One of the biggest challenges that women face is hormonal fluctuations. Hormones play a huge role in women’s health in general and can impact their sleep, mood, concentration, and general wellbeing. Understanding what causes female hormonal fluctuations, and how various lifestyle choices can impact them is an important first step towards improving your overall wellbeing.
An Overview of Female Hormonal Fluctuations
Some women are fortunate enough to breeze through life without experiencing major hormonal fluctuations, but for many women, hormones can have a huge impact on their day to day lives, and fluctuations can leave them feeling as if they have lost control of their emotions and their lives.
There are many times that a woman’s hormones can change, including:
– Monthly hormone fluctuations relating to the menstrual period
– Weight gain and loss
– The Perimenopause and menopause
Puberty is a time of change for both young men and women, and it can be a challenging time as the young person is experiencing greater independence and is pushing the boundaries put in place by their parents, teachers and other caregivers. Add in the flood of sex hormones that their bodies are experiencing1, and it can be challenging for the young person to understand what is going on with their bodies. Estrogen is the main female sex hormone, and changes in estrogen levels can produce mood swings.
When a woman begins menstruating, they will experience fluctuating hormone levels throughout the cycle, as they experience the follicular phase, ovulation, and menstruation. The duration of each phase and the impact that it has on their mood and wellbeing can change as they get older and enter perimenopause2.
Pregnancy presents its own challenges. During each trimester, the body releases different hormones, including human chorionic gonadotropin, insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1I) and IGF-II, as well as alpha-fetoprotein3, as well as estrogen and progesterone4.
Body fat can be considered to be an endocrine hormone, and body fat levels can impact hormone levels. Women who are overweight or underweight are likely to have fertility issues, because they have lower estradiol levels than those who are a healthy weight5. Even a ten percent change in body fat can impact hormone levels.
The menopause and the period of time leading up to it, called the perimenopause, can be difficult times for women because their bodies start to produce less estrogen and progesterone. They may experience hot flashes, night sweats, a reduction in bone density, changes in their period, and changes in their mood as well. A woman is said to have had her menopause when she has not had a menstrual period for 12 months, and after this, they typically find that their symptoms level out6.
Lifestyle Changes to Maintain Your Hormone Balance
A number of hormonal issues can be managed through lifestyle changes. As simple as it sounds, getting regular exercise and good quality sleep can be hugely beneficial. Improving your diet can also help with hormone balance.
One mistake that a lot of people make is assuming that fat is the enemy. The old Food Pyramid recommended eating lots of carbohydrates and limiting fats, but more recent research has shown that dietary fat is actually very important for both men and women. Fats are required for the production of estrone, estradiol, and testosterone. Women who consume healthy fats have higher levels of estrone than those who do not7.
Overall, eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise is important for hormone balance. Exercise can decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, can help to regulate insulin (which is important for blood sugar and energy control), and can improve thyroid balance as well as having a beneficial impact on both male and female sex hormones8.
As with anything, balance is important. Women who participate in sports at a high level and who train hard often develop what is known as the ‘Female Athletic Triad’, where they experience low energy availability, disruption of their menstrual periods, and decreased bone mineral density9. This is particularly common in weight class sports where women feel compelled to keep an abnormally low body fat percentage.
Coping When Your Hormones are Out Of Balance
When a woman’s hormones are out of balance, it can cause a lot of problems, beyond just simple “erratic moods”, bloating or cramps. Women are at a greater risk for depression than men (although men are less likely to seek treatment, and therefore tend to experience more serious side effects if depression strikes them). Hormonal fluctuations such as those associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and the menopause10 can impact on a woman’s physical and mental health significantly.
Diet and exercise can help with depression a lot. Indeed, there are some companies that have built their brands around selling ‘bread fortified with plant estrogens’ to support women’s health.
Many whole foods can help women to stay healthy. Avocados, Broccoli, Beans and Flax Seeds all contain compounds that can regulate estrogen levels. The phytoestrogenic compounds in broccoli, for example, can promote beneficial estrogen, and the calcium in the vegetable can reduce symptoms of premenstrual syndrome11. Beans, on the other hand, contain fiber and lignan which can regulate your appetite and contain phytoestrogens which can help to regulate estrogen.
When Diet Doesn’t Help
If changing your diet seems not to be helping then there are other options. Some women find that taking a contraceptive pill can help to regulate their hormones, reducing period pains12 and even helping to manage migraines13. Women who are going through the menopause will sometimes opt to have hormone replacement therapy in order to help to reduce symptoms such as hot flashes or night sweats. Doctors may recommend HRT specifically to women who are at risk of developing osteoporosis as their estrogen levels decline. HRT can offer some significant quality of life improvements for women who are going through, or who have experienced, the menopause14.
While the benefits are clear, the medical community remains split about the risk/reward balance of using HRT. Some recent research suggests that there is no increase in all-cause mortality with women who use hormone replacement therapy for five to seven years15. Other studies, however, suggest that there is a risk to using combined HRT and that women who use combined HRT are more than twice as likely to develop breast cancer than those who are not, with the risk increasing the longer the hormones are used16.
The choice to use HRT or not is a nuanced one, and one that each woman should discuss with their own doctor, because the risks vary depending on the type of hormones used, as well as the individual’s health and their family history. Those who decide not to use HRT do have some other options for managing hormone-related symptoms.
Essential Oils for Hormone-Related Issues
There are numerous products that are promoted as being helpful for women suffering from PMS, for pregnant women, and for those who are going through the menopause. Surveys of the target audience themselves, though, show that almost half feel confused about their options, and around 75% of women do not feel well informed when it comes to herbal products17.
When it comes to essential oils, things are even more confusing, because there are so many to choose from. There are some firm favorites, however:
– Lavender: This is known for its calming effect on the nervous system, and it can be a powerful mood stabilizer and neuroprotective agent18.
– Clary Sage: This essential oil has been found to help reduce cortisol levels in menopausal women19. Cortisol is a stress hormone which can cause low moods and depression-like symptoms.
– Tea Tree: While tea tree is best known for its antimicrobial and antifungal properties, it has some other powers as well. It has been found to be estrogenic, to the point that one study found that it could promote gynecomastia (breast growth) in young boys20. More research is needed to determine how powerful tea tree is in this regard, but it could be that the essential oils can help with women who are in need of an estrogen boost.
There are other oils which are thought to be estrogenic, including geranium and rose otto21, and it is thought that those oils can stimulate the production of estrogen in women who are generally healthy. Therefore they could be useful for controlling perimenopausal symptoms.
The female hormone system is complex, and there are many things that can cause hormone fluctuations. If the suggestions above do not help you to feel better, then it is well worth talking to a doctor. They will be able to offer suggestions based on your individual symptoms and your medical history, as well as rule out any health issues which may be more serious than day to day hormone changes.
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