Female Hormones 101
Although men and women share the same hormones, women's hormones are programmed differently.
Lew, who has a Masters of Medicine in Reproductive Health Science and Human Genetics, explains how oestrogen and progesterone (considered the female hormones) work.
"At the beginning of a cycle, as an egg begins to ripen, oestrogen rises," says Lew. "After ovulation, oestrogen stabilises and the hormone progesterone rises. Unless sperm and egg get together to form an embryo, progesterone falls and a period will eventually start."
Hormones work in a cascade and some that are released through stress have a huge impact on oestrogen, progesterone as well as testosterone.
"The long-term effects of stress can completely shut down a reproductive cycle, create infertility issues, skin break outs, hormonal migraines and weight gain," says Foat.
She adds, "The issue in chronic stress is that the reproductive organs lose circulation; production of progesterone and oestrogen is severely compromised and all sorts of ‘hormone hell’ can break loose."
Hormones and the female cycle
The 'hormonal hell' that Foat talks about is the result of our bodies trying to keep the species alive.
For example, our desire for sex is partly stimulated by hormones to create a reproductive environment that aligns with our fertility window. "A rising oestrogen level in the middle of a woman’s cycle causes an increase in sexual interest and arousal," says Lew. Which makes sense because ovulation is the time in your cycle when you're most likely to be fertile.
For some, a rise in oestrogen means an increase in arousal and libido but it doesn't necessarily work the same way for everyone. "Effectively, oestrogen is a happy hormone for most women," says Lew. "However, for some women with conditions like endometriosis, rising oestrogen around ovulation can produce pain."
And what about oestrogen's counterpart, progesterone?
"Progesterone can make a woman feel a bit bloated, can increase appetite and cause fluid retention," says Lew. "Falling progesterone levels can also cause low mood, anxiety and depression and in some women can provoke premenstrual migraines."
Listen To Your Hormones!
We call our ups and downs a hormone cycle but it can feel more like a rollercoaster. Female sex hormones can be the reason why you go from feeling tired to horny then angry in minutes.
And, if you regularly experience skin breakouts, mood imbalance, excessive pain or out of control cravings, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
"Your hormones are messengers and their levels are being influenced by your internal and external environment every single minute, with the aim of keeping your body in balance for optimal health," says Foat.
When your hormones are out of balance, your symptoms are an indication that something's not right. Tracking those symptoms is one way to understand what your body's telling you: it could be certain foods, too many late nights, or not enough exercise.
"The changing hormone level is letting you know of something that must be addressed," says Foat. "[Such as] stress to an organ, nutritional depletion, too much acidity in the body, inflammation or toxicity."
The Big Change
The good news is, managing your hormonal cycle does get easier. But it might also get worse first. Enter perimenopause.
"In perimenopause, as the ovary begins to run out of eggs, hormonal levels become disorganised and erratic," explains Lew. "This can cause a lot of symptoms including irregular and heavy periods, low libido, vaginal dryness, hot flushes mood and sleep problems."
Good nutrition, a strong and healthy foundation and deep, connected relationships will make this transition smoother adds Foat.
"Everyone experiences hormone related symptoms differently and everyone transitions through these phases of life differently based on their vitality and health," she says.
Long-Term Wellbeing For Women
As a naturopath, Foat is convinced that tuning into your body's own natural intelligence can help alleviate unwanted aspects of your female cycle.
"Symptoms such as low libido, irritability, tiredness and low mood are an overall result of the body being out of balance," says Foat. "The causes of these hormone imbalances must be addressed for long term health and wellbeing."
In her view that means taking an holistic approach with the aid of professional help and to not just rely on synthetic medication, such as the contraceptive pill.
"Many women feel out of their body and completely out of touch while on the pill," says Foat. "When a woman is disconnected from her hormones – her internal navigation system – she loses the ability to truly feel her purpose and her divine feminine wisdom."
And none of us wants that. But no matter which approach you take, balanced hormones will lead to a healthier, happier life in every way. So if you are at the mercy of your cycle seek the help of a trusted health professional and work with them to discover the root cause.
Because being a women shouldn't be a pre-requisite to monthly pain.