Female hormones, understanding the basics
On day 1 of our cycles, estrogen and progesterone levels are low from the previous cycle, which signals blood and tissue lining from the uterus to release and shed from the body. The pituitary gland picks up the initial low levels as a signal to produce follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which literally does just that, stimulating the follicles in the ovaries and in turn leading to an increase of oestrogen and progesterone.
The low levels of estrogen at this early stage of the menstrual cycle can drive a sense of needing to nest and be still. You may feel down, anti-social and foggy. Digestion can be sensitive too, which at times can lead to loose stools and frequent urination. It also means that for those who have chronic illnesses or health issues such as IBS, symptoms may be worse earlier on, but these should ease off as estrogen increases.
As menstruation completes and estrogen levels continue to rise, so do our moods and energy levels. Many women may find that the phase after their period is their most dynamic and energetic, however this could also be a difficult week for some, as high estrogen levels can trigger anxiety and heightened emotions due to increased activity in the brain. Whilst estrogen levels are rising, FSH is increasing to help mature eggs in the ovary. Testosterone reveals itself towards the end of this phase, increasing libido and impulsivity.
High FSH and estrogen levels trigger a sharp rise in the luteinizing hormone which prompts the mature follicle in the ovary to release an egg. At the beginning of our ovulatory phase we may feel more sexual due to increased lubrication from a rise in cervical fluid and are also at our most fertile. As the egg migrates down the fallopian tube, progesterone is released, causing the uterine lining to thicken in preparation for possible pregnancy. It’s also common to feel some discomfort around the pelvis as ovaries release the egg. As progesterone increases throughout ovulation, testosterone will then decrease, and bring our libido down with it as we head into pre-menstruation. Progesterone has a sedative effect and if you’re sensitive to it, this may cause some pre-PMS symptoms such as fatigue and sadness.
If the egg has not been fertilised, estrogen continues to fall and we cycle back to menstruation. Pre-menstruation - the time between ovulation and menstruation - tends to have a bad rep, which isn’t surprising given how common it is to experience PMS. This time of the cycle is recognisable for its waves of emotional sensitivity and physical discomfort. The likelihood of women experiencing these symptoms is reliant on a wide range of factors; hormone imbalances, genetics, nutrition, environmental pollutants, xenoestrogen, medication, mental illness such as depression, or cycle-related illnesses such as endometriosis. In these cases, symptoms would likely be heightened around this time.
The intention for becoming more educated about our cycles and hormones is to be able to better identify important signals that we may normally brush over. When we understand what’s going on inside our bodies, we are less likely to beat ourselves up for feeling a certain way and instead use this knowledge to be more forgiving of our moods and embrace ourselves as fluctuating emotional beings. We are then more equipped to identify which symptoms are signals for concern that may need to be seen to by a medical practitioner.
It is crucial to understand that the descriptions of the phases outlined above are unique to each woman’s individual cycle - if there are hormonal imbalances or other health issues at play then their experiences of the phases could be very different. Some women feel empowered and relaxed during menstruation, whilst others spend all month dreading it. These variables can be dependent on anything from health to personal predispositions such as lifestyle or even personality. At Moody we are passionate about encouraging women to first and foremost be curious about their cycles. Thereafter to observe noticeable symptoms and track them over several months, helping to identify signals and patterns that can drive more informed choices.
Empower yourselves, use the exploration as an opportunity to better understand and empathise with other women. Connect and feel into the changes as the cycles turn, month by month, share your cycle knowledge with your friends, and use them, use us, for support.
Words by Amy Mabin