by a sperm at ovulation. Occurring simultaneous are changes to the womb lining to enable conception and implantation. When conception does not occur, menstruation occurs and the cycle occurs all over again. With all energy and activity geared for reproduction not only does the womb lining prepare itself for conception, but so too does the immune system, lowering itself to welcome and accept the potential foreign sperm and its alien DNA, all of which could activate the immune system of women to reject this foreign material if it remained highly active. So after ovulation a women’s immune system lowers naturally, increasing the risk of any low lying chronic infections such as thrush and cystitis to emerge and develop each month, while increasing their susceptibility to illness.
At the same time, and with the same expectation of conception comes another functional change during the second half of the menstrual cycle which has to do with blood sugar regulation. In preparation for possible conception, a women’s blood sugar naturally lowers after ovulation to encourage an increase in food intake and fat storage, an essential evolutionary response to enable a healthy pregnancy. But in some women who tend towards hypoglycaemia, this shift in blood sugar can cause them a ravenous appetite and a continuous battle with weight.
On an emotional level hormones are influential to women’s wellbeing because as they fluctuate through the menstrual cycle they also alter the brain chemistry of the central nervous system affecting moods and emotions. When estrogen begins to rise after menstruation as a follicle begins to grow, it also triggers the rise of the feel good neurotransmitters, serotonin, dopamine and noradrenalin, all part of the hopefulness involved in a new life force that is being created. Through this women can become highly stimulated by the world around them, drawing their attention away from their own personal problems and encouraging optimism about their own lives and those around them. This is a time when women more easily cope with their lives and enjoy their interactions with others.
Just before ovulation these same feel good neurotransmitters reach a peak, at which time women can experience a profound sense of wellbeing that can only be described as a joyful exuberance of life. It is the kind of feeling that evolved to help women feel positive and willing enough to want to open themselves up for mating. Unfortunately this wonderful feeling only lasts about 72 hours, as long as their fertile period.
As ovulation ends, progesterone now begins to dominate the menstrual cycle instead of estrogen, bringing a lowering of these feel good neurotransmitters as it reduces the workings of the central nervous system. Women now become less stimulated by the external world, their energy becomes less vibrant and their focus becomes inwardly directed. With this decent inwards they begin to feel the pull of their inner life without the distractions of the external world. Old memories and hurts resurface more easily and obsession, fixation and paranoia may weigh down women at this time. They can begin to feel more disenchanted and pessimistic about their lives and less tolerant to all that goes on around them. On a biological level this inward retreat and focus has its benefits improving the possibility of implantation and conception with its heightened awareness and forced slowness, drawing women’s attention more completely on their internal world and the potential life force they may carry within.
As women then begin to bleed, their hormones and neurotransmitters fall to low levels bringing their central nervous system and awareness to what can be called a quiet indifference. They can almost feel disconnected from the world around them as their bodies and mind slow and their stimulation of the external world diminishes leaving their inner awareness to dominate their world. It can be a time of profound insight, inspiration and creativity if women would only allow themselves to follow it, but most plod on instead, frustratingly. On a biological level, this almost trance-like menstrual state provides a rest to women on many levels before they begin the whole cycle of growth and development all over again.
There is no time like now for women to be aware of these understandings so that they can appreciate just how influential their hormones are to their lives. So much of the information women get about hormones today comes not from their own intuition and collective understandings, but from a marketing strategy to sell synthetic hormones as a cure-all for all women’s hormonal conditions. As hormones become more medicalised, women become more distant from their bodies and the wisdom it holds. It may surprise and reassure women to know that behind all the negativity surrounding hormones today there is an evolutionary intelligence and a intuitive wisdom still driving their menstrual cycle and their lives, whether they realise it or not.
Linda Crockett is a Medical Herbalist, Nutritionist and Healer with a special interest in women’s hormonal health working in the UK. Her book, Healing Our Hormones, Healing Our Lives is an accumulation of her personal and professional experience working with women and hormones over 15 years in both American and England. She holds a 4-year degree in Nutrition from City University of New York, a 4-year diploma from the School of Phytotherapy UK, and is a member of the Institute of Medical Herbalist and the National Federation of Spiritual Healers. Besides running her own private practice she runs workshops and teaches. Click here to find out more about Linda.