Hormonal health and menstrual cycles: Insights into hormones and their effects on women’s wellbeing
Hormones play an important role in regulating many of our bodily functions such as our menstrual cycles, but their influence extends far beyond just our physical health.
Women experience hormonal fluctuations throughout our lives. These fluctuations impact everything from our reproductive system, energy levels, weight and sex drive, to our emotional and mental wellbeing.
We’re becoming much more aware of the importance of hormones, and how an imbalance can have a significant effect on our wellbeing. In particular, much progress has been made around the subject of the menopause in recent years. As a result, instead of suffering in silence, or worrying about unexplained symptoms, women can now more easily access the reassurance and medical support they need to navigate this period of their life more smoothly.
And as with everything health-related, the more you understand about your hormones, and how they affect you and your menstrual cycles, the more empowered you are to make decisions, get the right help and enjoy better health.
So in this article we will look at the relationship between hormones and women’s wellbeing, exploring the effects of hormonal changes on mood, fertility, cognition and more.
How our hormones can impact our health
We are all aware of the notion that hormones can affect our mood and our menstrual cycles. Most women will experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS) at least once, if not monthly for much of their lives. But this isn’t the extent of the power that hormones have over our health and emotions.
Hormonal imbalances can lead to a wide range of symptoms – both emotional and physical. You can struggle with insomnia, balding, loss of bone density, lack of libido, exhaustion, fibroids, constipation, stiff joints, depression and more. In fact, there are few elements of your wellbeing – and life – that aren’t impacted by them.
Which hormones have the biggest impact on women’s health and wellbeing?
Unsurprisingly, the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone have the biggest influence on women’s health, including menstruation, pregnancy, menopause and more. But they aren’t the only hormones that affect our health, energy, weight and mood.
Let’s look at the hormones that impact women’s health and wellbeing the most, and what symptoms to look out for to check you don’t have an imbalance. If you are concerned about your hormone levels we recommend speaking to your doctor. They can check and prescribe treatments that will help you.
The hormone estrogen is responsible for the physical changes that occur during puberty, including the development of breasts, pubic and underarm hair growth and the start of menstrual cycles. It also helps to keep our cholesterol levels in control, protects our bone health and affects our brain (including our mood), heart, skin and other tissues.
If your estrogen levels are low, you may notice these symptoms:
- Infrequent or no periods
- Hot flushes and night sweats
- Dryness and thinning of the vagina
- Decreased sexual desire
- Mood swings
- Dry skin
And if your estrogen levels are too high, you might notice symptoms like these:
- Weight gain, especially in your waist, hips and thighs
- Menstrual issues, including light or heavy bleeding
- Increased PMS
- Fibrocystic breasts
- Uterine fibroids
- Lack of sex drive
- Anxiety and depression
Progesterone prepares the lining of your uterus for pregnancy after ovulation. If you don’t become pregnant, your progesterone levels decrease and you menstruate. If you do become pregnant, progesterone will help nourish and support your growing baby.
If your progesterone levels are low, you may have abnormal bleeding, irregular or missed periods, trouble getting pregnant, spotting during pregnancy and be at increased risk of miscarriage or preterm delivery. If your periods are irregular and you are trying to conceive, you might find a free period tracker helpful.
Low progesterone levels can increase your estrogen levels, which can lead to the following symptoms:
- Lower sex drive
- Weight gain
- Gallbladder problems
The hormone testosterone is usually associated with men, but it plays an important role in female health too. Your ovaries and adrenal glands produce small amounts of testosterone. These are released into your bloodstream, where they impact your sex drive, bone density and muscle strength.
If your testosterone levels are too high, you may notice these symptoms:
- Irregular or missed periods
- Excess body hair
- Greater muscle mass
- Deeper voice
When you go through menopause and your ovaries stop producing estrogen and progesterone, your testosterone levels usually decrease too. As a result, many women notice a lack of libido. This can usually be helped with supplemental testosterone.
Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that is located low at the front of your neck, and it secretes several different hormones.
If your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), you could have a condition called hypothyroidism, also known as an underactive thyroid. This upsets the usual balance of chemical reactions in your body, and is more common in women over the age of 60. If left untreated, it can lead to several health issues, including obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Sensitivity to cold
- Dry skin
- Weight gain
- Puffy face
- Muscle weakness
- Higher blood cholesterol levels
- Aching and stiff muscles
- Pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints
- Heavy or irregular periods
- Thinning hair
- Slower heart rate
- Poor memory
If your doctor suspects you may have hypothyroidism, they can take simple blood tests to check the levels of these hormones in your system and prescribe treatment to control most of the hormonal imbalances.
Why we need a holistic approach to hormones and health
As you can see, there is a vitally important connection between our hormones and menstrual cycles, and our health and wellbeing. An imbalance or lack of hormones can lead a number of physical and emotional symptoms that can drastically reduce a woman’s quality of life, and impact her personal and professional relationships.
This is why a holistic approach to our wellbeing is so vital. As well as educating ourselves on how our hormones work, and seeking medical expertise and treatment when needed, we also need to adopt healthy lifestyle practices and ensure we have enough emotional support to live well throughout the ups and downs of the different stages of our lives.