Menstrual Cycle Hormones: Why You Feel the Way You Feel

menstrual cycle hormonesI was 27 years old when my husband and I first began trying to have a baby.  I did what many other women in my situation have done – I bought a book.  While reading over all the chapters about hormones, phases of the menstrual cycle, and fertility, I could not believe how much I didn’t know about my own body!  I had absolutely no idea how to tell whether or not I was ovulating, and that is a pretty key thing to be aware of if you are hoping for a baby.  It wasn’t like I missed out on sex education classes either.  For some reason, the normal workings of the female body are woefully misunderstood – even by the very females experiencing them.

While there are definitely times when we would all gladly trade it away, the female body is absolutely incredible.   To quote one of the course descriptions at Udemy “It’s not as simple as ‘you have your period or you don’t.'”   Understanding the four phases of the menstrual cycle, and the hormones which accompany each can help you make sense of some things you may have been feeling.  Overwhelmed at times?  Exhausted, starving or super flirty at other times?  You are not feeling that way for “no reason”.

The “Follicular Phase” of the Menstrual Cycle

The follicles on your ovaries are maturing, and preparing to release an egg.  This phase begins as soon as your period ends.  You are likely happy just to have it over with, so you may notice a lightening of your mood, and an extra spring in your step.  At this phase, the hormones estrogen and progesterone are still at their lowest levels.  These low levels can mean a few things for you.  First off, you may feel tired.  This can be aggravating, considering your period can also make you feel tired, and that just finally ended.  Some women do not report much of a change in energy during this phase, so hopefully it won’t be bothering you too much.

The second symptom you may be experiencing is low libido, and that is thanks to the low estrogen and progesterone again.  While all logic might point to you being ready to hop back into bed with your partner as soon as your period is over, your hormones are saying otherwise.  Don’t take it too hard if you are not exactly feeling your sexiest at this phase. That will begin to change as the days pass.

The “Ovulation Phase” of the Menstrual Cycle

In this phase, the egg cell in your ovaries has reached maturity, and it released into the fallopian tubes, where it will wait to be fertilized.  There are two hormones at work during this phase, and they are estrogen and luteinizing hormone.  Estrogen is at its highest here, and many women report that they feel their best at this point in their cycle.

If there is a point in the month where you have the most energy, the highest sex drive, or the greatest ability to concentrate, it will be during ovulation.  Some women report that they just feel like everything clicks during these two to three days.  Some reports indicate that women do better in everything from exams to job interviews while ovulating, so enjoy the time while it’s here!

Now, a hormone surge the likes of the one that comes along with ovulation can sometimes have its drawbacks.  If you are going to have a breakout, there is a good chance it will happen right around now.  Some women also report changes in their sleep patterns.  That might be because you are so focused, and on your game, that you don’t settle down as easily.  That is not necessarily a bad thing!

The “Luteal Phase” of the Menstrual Cycle

That estrogen surge you were feeling a few days ago has been swapped out for a surge in progesterone.  The egg you released at ovulation is descending towards the thick layer of blood vessels your uterus has built up in anticipation of supporting a pregnancy.

This huge switch from estrogen to progesterone is what causes many women to complain of “PMS” (Pre Menstrual Syndrome) symptoms.  For one thing, progesterone causes a slight relaxing of the muscles and abdominal organs, which can lead to that bloated look.  Your body temperature goes up a bit, which can add to an overall discomfort or crankiness.  The sudden drop in estrogen can have a big effect on the serotonin levels in your brain, leaving you susceptible to depression, anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed.

As if all of that wasn’t already enough, you may find that you are craving sweets or carbs during this time.  Your brain is looking for ways to keep itself awake and focused without all that estrogen, and it will guide you towards the quick sugar fix.  For some women this avalanche of potential symptoms comes on slowly, and for others, it hits like a freight train.  You are at the mercy of some heavy duty body chemistry going on, so if you feel that these moods are disruptive to your life, your job or your relationship, don’t hesitate to tell your doctor.  There are many options available to you which may help.

Birth control pills with a low estrogen dose have been shown to help women with severe PMS symptoms.  Many women taking these pills report decreased (or absent) symptoms after a time.

The “Menstruation Phase” of the Menstrual Cycle

Estrogen and progesterone both drop back to a baseline level, and if you have severe PMS symptoms, you may actually feel better this week!  Cramps and tiredness are to be expected here, but there is another hormone at work called FSH (Follicle stimulating hormone).  This triggers the ovaries to begin the process of preparing the follicles to release an egg again, thus taking you back through your cycle again.

See?  Amazing!  True, it’s not always fun, but you have to admit that your body can do some really cool stuff.