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Hormones & The Menstrual Cycle

“Why is it important that I know what goes on with my hormones and menstrual cycle?” 

Hi friend! If you are a biological woman, chances are that you bleed once a month-ish. While it can be annoying and sometimes ruin our plans, it can also be kind of a relief, right? Have you ever wondered what actually happens inside our body to make it all happen? 

You might have also thought about why we feel the way we do at different points in our cycles. One day you have the energy to conquer the world and a few days later you feel like you want to hibernate in bed with chocolate and Netflix. 

We’ll do our best to explain why this happens!

If you’re not a biological woman, it is highly likely that you know something about the menstrual cycle and know people that experience one. Therefore, this is relevant to us all!

Around 1.8 billion people experience menstruation monthly, which equates to 26% of the population (Unicef, 2023). However, how much do we really know about the menstrual cycle and how we can support our hormonal health? 

My experience with my reproductive health has been a rollercoaster ride. When I was a teenager, I experienced painful periods with symptoms like fatigue and mood changes. I was prescribed the contraceptive pill and cycled (pun intended) through several forms of contraceptives because of the unwanted side effects (breakthrough bleeding, migraines, cramps, acne and even ovarian cysts). It wasn’t until my late 20s that I gave up trying to manage those ugly side effects and sought to manage my hormones naturally, with the help of a nutritionist. 

I went on a deep dive to learn about the menstrual cycle and reproductive health in a quest to understand my symptoms and how I could manage them. What I learned has been eye-opening and incredibly helpful. I am pleased to report that today I have a relatively unproblematic period and know exactly what I need to do to keep it this way.

I hope this information is as helpful to you as it was to me. 

Genesis

1. God cares about your period!

There are a couple of instances where menstruation is referred to in the Bible. As with the rest of scripture, we can clearly see the story of redemption reflected in how we see menstruation. You think it is a far-fetched call to make? Let me explain. 

Our first passage takes us to Leviticus 15, verses 19-20. 

“When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean.

We could easily make the assumption that this passage shames women for their impurity, and taken out of context it is understandable why someone would think that. However, Leviticus 15 touches on actions that the people of Israel had to take to remain ceremonially pure to be able to enter the tabernacle (where God dwelt on earth at that time), it referred to being ceremonially clean rather than discussing moral purity. Women’s menstruation can be interpreted as a consequence of the fall (menstruation may be related to “in pain you shall bring forth children” in Genesis 3:16). 

We then jump to Galatians 3 which speaks of how Christ redeemed us from the Law (the book of Leviticus) of the Old Testament. God gave the Law to Abraham as a promise of the future redeemer to come. The purpose of the Law was to keep the Israelites in obedience to God and in agreement (covenant) with Him until his Son, Jesus, came to redeem us. 

We also have the story of the ‘woman with the issue of blood’, shown across three of the gospels (Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:25-34 and Luke 8:43-49). 

There was a woman who had suffered with a ‘discharge of blood’ for 12 years. She had seen many medical professionals about it but had only gotten worse throughout the years. When she heard about Jesus and saw him surrounded by a large crowd, she went after Him and touched his cloak. She said that, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed” (Mark 5:28). She was instantly healed. A few verses down, Jesus declares that her faith had made her well.

The key element to see here is that our faith is key to accessing God’s healing. The woman in the Gospels had seen many medical professionals about her health and had not received healing. However, with just a touch of Jesus’ cloak (aka being in His presence and actively reaching out towards Him) she was healed.

We want to be clear that this does not mean that you should skip seeking medical attention. God has authority over everyone and will work through medical professionals and give them wisdom to facilitate healing in our bodies. 

Here at BKT, we encourage you to talk to God about what you are experiencing, asking Him to give you the wisdom to navigate through your symptoms, and what actions you can take to balance out your hormones. You can also ask Him to present you with a medical professional (whether it is a GP, gynecologist, nutritionist, etc) that is equipped to support you through healing. 

2. The Menstrual Cycle

Let’s get back to basics, how much do we actually know about what occurs every 21-38 days in the lives of most women? 

The menstrual cycle is the sequence of events through which an egg is released from the ovary, develops within a follicle, bursts out and travels to the uterus. This is followed by the development of the corpus luteum, which stimulates progesterone and causes the lining of the uterus to become thicker. If the egg is not fertilised, the corpus luteum shrinks and the endometrium is shed at menstruation. There is a lot that happens in each stage, with different hormones making a huge impact in how we feel during the different days and weeks of the cycle. We’ll delve deeper into each of these stages down below. 

Many women go through their cycles and don’t notice any major differences in how they feel physically or mentally. Their periods might also be relatively easy to navigate. However, some people experience a range of symptoms that make their periods really difficult. There are certain things that are expected to happen throughout the menstrual cycle, with these changes reflected in how we feel physically and mentally, however, no two menstruating people will feel exactly the same. It is important to know what to expect so we can learn how to care for our bodies in the best way. With that being said, if you feel like something doesn’t feel right please consult a medical professional.  

We are also going to be discussing fertility as part of our menstrual cycle, since a healthy ovulation typically signifies fertility. We want to acknowledge that there are women that struggle with fertility and it is a sensitive topic. If you or someone you know struggles with fertility, we honour you and pray that you find comfort in God’s never ending grace.

Thoughts to consider:

  • What is your menstrual cycle like? 
  • Do you notice any major differences in your body and mind throughout the month?

This illustration gives you an overall view of what happens during your cycle and which hormones are the key players. 

Let’s delve in deeper into what actually happens during our menstrual cycle.

There are four stages of the menstrual cycle, which begins with menstruation on Day 1. While many resources suggest that the average cycle is 28 days, a normal cycle can be anywhere from 21 to 45 days (particularly in the case of teenagers).

A helpful analogy to understand menstruation and how you might feel in each stage is associating each stage with the seasons of the weather. We’ll break this down as we go through the stages.

Winter: Menstruation

Do you enjoy winter? The cosy blankets, warm cups of tea, layers of clothing. Personally, I am a summer gal but I won’t shame you for preferring the cooler weather.

Typically, people tend to be lower in energy during the winter months, opting to stay in rather than be super active outdoors. Your winter feels just like this. You’re low in energy and a bit blah because of what your hormones are doing!

During menstruation the endometrial lining is broken down and is shed, which results in bleeding (aka your period). Menstruation is a mix of the endometrial tissue and blood. The hormones oestrogen (oestradiol) and progesterone are at their lowest point.

Blood flow can vary during menstruation, and it is normal for it to be light on some days and heavy on others. Sometimes there may be small clots and the colours can change too. However, what is not normal is if the flow is so heavy that it stops you from doing your regular activities or you have to change your sanitary products (tampons, period underwear, cups or pads) every hour (Health Direct, 2023). If this happens, please consult a health professional. 

The season associated with menstruation is winter. Energy levels tend to be low and it is encouraged to rest and stick to gentle exercise. It is recommended to eat well, and avoid processed food, alcohol and caffeine as they can aggravate menstrual symptoms such as cramps. While some women report feeling relieved after going through pre-menstrual symptoms (or PMS), women may feel lethargic, tired, or even foggy or irritable during their period.

Think about things you can do to support yourself in your Winter Week. Perhaps you have more time at home and less things in your social calendar. Maybe you decide to make nourishing meals and go to bed early. 

Spring: Follicular Phase – Day 1 to 14

Spring is all about new energy! We have creativity and are ready for all those DIY jobs! This is the week to get out your to-do list and get ticking!

The follicular phase begins with menstruation and ends with ovulation. During menstruation there is an increase in the production of Follicle Stimulating Hormone, which stimulates the production of around 5-20 follicles in the ovaries. One of these follicles matures into an egg while the others break down. The mature follicle is what produces oestrogen to stimulate the thickening of the endometrial lining. 

During this phase, it is common for women to feel higher energy levels and feel more optimistic and overall positive mood-wise. Perhaps this is the reason why the follicular phase is associated with spring. Women may also report increased sexual desire in the lead up to ovulation, accompanied by higher levels of self-esteem and body image. 

What can you do to optimize your energy in your Spring Week? Perhaps you might schedule that big meeting this week because you will have the confidence to smash it or you might start that project that you’ve always wanted to get your teeth into. 

Summer: Ovulation – 16 to 32 hours

When we think of Summer we think of bright colours, long days and the joy that only Vitamin D can bring. 

Ovulation starts with a surge in Lutenising Hormone (LH). Ovulation gets its name from the process by which the matured egg bursts out of the follicle, the follicle then turns into the corpus luteum. The egg then travels down the fallopian tubes to the uterus. The egg survives for 24 hours from the time of ovulation. If the egg is not fertilised and pregnancy doesn’t occur, the corpus luteum disintegrates and menstruation begins. 

Ovulation is associated with summer. Women report feeling a positive mood, higher energy levels and better ability to concentrate, exercise and manage interpersonal relationships. Women also may feel like they have better skin and self-esteem. Some women report slight pain towards one side of the abdominal area, similar to period pain. This can be considered normal, however more intense pain may be an indication of other issues and may need to be examined by a health professional. It is also normal to have increased sexual desire, as our bodies are gearing up for pregnancy to occur through the fertilisation of the egg.

You are all about saying “yes” this week which is epic but might need some self-control too. If you are asked out on a date, maybe leave it to your Autumn Week to assess whether they are really right for you. And no saying yes to adopting puppies either!

Autumn: Luteal phase – 14 days from ovulation

Your Autumn Week is as crunchy as the leaves that fall to the ground. Irritability and the tendency to not have any logic when you can’t find that missing sock is rife this week. 

Ovulation makes way for the luteal phase, which lasts around 14 days (unless the egg is fertilised). The luteal phase ends before menstruation. The luteal phase is marked by a decrease in Lutenising Hormone and an increase in progesterone. 

It is during the luteal phase that the ruptured follicle (the one that released the egg) forms the corpus luteum, which is responsible for the increase in progesterone.  This then leads to the thickening of the lining of the uterus (endometrium), in preparation for possible fertilisation or pregnancy.  The luteal phase is associated with autumn, towards the later days of the luteal phase. PMS symptoms start to kick in along with that rise in progesterone, bringing along anxiety, irritability, appetite changes, cramps and even disturbed sleep. 

What do you need to do to support yourself in your crunchy Autumn Week? How can you communicate to the people you love with care rather than snapping?

What about PMS?

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) includes a range of physical and emotional symptoms that women may experience in the days prior to menstruation. Symptoms can start 4-10 days before the period. These symptoms include irritability, anxiety, lower libido, difficulty concentrating, bloating, breast swelling and tenderness, acne, headaches and tiredness. While mild symptoms are normal, it is important to seek professional support if they start to interfere with your day-to-day life (Jean Hailes, 2018)

3. Sexual reproductive hormones 

Now that we have set the scene, let’s learn about the key actors and their roles. 

Starting from the very top, what are hormones? 

Hormones are substances that are produced in an organ or gland in our body, such as the thyroid or pituitary gland, which then pass into our bloodstream and are taken into other organs or tissues to modify their structure or function. Some examples of hormones include adrenaline, oestrogen, thyroid hormones, and insulin. 

Let’s look at some of the key hormones involved in the menstrual cycle

Progesterone

Progesterone is the hardworking host who works overtime to make sure everything is ready for the guest of honour.Progesterone is a hormone secreted by the corpus luteum of the ovary, which is formed monthly as part of the menstrual cycle. Progesterone is released after ovulation, in the luteal phase. Progesterone’s main function is to thicken the inner lining (endometrium) of the uterus in preparation for possible pregnancy. If pregnancy occurs, the corpus luteum continues to maintain high levels of progesterone, which plays an important part in the development of the placenta, the fetus and other aspects of pregnancy. If fertilisation does not take place, the corpus luteum breaks down and progesterone decreases. Going back to progesterone as the host, they clean up house and restart the preparations for next month’s guests.

Oestrogen (also known as estrogen) 

This winner hormone is the chief of female sexual development. There are three types of oestrogen in the body (oestrone, oestradiol and oestriol). Oestradiol is the strongest form of oestrogen and the one that has the biggest function in the menstrual cycle. Oestradiol levels increase as the follicles in the ovary grow, which leads to higher levels of the Lutenising Hormone, which then helps the egg mature and be released from the ovary. Oestradiol also support the thickening of the endometrium. 

Lutenising Hormone (LH) 

The lutenising homorne is like the charge of electricity that gets all the cogs moving, the main cog being ovulation and then triggers progesterone. Not only that, if fertilisation occurs, LH also supports pregnancy through the production of hormones. It is safe to say that LH wants to be involved all the way through. The luteinising hormone is one of the main drivers of the menstrual cycle and has different responsibilities pre and post ovulation. In the first half of the cycle, LH stimulates the follicles in the ovary to produce oestradiol (one form of oestrogen). Around day 14 of the cycle, an increase in LH causes ovulation. Then once the corpus luteum is formed, LH stimulates it to produce progesterone. In men, LH stimulates the testes to produce testosterone. The lutenising hormone is produced by the pituitary gland.

Follicle stimulating hormone (or FSH)

Think of the writers of your favourite show, sometimes overlooked but figuratively birthed your favourite characters into existence. FSH supports the creation of both the follicles in the ovary AND sperm in the testes.The follicle stimulating hormone stimulates the growth of the follicle in the ovary before it is released at the time of ovulation, and increases the production of oestradiol. In men, it stimulates sperm production. FSH and LH are essentially team mates across the menstrual cycle.

References

  1. https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/luteinising-hormone/
  1. 2. https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/follicle-stimulating-hormone/
https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/menstrual-cycle

My period – What’s normal?. Jean Hailes, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.jeanhailes.org.au/resources/my-period-whats-normal (Accessed 20 August, 2023).

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Jean Hailes, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.jeanhailes.org.au/health-a-z/periods/premenstrual-syndrome-pms (Accessed 3 September, 2023)

Hill, M. (2019). Period power. Green Tree. 

https://shvic.org.au/for-you/reproductive-and-sexual-health/menstrual-cycle accessed 30 May

https://drbrighten.com/phases-of-the-menstrual-cycle/ Accessed 23 May, 2023

Menstrual hygiene: Gender inequality, cultural taboos and poverty can cause menstrual health needs to go unmet. Available at: https://www.unicef.org/wash/menstrual-hygiene (Accessed 29 August, 2023).

Heavy Periods – Health Direct, 2022. Retrieved from https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/heavy-periods (Accessed 3 September, 2023)

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