So, we talk a lot about what happens when your hormones are disrupted or out of balance. But what about when our hormones are happy and healthy? What does hormonal health look like and why is it so darn good for us?
You’re probably sick of me banging on about how important hormones are by now. But they are really important! They are essentially responsible for coordinating all the functions of our bodies. Everything our body does! That is pretty incredible! Amazing that they ever get it right really!
But hormones have a bit of a bad reputation. They seem to get blamed whenever we are feeling a bit off. But what about when they are all doing their jobs and are all nice and balanced?
How hormones work
The endocrine system is the system of our body that has to do with our hormones. Hormones are the little chemical messengers in the body. yes, they travel through the blood all over to different organs and coordinate how your body functions.
The hypothalamus is a part of your brain that coordinates hormonal activity. It receives feedback about the hormone levels in the blood and then produces hormones to either increase or decrease hormone levels to keep the body in balance.
Menstrual cycle as a marker of hormonal health
There are so many markers of hormonal health, and so many things we might notice if our hormones aren’t balanced. An easy one to notice is our menstrual cycle. In women and people who have periods, our menstrual cycle is a pretty good gauge of whether our hormones are healthy or not.
The menstrual cycle is important
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG) recommends that in women, especially young women, and teenage girls, the menstrual cycle should be used as a “vital sign” of health and we agree. Other vital signs include our heart rate (pulse), blood pressure, or temperature. Essentially, the menstrual cycle is just as important as all the other signs of health, and people are finally starting to realize that!
The female menstrual cycle involves four main hormones: estrogen, progesterone, LH, and FSH. The balance of these hormones and their monthly fluctuations are what control our periods and our menstrual cycle.
We also have a huge number of other hormones in the body including:
- testosterone and
- thyroid hormones
When our hormones are healthy and balanced, we find it easier to function properly. The changes in our hormones over the course of our menstrual cycle can positively impact all sorts of functions in our bodies, including brain function, immune function, metabolism, and stress- sounds great doesn’t it?
Hormones and the immune system
Our immune system protects us from infection. It is pretty important that it is functioning well and able to do its job properly. Like most other things in our bodies, our hormones also affect our immune system.
Women’s immune systems
Women have stronger immune systems than men. We already know this (quite amazing right?). But as women’s hormones change throughout our cycle, our immune functioning changes with them.
During the first half of the cycle (during the follicular phase, before ovulation) our immune systems are at their strongest. Then, after ovulation, in the luteal phase, the immune function dips slightly.
This is caused by the rising progesterone levels. Progesterone rises in the luteal phase of the cycle and remains high throughout pregnancy if we become pregnant. Progesterone lowers the immune system function so that our bodies don’t attack the fertilized egg (which is half sperm, so half “foreign” to our bodies). This doesn’t mean that we will definitely get sick during our luteal phase, but we are just slightly less resistant to infections than during other times in the cycle.
Hormones and gut health
Our hormones are very much linked with our gut health as well. You might have heard of the microbiome – all the bacteria in the gut. Don’t panic – we need them there! The microbiome is essential to our gut’s ability to function, digest food and absorb nutrients. Without the microbiome, we couldn’t survive.
Sometimes, if the microbiome gets disrupted through diet, illness or antibiotics then we can notice changes.
The microbiome and our hormones are also linked. Some of the bacteria that live in our guts are partly responsible for metabolizing estrogen, yes, that is why gut and hormone health are so closely related. Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is important for keeping our hormones balanced.
Hormones and stress
The most well-known ‘stress hormone’ is cortisol. It is released by the adrenal glands in a daily cyclical pattern. It also increases when we are stressed or as part of the ‘fight or flight’ response. Stress hormones interact with the cyclical hormones of the menstrual cycle as well.
A combination of your biology and society’s expectations can increase stress levels before your period. Increasing stress can in turn disrupt your hormones and lead to symptoms like reduced interest in sex, reduced fertility and impaired sleep. Not good at all!
Equally, stress hormones like cortisol can disrupt the hormones of our menstrual cycle. This can then cause a delay in ovulation or the prevention of ovulation if the hormones are significantly disrupted. Delayed ovulation or absent ovulation can then lead to a late period, or irregular periods if your body isn’t getting coordinated signals about when it needs to bleed.
Stress and sleep
High levels of cortisol at night can prevent us from sleeping. This makes us more and more tired, and even if we do sleep we don’t wake up feeling rested. Balanced cortisol and stress hormones are important in our general sense of well-being.
Note on hormonal birth control
Remember that if you are using hormonal birth control (contraception), then the menstrual cycle hormones won’t behave exactly in the way I am talking about in this article. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – if hormonal contraception works for you that’s great! If it doesn’t and you want to change to something different then speak to a healthcare professional you trust. The advice for healthy hormones and feeling good is still valid though. We all need to prioritize our own well-being!
So what does all of this mean?
Essentially it means that the endocrine system is freakin’ incredible. The hormones floating around in our blood are coordinating all our functioning. Sometimes they get disrupted and cause problems, but there are some pretty simple things we can do to keep our hormones balanced and keep ourselves feeling good.
It is important to prioritise healthy habits for hormone health. A balanced diet is important for our gut health, as well as stress, weight and menstrual health. We’ve heard it all before but finding effective ways of managing stress is always going to be helpful, not only for our hormones but for our general sense of wellbeing. You might like to use mindfulness, meditation or yoga practices as structured ways of managing stress. You might prefer sitting outside, walking in nature or chatting to a friend. Whatever works for you is great!
Sleep is also so important! Prioritizing enough sleep is essential to feeling good and functioning well. Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep is fascinating if you want to know more about sleep – fair warning, it’s pretty eye-opening!
The more we can prioritize looking after ourselves and our well-being, the more our hormones will function properly and the better we will feel.