The Hormone Cycle: What You Need to Know
Hormones are chemical messengers responsible for many functions in the body. They regulate body temperature, metabolism, blood pressure, blood sugar, growth and development, reproduction, mood, and more.
To understand how our hormones function in the body, we first need to understand what they are. Here are the ones we will be talking about:
Testosterone is the primary sex hormone in males. It plays several roles, such as deepening the voice during puberty, muscle size and growth, development of the penis and testes, facial and pubic hair, sperm production, and bone growth and strength. Testosterone is also produced in the ovaries and adrenal gland in females to help with bone strength, ovarian function, and sex drive.
Estrogen is one of two sex hormones commonly associated with females. It plays a crucial role in reproductive health as it is responsible for developing and regulating the female reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics. Although females have the most estrogen, both males and females make this hormone.
Progesterone is a sex hormone that supports menstruation and helps maintain the early stages of pregnancy. Its primary role is to prepare the uterine lining (endometrium) for a fertilized egg to implant and grow. If fertilization occurs, progesterone will increase to support pregnancy.
Now that we know a little more about these hormones, let’s look at the difference between male and female hormone cycles:
Males go through an entire hormone cycle in 24 hours, similar to a typical workday. In the morning, testosterone is at its highest. This is when males will be more energetic, talkative, aggressive, focused, competitive, independent, impulsive, and confident. Moving into the afternoon, testosterone is in the middle of its cycle and reduces just slightly. Toward evening, mood and emotions begin to mellow out as testosterone is at its lowest point of the day.
On the other hand, on average, women go through a 28-day hormone cycle. However, this can range anywhere from 21 to 35 days and still be considered “normal”. We can break this cycle down into four weeks.
The Four Weeks of the Hormone Cycle
Week 1: Menstruation
From the first day of bleeding to roughly day seven, estrogen is at its lowest point and begins to climb. This is when the uterine lining sheds through the vagina if pregnancy hasn’t occurred. Due to this lack of estrogen combined with menstrual-related cramps and aches, and a lack of iron from blood loss, you may feel more fatigued.
However, as estrogen increases throughout the week, mood and energy begin to improve along with memory retention. Libido also starts to climb steadily, so you may be more interested in romance.
Chronic or reoccurring health problems (like asthma and eczema) may flare up at the beginning of this week due to the low estrogen levels in the body. As levels increase, symptoms will generally lessen.
Week 2: Follicular Phase
The follicular phase begins around day eight until the first day of ovulation, which is day 14 in a 28-day cycle. During this week, both estrogen and testosterone rise steadily until they peak. Higher estrogen levels in the body will boost mood, patience, and energy.
For some women, these high levels of estrogen may overstimulate the brain and can cause high levels of anxiety and stress. Finding ways to reduce these feelings, like yoga, meditation, or moderate exercise, can help you feel like yourself again.
Testosterone rises later in the week, bringing with it a more daring and competitive spirit. Libido will increase with testosterone and tend to spike around the same time.
Week 3: Ovulation
The third week of your hormone cycle lasts about eight days. In the first half of this week, estrogen and testosterone start to drop. This dip in estrogen can cause low libido and what is known as pre-PMS. Irritability and fatigue may be present, but by the second half of the week, estrogen begins to rise again, leveling out your mood.
Progesterone begins its climb during week three and can cause you to feel mentally foggy and physically fatigued. This is because progesterone is a mild sedative hormone. Some women are more sensitive to this hormone than others and may experience more feelings of sadness during this time.
Progesterone may also cause you to consume more calories. This is because the body believes that it may be pregnant and wants you to consume foods high in fat in preparation for conception.
Week 4: Luteal Phase
During the last six days of your cycle, estrogen and progesterone fall rapidly. Due to this significant drop in estrogen, you may find yourself more irritable or anxious. Not all women feel this way, though. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle of nutritious food, exercise, and stress-relieving activities can diminish these poor moods.
Low levels of estrogen can bring on cravings for carbohydrate-filled foods like sugar, pasta, and bread. This is because as estrogen drops, so does serotonin– and carbohydrates replenish serotonin. Serotonin is produced in the center of the brain stem and then acts on many parts of the brain. It is known as our happy hormone affecting mood, sleep, memory, stress response, body temperature, and more.
It is important to note that not every female experiences these symptoms in the same way. In fact, some women may never experience many of the above symptoms, while others will find all of them to be true. It is essential to track your hormone cycle and listen to what your body is telling you.
Signs You May Have a Hormonal Imbalance
So, what happens when these hormones become unbalanced?
A hormonal imbalance happens when a person has too much or too little of one or more hormones. Things like pregnancy, steroids, puberty, menopause, certain medications, auto-immune disorders, poor diet, hormonal contraceptives, and stress can trigger a hormonal imbalance.
A hormonal imbalance may look different for everyone. Women experiencing an imbalance have a few more red flags to look out for as their cycle is more intricate. Frequent mood swings are number one on the list of symptoms, as hormones dictate our mood and menstruation problems such as heavy or irregular bleeding. Hormones also influence our gut bacteria, so ongoing digestive issues like constipation and diarrhea may indicate a hormonal imbalance.
There are many other symptoms to look out for as well, such as low sex drive, sleep problems (example: insomnia), unexplained weight gain, excess hair growth, infertility, skin problems (example: acne), and weak bones can all be signs of a hormonal imbalance.
5 Natural Ways to Balance Your Hormones and Feel Your Best
1) Consume Protein. Proteins are made up of amino acids that produce specific hormones in the body, like estrogen, insulin, and thyroid hormone. Eating clean, conventionally raised protein can help you feel fuller longer and improve hormone levels (specifically estrogen).
2) Get Active. Exercise can increase the production of estrogen in women as well as our “feel good hormone” dopamine. Engaging in activities such as walking, running, biking, pickle ball, jump rope, or swimming can relieve hormonal imbalance symptoms and improve sleep, memory, digestion, libido, and more.
3) Choose Non-Toxic Products. The skin is the body’s largest organ and absorbs 60-70% of everything that we put on it. Many personal care products contain harmful chemicals like phthalates and parabens that are absorbed into the skin and can disrupt hormones.
Even some plastics contain chemicals called BPAs which, when released, act like the sex hormone estrogen and can lead to an imbalance. Reach for stainless steel or glass bottles and kitchenware to avoid these harmful chemicals.
4) Get Quality Sleep. Our bodies use sleep to repair and replenish bodily functions, including producing and regulating hormones. Without proper rest, you risk a hormonal imbalance that can lead to health problems like reduced immunity, memory loss, spikes in appetite, and more. Shooting for 7-8 hours of quality sleep per night is essential to ensure healthy hormone production and regulation.
5) Manage Your Stress. For many women, stress (or overstimulation) is the primary cause of a hormonal imbalance. Our bodies release extra cortisol in response to stress, which can help to reduce inflammation, increase glucose metabolism, control blood pressure, and reduce bodily response to danger.
However, chronic or long-term exposure to cortisol can disrupt the body’s natural processes and put you at greater risk for various health problems. Finding activities, such as walking, yoga, meditation, joining a group class, or engaging in talk therapy, can help reduce stress.
Remember, not every hormonal imbalance will look or feel the same. It can be challenging to pinpoint what is causing you to feel unwell when managing symptoms. Learning to recognize the physical and emotional bodily signals and how they are connected makes it easier to identify what you are experiencing.
Every woman’s cycle is different, and the amount of time you spend in each phase is unique to you. What is normal for you may not be normal for someone else, but this does not mean it is cause for concern—understanding how your hormone cycle works can help you to decipher these symptoms and feelings.
If you feel like you need to consult with a doctor regarding any changes in your hormone cycle, even if the question seems silly or odd, do not hesitate. Your health should be a top priority.