Do you dread getting your period? For one or two weeks of the month, do you feel like someone else? Irritable, anxious, insomnia, headaches, bloated, heavy? Are you constantly fighting low iron and fatigue? Hormone imbalances can happen gradually over years but can eventually affect every part of our day from work to sleep.
Thankfully, these same symptoms give you hints about your hormone status and give you early warning signs about where you’re needing more support in your daily life. From our 30s or 40s hormones you can see the result of subtle changes in our hormones that accumulate over months or years. These hormone imbalances lead to many of the uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating symptoms we experience with the cycle. Given these imbalances, it’s understandable to dread certain times of your cycle and feel like you and your body are on different pages.
What I find powerful about women’s hormones, is that it represents nature itself. Like changing ocean tides and seasonal changes in climate, our hormones are designed to change from day to day and through each phase of life. These ebbs and flows of hormone levels are not meant to be inconveniences – they reflect your body’s natural ability to heal! Health is dependent on the balance of life cycles. In Chinese medicine, this not only applies to the monthly cycle but also the phases of life. For women, there is a new cycle every 7 years (for men, every 8 years). Every 7 years, a new and important phase begins, for example periods starting at age 14 and menopause at age 49.
Unfortunately much of our modern life is designed around the workforce, not around the cycles of nature. This dissonance pushes many of us to lead with our minds instead of listening to our bodies’ needs.
How do hormones change during the cycle? Menstrual cycle lengths are different for everyone but for this purpose, we’ll use a 28 day cycle:
Day 1: The period Shedding of the uterine lining; most hormones like estrogen progesterone and testosterone tend to be low during this time, you might notice headaches or lower appetite during this time.
Day 7 to 14: Estrogen and Testosterone rising Estrogen is a growth hormone so during this time, there’s follicle growth and you may notice more “plump” cheeks or lips and skin clearing. With rising testosterone, this is a great time for more resistance exercise like heavier weights. There may also be more interest in sex as ovulation approaches.
Day 14-16: Ovulation The release of an egg, kicks off the luteal phase
From ovulation to Day 27: Progesterone rising The remaining part of the follicle secretes progesterone (estrogen keeps rising also). The lining of the uterus starts to grow again requiring more energy while progesterone can stimulate your appetite, slow down bowels and loosen ligaments. So during this time, it may be helpful to focus on more green leafy, high fiber veggies and other high fiber carbs. It can also be a good time for lower intensity exercise.
As you can see, optimal health requires adjustments in exercise, nutrition, rest and recovery in order to support and work with your hormone phases.
Overall estrogen and progesterone levels naturally and gradually decline through our 30s and 40s – this does not necessarily lead to symptoms. The symptoms of perimenopause come from the fact that we typically see progesterone decline more than estrogen. Here are some of the most common reasons for this imbalance.
- Estrogen dominance
Although estrogen is a vital hormone for rebuilding body tissue, our modern lifestyle can lead to excess estrogen contributing to mood issues, heavy periods, higher risk of breast and endometrial cancer. High insulin levels can lead to excess body fat. And within fat cells testosterone and cortisol can be converted to estrogen. That means that chronic stress (and higher cortisol) can drive more estrogen production. To make matter worse, many environmental chemicals have estrogen-like effects on our body (these are called xenoestrogens). We are all exposed to these toxic chemicals in our food, water and household products. Avoidance and elimination of these compounds are an important part of balancing estrogen.
- Progesterone depletion
Progesterone is an amazing hormone that is an antidepressant, helps us use fat for energy and protects us from cancer. It also helps maintain the uterine lining to prevent excess bleeding. However, cortisol and progesterone are made from the same “ingredients” so when the demand for cortisol is high (when we have stress), cortisol “steals” these ingredients from progesterone and overtime progesterone levels decline
- Liver congestion
One of the many functions of the liver is getting hormones ready to be cleared from the body. Especially in the case of estrogen, the slowing down of this function can make perimenopause symptoms worse. But how does your liver function become compromised? Every one of us has hundreds of different types of environmental toxins in our body (like xenoestrogens, phthalates, heavy metals). Many of these chemicals are fat-soluble meaning they are stored in our fat tissue. The liver is working non stop using energy and nutrients to try to remove these chemicals safely but can only do so much. Insulin issues are also common with our modern diets adding to the burden on the liver. Often hormone imbalances are the first sign we have that our liver function needs extra support.
Chronic stress, environmental toxins and diets of our modern life contribute to many of the hormone imbalances we see in perimenopause. If we continue to ignore these signals, symptoms can worsen to severe anemia, harsher transition at menopause and higher risk of cancer. However when we acknowledge our body’s signals, learn to adjust our lives to support our cycles (instead of trying to fight them) there’s a huge potential for rebalance. My patients often describe this as “I feel like myself again”.
Here’s where I would start: Realign your relationship with your body and your cycles; instead of fighting against it, listen for clues. Get support to interpret these signals if needed. Nurture yourself, as you nurture your family. Deepen your time of self care and reconnection on a daily and monthly basis. Once or twice a year support your liver and reset hormones with a metabolic detox. This is a 10 day program that helps to clear environmental toxins and balance hormones. I could see the improvements in my own symptoms immediately in the following cycle – I can’t wait to do the program again! Sign up here to learn about our next virtual group metabolic detox.