We’ve already told you about how female hormones don’t just influence the menstrual cycle ; in fact, they are an important factor in overall health.
But how much do our hormones fluctuate during our menstrual cycle and what impacts do they have on us ? It’s quite fascinating to see all their power.
What is the mission of the menstrual cycle?
All the changes in hormones during the menstrual cycle have only one purpose: reproduction . Every month, almost without exception, the body prepares for pregnancy, even for those who will never have a child in their lifetime.
Understanding your cycle better means learning more about yourself, if only to be better able to prevent pregnancy , or to promote it .
First phase of the cycle: menstruation
When your period begins (the first day of your cycle ), the two main female hormones are at their lowest.
This is what causes bleeding and other related symptoms (cramps, headaches, etc.): the sudden reduction in estrogen and progesterone levels in the blood.
During menstruation, the uterus sheds the thick lining it had accumulated in the previous cycle in anticipation of pregnancy.
And while the body is bleeding, the next ovulation is already preparing! The ovaries and pituitary gland will release follicle stimulating hormone (HSF) . This allows one follicle (a tiny pocket of fluid that contains the immature version of an egg) to grow more than the others.
Slowly, after a few days, the ovaries begin to produce estrogen again.
Second phase of the cycle: preparation
During the days following the period, estrogen continues to rise gradually, then reaches a peak. When this peak occurs, a few days before ovulation, another hormone suddenly kicks in: luteinizing hormone . This appears in a rapid and brief thrust; in about a day it will be gone. But yet it is very important: it is what tells the growing follicle to release the egg. It is therefore the hormone that predicts ovulation. As the body prepares to ovulate, this is the only period of the cycle when testosterone increases . Many people believe that testosterone is reserved for men, but women also produce it, in lesser quantities.
Why is it higher just before ovulation? Quite simply because it is associated with the libido ! We remember that our body is focused on reproduction at all times, so it’s full of meaning. So just when we’re fertile, hormones make us want to have sex.
Other physical and psychological changes, subtle but still present, occur during this period: women often report feeling more confident, more sensual, more determined, more sociable, more impulsive, their skin becomes more dewy, their hair is shinier, etc. Incredible, isn’t it?
In general, high estrogen levels , as seen during this phase, make women feel more upbeat, less stressed, and have more energy.
The third phase of the cycle: ovulation
Ovulation occurs when the body decides it’s time to release the egg. This detaches from the follicle and waits to be fertilized. The follicle, meanwhile, begins to produce another hormone absent from the cycle until now, and which will dominate its second part: progesterone .
What is progesterone used for? If ever the egg is fertilized, it helps support this pregnancy by preventing menstruation from occurring. Progesterone therefore makes it possible to create a cozy little nest for a future baby: the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) thickens and becomes very comfortable.
Estrogen , on the other hand, remains present throughout the cycle, even if its level has dropped at the time of ovulation . In some women, this is associated with anxiety and/or emotional instability for a few days.
The fourth phase of the cycle: waiting
Once past ovulation, the body prepares to welcome a pregnancy. Progesterone continues to rise while estrogen remains fairly stable; the two work together to prepare a favorable environment for a pregnancy. Their combination causes some women to have tender breasts as they get closer to menstruation.
A few days before the expected start of the period, if the egg has not been fertilized, the body “decides” that a pregnancy will not occur, so it will begin to reduce estrogen and progesterone levels. It is from there that the famous premenstrual syndrome can occur, more or less long and more or less marked depending on the woman. The symptoms of PMS can be very varied: pain in the lower abdomen, depression, digestive disorders, fatigue, etc. In general, during this period when hormone levels are falling, it is the time of the cycle when we are most vulnerable to pain. So it’s a good idea to postpone appointments for waxing , tattooing , dental visits, etc.
Moreover, if at this time you crave sugar or carbohydrates (bread, crisps, pasta, pastries, etc.), it’s completely normal! When estrogen levels return to their lowest levels, it also affects serotonin levels, which are linked to depression and sleep, among other things. If your body wants to eat these foods, it’s because they can help you produce a little more serotonin!
So you can at this time listen to your body and eat a little more; your metabolism is faster and more efficient in the days leading up to your period. Unlike the high estrogen level which has rather positive effects, a higher progesterone level is associated with rather unpleasant effects such as acne , constipation, fatigue, etc. Eventually, when the hormones drop to a certain level, menstruation kicks in and the cycle resumes. If, on the other hand, a pregnancy takes place, menstruation does not occur and instead of falling, the levels of estrogen and especially progesterone will continue to rise as never before.
The role of contraception
Some birth control methods change the role of hormones in the cycle . If you take the pill, for example, it will not happen exactly like that for you.
The pill, but also the contraceptive ring and patch, will prevent the pituitary gland from releasing HSF, which means that the follicles will not develop and therefore there will be no ovulation. On the other hand, there are other methods, such as the intrauterine contraceptive (commonly called an IUD , with or without hormones), which do not contain estrogen. It therefore does not prevent ovulation.
When it does not contain hormones, it acts only locally, at the level of the uterus, to acidify it and prevent a pregnancy from taking hold and developing. When it contains hormones, it’s progesterone only (99% less than the pill). This type of contraceptive will prevent the uterus from becoming an ideal “nest” for pregnancy and will thicken the mucus, making it much more difficult for sperm to work.