It’s a common theme I see as a Naturopath. Young women going through high school and into their early adulthood, without the empowering understanding of their hormones and precious reproductive cycle.
I was no different! To be honest, throughout my teens I didn’t know when and how ovulation took place. I was equipped with the basics – knowing I inconveniently had my period once a month but because I was on the oral contraceptive pill, I wouldn’t fall pregnant. I was oblivious to the fact that my ovaries had shut down and I wasn’t ovulating, let alone getting an explanation from my GP about potential short and long term side effects of taking the “innocent” daily pill.
It wasn’t until my naturopathy studies that I began to truly understand the intricate happenings of a woman’s cycle, both naturally and on synthetic hormones. It fascinated me and once I was supporting patients in clinic, I developed a passion to pass this knowledge on to women like yourself. Educating you about options other than synthetic hormones is of vital importance to me. There are natural ways to balance your hormones and overcome hormone driven symptoms along with natural contraceptive alternatives which empower you with knowledge of your natural cycle rhythms and are free from dangerous side effects. More information on that in Balanced, The Natural Way To Healthy Hormones.
But first let’s take a look at what is involved with your magical menstrual cycle. Yes, I did say magical.
SO WHAT ARE HORMONES
Hormones have the significant job in your body of delivering important chemical messages to your tissues and organs. Ultimately this controls your metabolism, hunger, cravings, sexual function, physiology, reproduction, moods and energy levels, as well as skin and hair health.
Your hormones are produced from a group of cells called endocrine glands and these include the hypothalamus, pituitary and pineal glands in your brain, thymus gland, adrenal and thyroid glands, your pancreas and ovaries (in men, ovaries are replaced with testes).
MENSTRUAL CYCLE SUMMARY
Your complex reproductive cycle is a brain driven event with your master gland, called the hypothalamus, calling the shots. To ensure a cycle runs its natural course, communication and feedback loops occur between your hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in your brain, with your ovaries. This interaction controls the different stages of your menstrual cycle.
Your hypothalamus triggers the development of an immature egg by releasing gonadotropin – releasing hormone (GnRH). GnRH functions to stimulate your pituitary gland (also in the brain), to release two powerful hormones into your bloodstream – follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH). In response to this production of the FSH and LH from your pituitary gland, hormones progesterone and oestrogen are released from your ovaries at differing amounts throughout the cycle.
These female hormones perform powerful actions within your body such as triggering the development for future reproduction (at puberty), initiating the formation of a new life, nurturing a baby through pregnancy and breastfeeding and eventually slowing the reproductive process as you reach menopause and beyond. Reproductive hormones also allow adaptive response to stress, exertion and strong emotions, such as love.WHERE IT BEGINS
Your menstrual cycle begins at puberty, with an initial surge of oestrogen from your ovaries, which was stimulated by the pituitary gland in your brain. This oestrogen promotes the growth of your breasts, the development of your reproductive system and the shape of your body. Cycles are often irregular for the first year after your initial period, as the body perfects its intricate communication of hormones and events occurring throughout your menstrual cycle. Once egg production and follicle development is running on schedule, your menstrual cycle should regulate into a monthly occurrence.
DEVELOPING A CYCLE
Although great variation can occur from cycle to cycle and from one woman to the next, a textbook cycle will last for 28 days. Day one is the first day of your period (not including spotting) and the last day of your cycle is the day before menstrual bleeding begins once again. Ovulation will therefore occur around day 14, leaving a 2-week time frame to the lead up of your next period.
From my experience in Naturopathy clinic, this textbook 28-day cycle with ovulation occurring on day 14, is not the norm for many women. A delay in ovulation can often occur, which creates a lengthier follicular phase (explained below) resulting in a longer cycle. Otherwise a shorter follicular phase may occur creating a shorter time from your period to ovulation, or a shorter luteal phase may take place (ovulation to your period). The latter of the two is a common cause of an infertile cycle, referred to as a luteal phase deficiency- more info on this can be found in Balanced, The Natural Way To Healthy Hormones.
The first half of your cycle, from menstruation up to ovulation is known as the follicular phase and is responsible for your egg development. During the follicular phase, your cervix is blocked by a thick mucous plug which protects your reproductive system from infection and also prevents conception, by blocking the entrance of sperm.
At some stage in the follicular phase (this differs for every woman), the follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) stimulates small amounts of oestrogen and progesterone to be produced from your ovaries and sent throughout your bloodstream. The oestrogen triggers several clusters of cells (called follicles) to begin ripening. Each of these follicles contains a precious egg. As the follicles grow, they manufacture and further release oestrogen (oestradiol) into your blood stream. During the follicular phase, oestrogen levels build up to a peak, just before ovulation.
This heightened level of oestrogen stimulates the production of a fertile, wet, sperm-protective mucous from your cervix which is usually very detectible for you to feel and see. These mucous changes are an important sign that your body is preparing for ovulation and therefore should be considered a time of potential fertility.
Ovulation is the magical time when the fully matured follicle has made its way to the surface of the ovary and ejects an egg into the abdominal cavity.
For ovulation to occur, your pituitary gland must release a surge of luteinising hormone (LH) that therefore triggers your ovaries to promote this fully matured follicle. LH also stimulates the ovaries to produce increased levels of the sex hormone progesterone. If ovulation was to happen on day 14, this progesterone surge occurs around day 12-13 of your cycle.
Along with supporting the development of the tissue and blood in your uterus, progesterone encourages the change to a slippery sensation of egg-white type mucous at the cervix, a rise in body temperature and an increased libido, which you may experience at the time of ovulation.
IMPORTANCE OF PROGESTERONE
Interestingly, progesterone also initiates communication from the matured egg producing ovary to the other ovary, to stop the growth of their follicles. This allows the chosen matured follicle to continue rapid growth (up to 3⁄4 inch in size), in the last 1-2 days before ovulation.
Once the egg is released at ovulation, the follicle transforms into an endocrine gland, known as the corpus luteum and resembles a blister on the surface of your ovary. Oestrogen production continues from the corpus luteum but progesterone should be dominant in this second half of your cycle called the Luteal Phase.
As Dr Sherrill Sellman explains in her book Hormone Heresy: What Women Must Know About Their Hormones, “When Progesterone peaks (in the luteal phase), there is about 200 times as much progesterone as oestrogen.” (pg. 35, 1)
Progesterone also plays an important role in balancing your moods, by stimulating the activity of the calming neurotransmitter called gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or better known as GABA. Progesterone is the precursor for a neuro-steroid in the brain called allopregnanolone. This neuro-steroid binds to a GABA receptor, stimulating GABA activity which results in helping to alleviate your pain, anxiety and irritability. (2)
The luteal phase of a cycle can vary from woman to woman but is generally the same time frame during each of your cycles. This can vary from 11-16 days, but must be at least 11 days for the cycle to be considered fertile. A short luteal phase indicates an issue at ovulation leading to inadequate progesterone production or an early drop in progesterone levels. As progesterone is the hormone required to ripen and preserve the tissue and blood of your uterus, a deficiency causes premature shedding of the uterus lining and results in an infertile cycle called a luteal phase deficiency. Learn more about this in my book, Balanced, The Natural Way To Healthy Hormones.
If the egg is not fertilised in your fallopian tube within 24 hours of ovulation, it will die and disintegrate. If a fertilised egg is not implanted into the lining of the uterus, the body will reabsorb it. In both cases the levels of oestrogen and progesterone drop off and from 11-16 days following ovulation your uterus sheds it’s lining, making up the blood of your menstruation.
The bleeding of menstruation typically lasts 4-5 days but also varies from cycle to cycle and woman to woman. This process should be virtually pain free and should not cause the need to be housebound, due to heaviness (although I often hear reports of otherwise). You can get some support for painful periods in this post and this book.
As the follicular phase kicks off, more hormones are released, new growth occurs and the cycle continues.
It is important to note that when you are taking the oral contraceptive pill, your ovaries are actually shut down. You will not ovulate and therefore your bleed is not a natural period, but merely a withdrawal bleed from stopping your active hormone pills.
WHEN LEVELS DROP
At around the age of 40 (in some cases much earlier or later), a woman enters the stage of peri menopause. It is still unknown if this is initially triggered by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain, or the ovaries. As follicle stimulation drops off, your production of oestrogen and progesterone from your ovaries will also reduce by around 40-60% at the time of menopause. Periods become irregular, light and eventually cease completely. Menopause is embraced once you are without a menstrual cycle for 12 consecutive months.
It is important to note the ovaries continue to produce small amounts of sex hormones, along with the adrenal glands, which work in unity to support bone and skin health, libido and protect against heart disease. Adrenal gland health is therefore crucial to support a symptom free transition into menopause.
TUNE IN TO YOUR CYCLES
Charting is a powerful tool to understand any changes which occur in your body throughout your period, follicular phase, ovulation and luteal phase. Accurate charting can also be used for a natural contraceptive method.
By being in tune with the cyclical changes that occur from day to day, you will become aware of potential hormonal imbalances that drive your unwanted symptoms and conditions. Applying dietary, lifestyle and supplementation support will therefore be much more effective at promoting a smooth journey throughout the weeks of your cycle.
For more information about specific hormone imbalances (signs, symptoms and conditions), along with testing and treatment options, pick up your copy of Balanced, The Natural Way To Healthy Hormones.
(1) Sellman, S. Hormone Heresy, What Woman Must Know About eir Hormones. Australia: Joshua Books; 2011.
(2) Schule C, Nothdur er C, Rupprecht R. e role of allopregnanolone in depression and anxiety. Prog Neurobiol. 2014 Feb;133:79-87.