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You’re probably aware that your hormones have great influence over your energy levels and mood. You might know that there are times of the month when you feel ‘hormonal’. And there might be times of the month where you don’t think about it all because you feel great and you’re busy living your best life. But the truth is, the hormones of the menstrual cycle have a massive influence on energy, mood, and behaviour, and I want to tell you about them so that you can harness your hormones and get your cycle working for you.
So here they are:
The Miranda Priestly
Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH) is the boss of your cycle and small amounts of it are regularly released by a gland in your head called the hypothalamus. These pulses are picked up by a neighbouring gland called the pituitary, and in turn, stimulate it to release two other hormones which cause ovulation. Think of GnRH as Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada; her presence is felt everywhere, and nothing happens without her say so – but it’s her minions that do the actual work.
Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) does exactly what it says on the tin – it stimulates the follicles in your ovaries to grow and mature, and eventually release an egg at ovulation. At the start of the cycle, it stimulates your follicles, and once one outshines the others, it stands down. Then, later on in the cycle, just before ovulation, it arrives back on the scene along with another hormone called luteinising hormone (LH) and they take turns egging each other on, and once they peak ovulation occurs. Imagine Tyra Banks in America’s Next Top Model, she’s there at the start praising all the contestants, making them feel good, then she steps back, waits to see who will outperform the others, and then shows up to award the winner with their prize.
Oestrogen is the hormone which reigns over the first half of your cycle – the follicular phase. It’s secreted by your developing follicles and causes the lining of your uterus to plump up in anticipation of a fertilised egg potentially implanting in the second half of your cycle – your luteal phase. Oestrogen can make you feel confident, alluring, and sensual. It can clear up your skin and even make your features more symmetrical. It helps us to learn new skills and feel on top of the world. Think of oestrogen as your Beyoncé hormone!
Luteinising hormone shows up just before ovulation as oestrogen reaches its peak. LH delivers the power and strength that results in ovulation and also lays the foundation for progesterone production in the second half of the cycle. So although it seems like Beyoncé (oestrogen) is the star of the show, it’s Solange (LH) who has the power to make ovulation happen. Or kick the crap out of Jay-Z.
Testosterone is not a male hormone, it is produced by all humans. It peaks around the time of ovulation, at the same time as oestrogen and LH peak. It’s active, ambitious, sexy, and competitive – the Serena Williams of hormones. Testosterone strengthens our bones and muscles and contributes to an increase in sexual desire around ovulation.
The Kristen Stewart
Progesterone is produced as a result of ovulation and it dominates the second half of your cycle. It develops and maintains the lining of your womb so that it’s ready for a fertilised egg to implant, if there was to be one. Progesterone is essential for conceiving and sustaining a pregnancy, but this isn’t its only role. Progesterone is crucial for bone health, preventing breast and uterine cancer, and it can also soothe mood and aid sleep. The Kristen Stewart of hormones, progesterone is edgy, doesn’t want to be the centre of attention, and prefers to stay at home eating apple pie.
Now you know the key hormonal players of your cycle, let’s look at the phases of the cycle, which I like to refer to as seasons. The seasons of the cycle are distinct, but they are not set lengths of time. They can vary in length and experience of them from cycle to cycle as well as across a lifetime. After 2-3 months of tracking your cycle (you can get a free chart from my website) you’ll get a sense of where your seasons lie, as well as your personal patterns, powers and pitfalls, and be able to make adjustments here and there to improve your experience of your cycle and make use of each phase.
Here’s what’s going on in each phase:
The lining of your womb is being shed and hormone-like substances called prostaglandins are released to limit blood loss. Hormone levels are low and although some people might not be affected by this, others will feel tired and a bit uninterested in the world. FSH is being released to stimulate the follicles for this cycle, and from day 3 oestrogen is produced by these follicles. If you’re sensitive to oestrogen, you might notice an increase in energy and positivity, but I recommend not going full throttle yet. Instead, try to let your energy build – the time for putting your pedal to the metal will come.
Around the time your period ends, you enter Spring and oestrogen continues to increase quite rapidly. Oestrogen’s plan is to get us laid and knocked up, regardless of whether you want to or not. So as oestrogen rises, you might find that you’re interested in other people and being social, and that your sexual desire increases too. Oestrogen also causes an increase in cervical fluid, which is what the wet patch in your underwear is all about. It also stimulates blood flow to your genitals which can make you feel turned on.
At the start of Summer – just before ovulation – oestrogen peaks, along with LH and testosterone. This is the time to really go for it; to work on projects, go out on dates, or take on a physical challenge. After ovulation, these hormones plummet and some people will really notice this as a pre-PMS phase in the middle of your Summer. Then progesterone starts to be released and can leave you feeling calm again, and oestrogen also starts to climb again, though not to the degree it did in the first half of the cycle.
Progesterone is often peaking at the start of Autumn – around day 20/21 in a 28-day cycle – and the lining of your uterus is now around 18mm, but in the absence of conception, progesterone begins to decline, and the lining of your uterus starts to change as you head towards the start of your period. Oestrogen is also declining again, and as you return to Winter, hormone levels are low once more. This is a great phase for casting your critical eye over projects, for making decisions about what can stay or go, for finishing things up, and pottering.
Maisie Hill’s book, Period Power: Harness Your Hormones and Get Your Cycle Working For You is out now in paperback. Maisie is the oracle of all things hormones and you can find out more about her at her website.
Author and Women's Health Expert and Practitioner
Maisie loves geeking out over hormones and reproductive medicine and spends her days treating clients and helping people in her online membership club the Womb Tang Clan. On her days off she can be found chasing her son along the beach and mooching around Margate’s vintage shops.