Hormones tend to invoke fairly negative opinions from most of us, particularly when associated with the menstrual cycle.
But how much of this reputation do hormones deserve? Are they really as bad as they seem?
What actually are hormones?
Hormones are extremely important substances for keeping your body functioning in a healthy manner. They are your chemical messengers, responsible for sending instructions to any part of the body, just like molecular postmen. The range of hormones in the body is extremely diverse and each is responsible for transmitting their own specific messages. For example, adrenaline makes you alert and energised; growth hormone makes you, well, grow and several different hormones work together to control your menstrual cycle.
How do they control our cycle?
The two biggest players are oestrogen and progesterone, which are produced by the ovaries. Oestrogen levels start low and rise in the first half of the month, maturing a new egg and stimulating the uterine lining to grow. Progesterone rises in the second half of the cycle and ensures the lining is mature and ready to receive a fertilised egg. When progesterone levels drop, the uterus sheds its lining and menstruation occurs.1
This is a tightly controlled system that has evolved over millions of years. But controlling the menstrual cycle is not the only role of oestrogen and progesterone. They also affect many other parts of the body, including the brain.2
How do they affect our moods?
The actual effects that hormones have on our brains are still subject to much debate. There are several lines of evidence to suggest that oestrogen promotes the release of dopamine and serotonin, which are associated with a feeling of pleasure.2 Other known ways to trigger their release are exercise, chocolate, even sex. Especially sex.
In the week before menstruation starts, oestrogen levels drop sharply, which may explain the increases in stress, anxiety and irritability that often occur at this time.1 However, having too much oestrogen can have a similar effect. Similarly, there are reports that too much or too little progesterone can also cause these symptoms.3 Precisely how oestrogen and progesterone trigger these effects in the brain is an extremely complex question that we don’t yet have an answer to.
The most important thing is having the right amount of both hormones. The hormonal messaging system exists in a delicate balance, with each one trying to deliver their specific messages to the right place at the right time. Too much or too little of either oestrogen or progesterone shifts this balance, which can result in the messages getting mixed up along the way. It’s like being in a meeting where half the people are shouting and half are whispering, and everyone’s talking at the same time. The messages are going to get confused.
Several unpleasant symptoms are associated with hormonal imbalances, not just in the brain, but all over the body, such as bloating, breast tenderness, irregular periods and many more.3 Some women find that taking a hormonal contraceptive can help reduce these symptoms, and the number of periods they have. Speak with your doctor to find out more information.
Given the complexity of the human body, it is not fully clear which of these symptoms are caused directly by the hormones themselves. There are lots of complex things going on in our insides and it’s almost certain that other factors play a role. The hormones help keep us alive and healthy by sending messages all over the body in a tightly coordinated system. So don’t lay all of the blame on them. After all, they’re just the messengers.