The female menstrual cycle is the result of an intricate dance between the pituitary gland in the brain and the ovaries, with chemical messengers in between acting as the dance choreographers.
Throughout different stages of life we see changes in women that affect the menstrual cycle. These changes can be a result of several different factors, and often we hear women saying things such as they feel as though their “hormones are imbalanced”.
Hormones are the chemical messengers in our bodies that affect not only our reproductive cycle, but also our moods, bone density, muscle volume, heart and brain health.
What are some of the known causes of these ‘imbalances’ that women refer to?
To name but a few…
• Stress and trauma (physical, environmental, and emotional)
• Exogenous hormones
• Sleep deprivation
• Restrictive eating
• Poor diets
• Very low or very high body weight
• Excessive exercise programs
• Sedentary lifestyle
In my personal opinion stress is possibly one of the biggest contributing factors to hormonal irregularities that we see in practice.
How many times have you heard of couples pursuing fertility treatments to no avail? When they decide after months of trying to give up, spontaneously they naturally fall pregnant! Coincidence? Not really! Stress affects hormone production at a fundamental level for both men and women. Our reproductive hormones and our stress hormone, cortisol, are all made from the building blocks of cholesterol. From the cholesterol molecule our bodies can produce either a sex hormone or a stress hormone, depending on the scenario.
Therefore, in stressful times, as females, we will produce cortisol instead of progesterone. Our endometrial lining will not be thicken enough for implantation, the luteal phase of our cycle will be too short, and there will be a greater chance of miscarriage if we do conceive. These are changes that can occur with ongoing high stress levels.
Our diets too are responsible for changes in cortisol levels if what we eat causes stress on our bodies by dropping circulating blood glucose levels. Diets high in simple sugars will spike blood glucose, resulting in an insulin secretion, followed by cortisol coming to the rescue and releasing stored glucose from the liver to stabilise blood sugar. Our bodies recognise the need for cortisol production in times like this, rather than sex hormone production. It is advisable to rather try and eat a diet which does not place strain on the adrenal glands and encourages the production of further cortisol.
Cortisol follows a circadian rhythm with its highest value being in the morning, and lowest in the evening. We should aim to be in bed and sleeping by 10pm, in order to achieve at least 2 hours of sleep before midnight when cortisol slowly starts to rise again in preparation for the next morning.
With this knowledge in mind, we can understand how sleep plays a critical role in hormone production. Female athletes who train excessively, or women who have very little body fat, may develop what is termed secondary amenorrhea, where menstruation either ceases, or they go for very long periods of time without menstruating.
Starvation and radical weight loss can both influence the hypothalamus, which in turn reduces the amount of oestrogen being produced.
Throughout the different stages in a women’s life, it is to be expected that there will be changes in hormone levels, particularly oestrogen and progesterone. However, the choices that we make each day critically impact on those hormonal changes too.
The choices we make regarding diet, how we deal with stressful situations, how much we prioritise sleep and sleep hygiene, as well as our exercise routines all act either against or in favour of the production of sex hormones.
To an extent we have a role to play in the rise and fall of our reproductive hormones. Blood tests done annually, or every second year allow us to keep a watch on what effect our internal and external environments are having on our reproductive hormones.
BY: Dr Abbey Wagner – Doctor of Homeopathy
Dr Abbey is available at Thrive Ballito on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
To make an appointment: email@example.com or 083 415 4406.