Hormones and neurotransmitters as chemical messages
We’ve covered the basics of a woman’s typical hormonal cycle but most of the information we consume online would be largely generic as every woman’s body and experience is unique. Although there is no one size fits all, it is helpful however to identify symptoms and read signals clearly to appropriately group them and establish solutions. Framing our hormones as the chemical messengers that they are, sharpens our understanding of how we can listen better and subsequently respond. This line of communication is often broken when we don’t understand a) who’s talking and b) what they’re saying.
Hormones and neurotransmitters are both chemicals in the brain that carry messages throughout the body. Although some hormones are neurotransmitters and visa versa, hormones belong to the endocrine system and can take hours, days to respond, whereas neurotransmitters belong to the nervous system and usually respond instantaneously. The effects of a hormone such as Cortisol for example, will support us when we wake up in the morning, when we exercise and during times of stress by providing the body with glucose and increasing our energy levels. A neurotransmitter such as dopamine however, acts quickly by informing the brain instantly of an activity happening real-time, that is rewarding and encourages us to repeat it.
The brain is made up of neurons that control our neurological processes like thoughts and behaviours - the neurotransmitters are the chemical messages sent between neurons. Hormones act on neurons too, but because they are controlled by the endocrine system they act on neurons that control the pituitary gland, which either increases or decreases the levels of hormones in the body. For women, the levels at which your hormones are at within the body are dependent on your age, pregnancy status, and where you are in your menstrual cycle. During pregnancy for example, hormones such as Estrogen increase dramatically during the first trimester, often leading to nausea. Progesterone continues to increase throughout a pregnancy and plays a huge role in the first trimester too as it supports the thickening of the lining before the placenta is formed.
Hormones have a diverse range of functions, responsible for communicating messages between different parts of the body and aid in processes such as growth, metabolism and reproduction. Estrogen is vital for a women as she enters puberty as the hormones support the growth of fuller breasts. Oxytocin, also known as the love-hormone, is stimulated when we hug or connect, releasing feelings of empathy, connection and compassion. This could happen within minutes in a social interaction or over a prolonged period of time between a mother and her baby, helping to establish bonding.
Neurotransmitters however are in direct opposition to their target cells - it’s an immediate interaction, like with serotonin or dopamine, their either fire or they don’t. Neurotransmitter dopamine acts as a messenger between brain cells and plays a large role in our desire for reward. The release of dopamine in the brain occurs almost instantly when we are about to experience pleasure, reminding us that something is about to feel good, so our brain connects the two.
“Dopamine is about learning that rewards feel good, so we can do them again” Psychology Today
Now that we’ve established basic differences between these two - how does understanding their function affect our day-to-day lives and our hormonal cycles, and what can we do to support this complex communication network happening inside our bodies?
We explore our cycles by understanding what each hormone’s role is in contributing to our moods and wellbeing. Through doing an extensive inquiry into how we feel during each phase of our cycle, we use our own information to make good choices for our bodies as opposed to drawing only from information we might consume externally. The internal process is vital when we’re looking to stabilise any hormonal imbalances as there are many ways to heal and self-regulate but every woman’s method will be different. Tracking your cycle symptoms and identifying patterns can lead to greater understanding of where you might be struggling with imbalances. Doing blood tests to identify your hormone levels is a simple way to get the answers you need and thereafter, adjustments to diet and supplementation under the supervision of a specialist, can help bring hormones that may be out of balance, back to optimum levels.
Tuning into the physical and emotional sensations of our fluctuating hormones, noticing what they really feel like, coupled with the intellectual understanding of the process, is an ode to all women and a radical act of self love.
Through understanding each hormone individually and what a complex symphony of intricately designed melodies are at play every month and throughout our lives, we can really appreciate and honour the process of self-discovery and empowerment, and rewrite any old belief systems that perpetuate ignorance and misinformation. When we have a greater understanding of how these chemicals are working in our bodies, we can be more compassionate with ourselves and gain perspective on how situations and environments and life cycles impact how we are relating to the world around us. Adrenalin when we’re scared, serotonin after a yoga class, oxytocin when we’re connecting with loved ones - acknowledging their power is acknowledging our own power.
We know information can be overwhelming and we want to avoid confusion and overwhelm, so we’ve put together clear definitions of the key hormones and neurotransmitters that influence a women’s cycle in hope that they and the Moody community help you to feel supported on your quest. See our Hormone 101 series here
Words by Amy Mabin