What is your monthly cycle trying to tell you?
Those few days every month when our period hits are the days that we all recognise in our menstrual cycle. Some of us sail through them, some of us spend the whole month dreading their arrival. And let’s be honest, we all just want it to be over!
But what if I told you that your period can be a vital sign of your overall health?
In this blog post, we’ll get to grips with what's going on during a healthy cycle, how to tell if maybe something is out of whack (technical term!) and some aspects of our lifestyle that can affect our monthly cycle. We’re all different and it’s very unlikely that your period is going to be exactly the same as your friend, mother or sister.
But if your cycles are especially long, short, heavy or light; if they are very irregular, or maybe you’re not getting one at all, then read on to find out what these signs might be trying to tell you.
To explain why a healthy period is such a crucial marker of female health, it’s important to understand that those few days of bleeding are secondary to a much more complex series of chatter between our brain and our sex hormones.
How your monthly cycles work
Now for the science. I promise, it won’t last long, but I think it’s useful to understand. Our menstrual cycle is driven by the interaction between 4 main hormones: FSH, LH, oestrogen and progesterone – let me give you a quick tour:
Day 1 of your cycle is when your period flow starts (not any pre-period spotting). At this stage, the brain triggers the release of FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) to trigger the development of some of the follicles in the ovary. These maturing follicles release oestrogen which slowly stimulates the release of LH (luteinising hormone).
In the days before ovulation, oestrogen levels rise rapidly. As they peak, it triggers an LH surge (24-36 hours before ovulation). This surge triggers the ovary to release the mature egg. In the subsequent days, levels of LH and oestrogen levels drop.
After ovulation, the empty follicle (which released it’s egg) turns into the corpus luteum which produces some oestrogen and lots of progesterone until their levels peak around 7 days after ovulation and then drop until your next period starts.
What you need to understand about ovulation
So when you think about it, it’s really ovulation that is the “main event” when it comes to your period and your cycle. Ovulation (and the days directly surrounding it) triggers the production of oestrogen and progesterone that are essential for health – it’s not just something to think about when you’re trying to make a baby.
If you’re not ovulating, or you are ovulating but not every cycle, this will have a direct impact on the level of sex hormones you are producing. It’s a sign that something in your body is out of balance and will ultimately result in symptoms that can include:
Irregular or heavy periods
Lack of sex drive
According to the Canadian professor of endocrinology, Jerilynn Prior, having regular ovulatory cycles throughout their reproductive years benefits women in terms of helping to prevent osteoporosis, stroke, dementia, heart disease and breast cancer.
And period expert, Lara Briden describes how every ovulation is “like a monthly deposit into the bank of long-term health”.
Even if you are ovulating every month, there are still things that can disrupt the delicate balance of your hormones and interrupt the communication between your brain and your reproductive system.
So, what exactly can go wrong? Well, as you can imagine with such a complex series of events that all need to happen at just the right time, there are lots of things that can cause disruption to your hormones and their ability to communicate with your brain and each other. Here are the most common that I see with my clients:
How stress can mess with your monthly cycle
Stress comes in many forms. Traditionally, when we think of psychological stress, we think of stressful life events like moving house, a bereavement, getting married and the like. But life is so busy these days – just the day to day pressures of working, family life, being stuck in traffic, trying to make time to exercise and do all the things can be hugely stressful in their own right.
Then there are other, more physical stressors. We don’t necessarily think of lots of these as being “stressors” – lots of them we do with the best of intentions, trying to be fitter or healthier. Not eating enough and/or over-exercising are very common causes of menstrual disruption. Not eating enough carbohydrate is another that I see, most often in women, with carbs being the most recent food group to have been demonised on social media.
All of these send a warning message to the brain to say that it’s not safe to reproduce right now
because there’s no food, or there is a threat so the brain dials down production of FSH and LH. And remember how instrumental these are for your cycle and ovulation?
The impact of the Pill and other hormonal contraception
If you’re like me, you will have been given the Pill at some stage to “regulate” your periods. Unfortunately, while the Pill means you get a regular bleed, this is not a period. It is a withdrawal bleed from the synthetic hormones in the Pill. What the Pill actually does is turn off your normal cycle and stops ovulation – this is how it stops you getting pregnant. Once you stop taking the Pill, it is likely that any hormone imbalances that were causing your irregular period to begin with are still there and will still need to be addressed. It can take some time to regain your natural cycle after coming off hormonal contraception – your body needs time to learn how to communicate between brain and sex hormones again.
The challenges of PCOS
PCOS is characterised by high levels of androgen hormones (of which testosterone is the most well-known) and, in many cases, insulin resistance. Both of these can negatively affect your hormone balance and lead to anovulatory cycles (cycles where you don’t ovulate).
What you feed yourself, feeds your cycle
Oestrogen and progesterone are part of a family of hormones known as steroid hormones and they are produced using fat – more specifically cholesterol. It’s common for me to see women who have massively reduced their fat intake as part of a low-calorie diet and for this to be contributing to their hormone imbalances. Cholesterol is also used to make cortisol, your stress hormone – another reason why chronic stress can impact your sex hormones – it uses up the same raw materials and leaves less to make oestrogen and progesterone.
Like I mentioned earlier, carbohydrates are the other food group that have been given a really bad rap. And yes, sugary and highly-processed carbohydrates should absolutely be avoided as much as possible. But women need carbohydrates for ovulation – it’s just about getting them from the right sources.
A healthy gut for a healthy cycle
How well your digestive system is working probably wouldn’t be something many people would consider when trying to figure out why they are having period trouble. But the gut is a critical part of the elimination of hormones from our body. After we use them up, the liver packages them up so they can be removed from the body through the bowels. But if you are not going to the toilet regularly (meaning at least once per day), those used up hormones can be reabsorbed into the bloodstream. Equally as important, is the balance of bacteria living in the gut. Some of the less beneficial ones can also help this reabsorption of used up hormones. Once reabsorbed, they recirculate and can trigger symptoms of hormonal imbalances.
Where do you begin?
So before you get overwhelmed, let's get back to basics. What can you do to interpret what your cycle is telling you about what’s going on under the covers? Tracking your cycle is a great place to start. And I don’t just mean tracking the day your period comes, but looking at different aspects of your cycle that can provide indicators of potential imbalances – things like:
Changes in cervical mucus – this can indicate that oestrogen is on the rise and when ovulation might be imminent
Length of follicular and luteal phases – if you know approximately when you ovulate, you can determine the length of the 2 phases of your cycle. Follicular is the time before ovulation and the luteal phase is the time from ovulation to your next period. Knowing this can give clues as to any potential imbalances you might be dealing with
Length and heaviness of your period – long or heavy periods can be an indicator of oestrogen dominance – too much oestrogen relative to your progesterone levels
Length of your cycle – again, this can help to give clues as to the type of imbalances you could be dealing with.
The positive in all of this is that your hormones are hugely affected by diet and lifestyle so, once you start tracking your cycle and have some of the information I’ve listed here, it can be used to help you make decisions about what you need to do to get your hormones back under control.
As a Nutritional Therapist, this is exactly what I do for all of my clients – interpret the signs that their body is giving and put together a plan that is specific to them – their life and their needs.
And I would love to help you too. Book an introductory call with me today - it’s completely free – and let’s chat about what’s got into your hormones so that you can start to feel more like your old self.
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