Dr Libby Weaver (PhD) is one of Australasia’s leading nutritional biochemists, a best-selling author and speaker.
Did you know that your period is just supposed to show up each month? That’s right, without any of the troubling symptoms many women experience recurringly. Those symptoms—from PMS, period pain, breast tenderness, mood swings to headaches—tell us a lot about our current state of health. As does the heaviness and the presence or absence of clots in the menstrual blood itself. When we regularly experience debilitating symptoms as our period arrives, it’s our body communicating to us that something needs to change. These symptoms are common, but they’re not normal, and they’re our body asking us to eat, drink, move, think, breathe or perceive in a different way.
So, what do period problems say about your health?
Any kind of symptom related to our period tells us that our sex hormones, primarily estrogen and progesterone—but also testosterone which women make in small amounts—are not in the right balance that they should be throughout the various stages of our cycle. Let’s take a quick look at these hormones and the roles they play in both our menstrual and general health.
Estrogen plays numerous important roles in the human body, including ones associated with reproduction, bone health and cardiovascular health. The ovaries of menstruating females make estrogen, and small amounts are produced by fat cells, the adrenal glands and the liver.
From a reproductive perspective, estrogen’s role in the female body is to lay down the lining of the uterus, and it does this between days 1 and 14 of a typical 28-day menstrual cycle, with day 1 of the cycle being the first day of menstruation. As a result of the biological imperative to conceive each month, estrogen ensures that there is adequate body fat, as most females do not immediately know when they have conceived. Without adequate body fat, it is possible that a brand-new foetus may not survive. To prevent this, estrogen signals for fat to be laid down in typically female areas, giving women a pear-like shape to better serve the childbirth process.
In a nutshell, estrogen plays many important roles in women’s health. It is when there is too much or too little of it that it poses a problem.
Progesterone plays a variety of roles in the human body. From a reproductive perspective, its job is to hold in place the lining of the uterus that estrogen lays down between days 1 and 14 of the menstrual cycle. If the body detects that a conception has taken place, the lining of the uterus needs to be maintained and thickened, rather than shed. As a result, progesterone levels begin to rise. If there is no conception, the lining of the uterus is not needed, and progesterone levels fall away, which initiates menstruation.
When health is optimal and the cycle length is 28 to 29 days, progesterone peaks seven days prior to menstruation on day 21 of cycle, and, relatively speaking, is the dominant sex hormone from just after mid-cycle until menstruation. However, this is often not the case for many women, and too often estrogen remains the predominant hormone throughout the entire cycle.
Biologically, progesterone has numerous other roles. It is a powerful anti-anxiety agent, an anti-depressant, a diuretic, and it is essential if you are to access fat reserves to burn for energy. Without the right amounts of progesterone across your cycle, you may have a tendency towards an anxious or depressed mood; if you feel like you have a fortunate life and yet you still feel flat, add guilt to that emotional cocktail and a degree of confusion about what is really bothering you.
The role that testosterone plays in male fertility is quite regularly discussed. What’s not talked about as often is the role that testosterone plays in a woman’s body. Women need testosterone but the amount of it and its ratio to other hormones matters immensely. Too much or too little can lead to problems. Too much and women may experience hair loss from the head, acne and mood changes that usually involve irritability, or we may find hair in places we don’t like such as the chin. Yet we need some testosterone for things like mood, energy, muscle mass, bone health and libido.
Signs and symptoms your hormones are may be out of balance include:
- Heavy/clotty periods
- Irregular periods
- Breast tenderness
- Headaches, especially in the lead up to or during menstruation
- Period cramps
- Nausea or vomiting around menstruation
- A tendency towards anxious or depressed feelings in a cyclic nature
- Mood swings
So how do these hormones become unbalanced and what do we do about it?
The two main mechanisms that drive sex hormone imbalances are an ‘overwhelmed’ liver and adrenal glands that are under the pump due to a relentless and persistent output of stress hormones. You may know that your liver is responsible for detoxifying problematic substances that you ingest, soak in through your skin or inhale from the air, but did you know it’s also responsible for detoxifying substances your body makes itself?
Fat-soluble substances, including hormones such as estrogen, are sent to the liver in order to be changed and sent off for elimination. Problems can arise, however, when the liver has more substances to process than it can handle. Since the substances your body makes are less likely to cause you harm than some of those you may be ingesting (think alcohol), estrogen can end up being recycled back into your bloodstream. This leads to there being more estrogen in your body than there is supposed to be, which becomes more of a problem throughout the second half of the cycle.
The best way to support your liver is through what you consume, breathe in or absorb through your skin. Some of this, such as environmental pollutants, you have little control over. However, you can change your exposure to problematic substances found in food such as preservatives and other synthetic additives, refined sugars, trans fats and pesticides, as well as through what you put on your skin and what you drink (i.e. alcohol, energy and soft drinks). Essentially this translates to focusing on eating in a way that prioritises whole, real food and reducing your exposure to alcohol, packaged foods and conventional skincare products containing synthetic substances.
Since the adrenal glands are responsible for making some of our sex hormones along with stress hormones, when we live in a way that communicates danger or stress to the body, they can get a pretty good workout. Here’s the thing. Your body has your survival at the top of its priority list—which is great, right? What this means though, is that any process in the body that isn’t deemed absolutely necessary for your survival, can be down-regulated so that other processes which will prioritise your survival can get pushed forward. Without unpacking this too far, sex hormone production (and fertility) isn’t considered a high priority in times of stress or danger so this might be put on the backburner by your body until it deems you are safe. What drives your body to perceive stress or danger in your life? Well, aside from actual moments of danger which for most of us these days are thankfully rare, it is most often your perception of pressure and urgency, the overconsumption of caffeine or living life at a hectic pace without taking time to rest.
Supporting your adrenal glands and reducing the production of stress hormones can have an incredible impact on various aspects of your health, including your sex hormone balance. The best way to communicate safety to your body is, believe it or not, via your breath. While it sounds too simple, taking long, slow breaths into your belly and exhaling at an even slower rate, is something you would never be able to do in real danger, hence its calming effects. So integrate a breathing practice into your daily routine. Other things that help include taking a break from coffee, practising meditation, restorative yoga, tai chi or qi gong and just taking some downtime to give your body space to catch up.