Last week, we lay the groundwork for everything in relation to your hormones and hormonal health. It was the kick off to an entire month of discussing all things hormones in order to understand ourselves better and more in depth. It is also my sincere wish for you that by understanding your hormonal needs and bringing them into alignment, you will feel your absolute and true best. In order to fully do that, there is a lot more ground we need to cover, which is why this week we are talking about understanding your female cycle.
Why Do We Have To Talk About The Female Cycle Specifically?
You may be thinking, why do we have to talk about the female cycle specifically? Is there a difference to male counterparts? We have to talk about it, because women are a lot more susceptible to hormonal changes. There are three major milestones in a woman’s life. (Sidenote: When I refer to the word woman in this context, I do not use this word in a gender context, but rather in a biological way of having two xx chromosomes). The first one is puberty, the second one is pregnancy, and the third one is menopause.
How Does It Differ From a Man’s Hormonal Cycle?
A man’s hormonal cycle is largely influenced by the rise and fall of testosterone throughout each single day. In the morning, testosterone is at its highest. Men are awake, talkative, competitive, communicative, and have a lot of energy to complete tasks. Testosterone slowly lowers of the course of the day, but by the afternoon is still high enough in order to be productive, focused, and complete work. Testosterone levels fall largely before going to bed, which allows for a restful sleep before they surge again in the morning.
Physical and Mental Effects of Hormones
I need to start this bit off with a rather unfortunate truth: We do not know an awful lot about women’s hormones just yet. Why? Because women have been chronically underrepresented in studies. In fact, most medical research ignores the female sex (ca. 80%). This is even the case in animal studies (!!). It is largely because hormones (surprise, surprise) make outcomes less predictable and may “mess up” your scientific results.
Next to these three significant biological milestones described above, women also have a lot more hormones that influence their day-to-day living. These hormones can differ – literally – from day to day, depending on where you are in your cycle. We will tackle how to adjust your cycle for hormonal health next week. This week is about understanding the basics.
Understanding Your Female Cycle
Whereas women may experience physical symptoms prior to their period (e.g. bloating, tender breasts, skin breaktouts, cramping, or fatigue) or during perimenopause (e.g. hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal dryness), there is also a good chance that they experience mental symptoms as well. Mood swings, depression, anxiety are all things that can also be influenced by hormones. Women are (depending on the study) on average twice more likely to suffer from depression than men.
From the very first bleed, our menstruation cycle defines (other than during pregnancy) hormonal changes throughout the month until we reach a post-menopause phase. Whereas this is fascinating, there is – till this current day – a lot that women do not know or understand their cycles. Let us dive a bit deeper into which hormones play an important role here.
The average menstrual cycle is 28 days long. Note please, that this is literally it, an average. A menstrual cycle can be anything between 21 and 40 days long. With your period, your monthly cycle starts. You bleed the first few days latest usually up until day 5 or 6.
Your menstrual cycle is split into two main phases: (1) The follicular phase, followed by (2) the luteal phase. Ovulation usually connects the two at about day 12 – 14. There are four hormones that largely influence this cycle:
- Follicle-stimulating hormone; and
- Luteinising hormone.
In the first part of your follicular phase, oestrogen and progesteron are at their lowest and the lining of your womb is being shed. This is your period. Oestrogen levels then tend to rise steadily until they peak before ovulation. The follicle-stimulating hormone also prepares and stimulates your eggs. The luteinising hormone triggers the ovulation. Afterwards, all three hormones tend to dip. In the luteal phase, your progesterone levels rise and oestrogen takes a step back (but is still high-ish). Progesteron prepares the lining of your womb for the nesting of an egg. If no egg nests, then both oestrogen and progesteron levels dip to their lowest and your period starts anew.
Peri-Menopause, Menopause, and Post-Menopause
Whereas as a society we speak a lot about puberty and our period, there is a lot less time dedicated to discussing the menopause. It still kind of feels like a “taboo” topic. To me, this feels slightly insane given that women spend almost a good third of our life in this state.
Perimenopause refers to the transition of time where your body moves into menopause. This tends to start with irregular periods, and can last from about 4 years up to 10. Before your period stops, you may experience irregular or shortened cycles, night sweats, and mood swings. There is also a good chance that there is an experienced shift in personality. Unfortunately, evidence shows that someone who has had some sort of reproductive depression in their lifetime will have a greater likelihood of also developing depression during this peri-menopause phase.
Menopause, on the other hand, is defined as the time 12 months after your last bleed. That is it. It is simply a day in time. Once you passed through menopause, you enter the post-menopausal phase.
This is a very interesting and fascinating time. From a hormonal perspective, you are not influenced by your cycle any longer. Meaning your hormones are less likely to fluctuate in your day-to-day environment.
The Takeaway From This Post
I hope this post has shown you how susceptible women are to hormonal changes and how much they influence our day to day lives. I hope it has also made it clear how much more there is still to learn – from a scientific point of view – about female hormones. As said above, this week was all about the basics. Next week, we will dive into a lot more detail around working with our cycle rather than against it. Beautiful cover photo by Jernej Graj auf Unsplash.