The menstrual hormones and cycle explained.
Oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone. We might be familiar with these three hormones, but do we really know how they impact our lives and bodies? We often see these types of hormones in the context of reproductive health, and baby-making. However, there is SO much more to these menstrual power hormones that impact us way beyond just TOTM or ovulation. The changing levels of each affects our lives in ways we may not consider and can explain a lot of feelings that we’ve been taught to push through as vulva owners. Just like a pleasure-positive sex education can help us know our bodies better, so can understanding our hormones. We asked health and holistic coach Tara Ghosh to help us get started
The secret superpowers of the menstrual cycle.
Although nobody teaches us this - not our teachers, our parents, doctors or society – our body has a secret internal clock which guides us every month. This clock influences our mood, our energy and our libido. When we tap into it, it can be the biggest “aha moment” of our life. It feels like we’ve found our own instructions manual under the sofa and we’re like “What?! Has that been there the WHOLE TIME?!”
So, what is this hidden secret? Unbelievably, it is our menstrual cycle!
Unlike men, who’s hormones and energy rise and fall with the sun, people with periods have energy which shifts through their menstrual cycle as our hormone levels ebb and flow.
Society has painted people with periods as unpredictable or moody. But let’s look at that from a different angle. What if the truth was, the world we live in doesn’t match the biochemistry of half of the global population? What if it is the system we live in and not us that is broken?
Hormone and being ‘moody’.
Our hormones and changing moods are in fact very predictable once we learn the rhythm. Moreover, our amazing hormones give us an advantage. Yes, an advantage! Once we unlock the secrets of our cycle, we understand ourselves better and this improves every aspect of our life – our work life, our family life and how we experience sexual pleasure.
To set the scene we need to understand how our hormones change throughout our menstrual cycle, and how this affects our energy and mood.
Menstrual cycle hormones explained.
So, day 1 of our cycle is the first day of our period. As our body recruits follicles for this cycle, oestrogen starts trickling in from day 3 and peaks around when we ovulate (which is about 2 weeks before our next period arrives).
The role of oestrogen.
You can consider oestrogen as our YES hormone! It wants adventure, it wants to help others, it wants to go at full speed. Around ovulation our libido is usually peaking. Why is this? Quite simply one of oestrogen’s jobs is to get us out there and procreate. It lifts our mood; our skin and hair are at their best; and, increased cervical fluid makes us feel ‘wet’ and is a natural lubricant.
But oestrogen doesn’t stop there. As we have oestrogen receptors all over our body, oestrogen’s power is far reaching. It’s super important for many things including our brain, heart and bone health. Also, we have the highest concentration of oestrogen receptors in our bladder and urinary tract. This is the reason that menopausal people experience UTIs and vaginal atrophy as we lose our monthly dose of oestrogen through menopause. Thankfully topical oestrogen cream and lifestyle tweaks can be a game changer for these painful conditions.
The role of testosterone.
Just around ovulation our body produces testosterone. Yes, we also make that supposedly “male” hormone! A fun fact: although we have much lower levels of testosterone than men, we actually have more testosterone than oestrogen in our bodies. Testosterone makes us motivated, assertive and gives our libido a generous boost. Not only that, but testosterone also has a key role in turning fat into muscle, increasing bone density and improving our memory and cognition.
The role of progesterone.
After ovulation our body starts producing progesterone.
This hormone is much more likely to say ‘NO, everyone shhh’, and ‘oh my goodness is that annoying thing STILL bloody happening’. Progesterone gives us the gift of discernment – we suddenly know exactly what we do and don’t want. Progesterone can be considered “pro-gestation” as it’s there to sustain a pregnancy. But once again, its impact is felt far beyond our reproductive organs. It supports our breast and brain health and, most notably, our nervous system.
Ever wondered why you don’t always have the same ‘va va voom’ when your alarm clock goes on every morning? It’s all down to where you are in your cycle. Progesterone naturally soothes us and makes us need more sleep in the second half of our cycle. Wanting a sneaky nap the week before your period? You’re not alone, that’s progesterone at play making us nice and chilled and wanting more zzzs. On the flip side, low progesterone can be one of the reasons we toss and turn all night in the run up to our period.
Oestrogen and progesterone are beautiful dance partners together. They are equally brilliant and needed in the right quantities to balance each other. Think of them like the yin and yang hormones. We don’t want one without the other. We, of course, also need testosterone and other hormones made by our complex and totally awesome endocrine system – the group of glands that secrete hormones.
Listening to our cycles.
What causes these hormones to get out of balance? The main issues influencing our cycle are our diet and stress levels. Should each month feel like a rollercoaster of hell, there are simple steps that can help turn things around - like cutting out dairy, eating your meals slowly, writing a journal or yoga practice. These things, and many others, can make a huge difference to your monthly moods and period. That said, there can be underlying health issues like endometriosis which can affect your menstrual health and medical advice should be sought if you are suffering with your periods.
Although it’s been accepted medical knowledge that our menstrual cycle is our fifth vital sign (the others being body temp, pulse rate, respiration rate and blood pressure – which puts into perspective how impactful our cycles can be) that information is yet to go mainstream. We need a collective mindset shift on this so people with periods can experience the fullest life with the maximum amount of pleasure. When we or people we know have awful period pain or huge mood swings it should instantly be acknowledged…
"Hmmm something is out of balance here that needs addressing pronto."
What are the seasons of the menstrual cycle?
Did you know that just like many of us experience seasonal changes throughout the year that see weather patterns and daylight hours change, we can consider our menstruation in the same way? A healthy cycle ranges from 25 to 35 days and can be broken down into four seasons; all of which see their own hormone patterns and energy levels change.
Now that we understand our biology, let’s dive into the inner seasons of our cycle with each giving us different superpowers, as well as challenges.
Winter - The menstruation phase.
Winter is when we have our period. Although it is yet to be universally celebrated, our superpower at this time is claiming time for ourselves and tapping into our intuition which is at its highest. The obvious challenges are debilitating period pains and migraines with half of people with periods reporting they suffer with one or both.
An unspoken challenge during this phase is that the world we live in does not respect our need to slow down. We are expected to be the same person every single day. That is simply not possible with our changing hormones. We need to remember: the revolution will only be won with well rested people!
Spring – The follicular phase.
The week after our period is spring. It’s a time of renewal, where we can plan our month ahead and creative ideas come bubbling up. But with that increased energy and influx of new ideas, we may find it difficult to keep our focus. It’s also easy to overdo it, going too fast after we’ve emerged from our winter. This can lead to burnout and us feeling depleted later on in our cycle.
Summer – The ovulation phase.
Around ovulation is our summer and for many people this is our superpower moment. To-do lists vanish in the blink of an eye, you are bursting with confidence and are happy to be a social butterfly. A downside to this is we feel so full of energy we book the rest of our month up, forgetting that quite soon we will be in a different season altogether. Also, as oestrogen has a stimulating effect on your nervous system, for some of us it can increase anxiety, as well as epileptic seizures.
Autumn – The luteal phase.
The 7-10 days before our period is autumn. Our superpower is our ability to say no and claim time for ourselves. We also have a great eye for detail so it’s a brilliant time to edit and organize either at work or at home. For many people, autumn is the most challenging time when we get irritated by others and our sugar cravings or mood swings dominate.
Want to find out what season you’re in and what superpower you can harness? Calculate it!
How menstrual seasons fit into our lives (or, not).
The first half of our cycle, with the outward energy in spring and summer are welcomed by us and others as they are likeable qualities and stereotypically whnt society expects from people with periods. But our inward focussed, quieter or more discerning seasons of winter and autumn, oh no, they are generally shunned, criticised and unwanted. But this does everyone a great disservice. How can we only like ourselves half the time? We need to accept and celebrate every part of ourselves and find ways to soften the tougher phases.
While it would be great to have a revolution, so society morphed into one that respects the changing hormones of half of the global population, this is unlikely to come anytime soon. Instead what we can do, starting from today, is track our menstrual cycle. Simply making a note of how we feel each day in a journal or an App. After a short while, we will see a pattern and be able to plan our life accordingly. Whilst we can’t always stop our busy life, knowing where we are in our cycle allows us to be kind to ourselves. It also empowers us to know when and how we can support ourselves as our hormonal levels change.
We can use our cycle, as far as possible, to plan social plans when our energy is at its highest and creating space for the quieter, inward phases. We can sync our cycle to our sex life, and understand how hormones affect our desire and sexual pleasure.
Knowing what to expect from our hormones throughout the cycle means we don’t drive ourselves crazy for feeling different each week. We are like the changing tides. Predictable if you know the rhythm. Once we understand the superpowers our menstrual cycle gives us, we won’t doubt ourselves again. Instead, we become unstoppable!
Building an understanding of how hormones and menstruation can impact your body and sexuality is just one of the many ways to discover yourself. For more helpful, sex-positive biology lessons, check out Vulva Talks.
Tara Ghosh is an ArvigoB. Therapist and health coach passionate about empowering people with periods to feel strong whatever season of their life they are in. Tara works with people 1:1 all over the world and runs a 5 week course Embrace Your Cyclical Power. This course provides the answers to all your period and hormonal issues. Want more energy, improve your moods and boost your libido? Grab your 10% discount on the full price workshop using the code SMILE10.