If you’ve ever wondered “why is my period (opens in new tab) so short / long / light / heavy?” or “why am I just so tired *all* the time?” or even “why do I feel fab one week and awful the next?” – the answer to all of these questions is your hormones (opens in new tab).
Hormones are “important chemical messengers,” says Vichy (opens in new tab) menopause expert Dr Shahzadi Harper (opens in new tab), that travel through your bloodstream to organs and tissues and “can have a number of effects on our physical and emotional health and well-being.”
When you feel hungry, they tell you to eat. When you’re stressed, they get your blood pumping, and at the end of the day, they let you know it’s time for sleep. “Hormones play a crucial role in controlling appetite weight and importantly mood,” says Dr Harper.
But, most significantly – well, for women anyway – they control our menstrual cycles (and gift us with fluctuating highs and lows). Yet with hormones receiving such little airtime, so few of us actually know how to use our monthly ups and downs to our advantage – and work alongside our hormones to help us feel our best, rather than just holding us back.
We caught up with Dr Harper to find out how learning more about your hormones – and tracking them – can help improve your life.
Let’s start at the beginning – what’s happening to my hormones?
A quick reminder of how it all works… once your period starts and falls into a regular pattern, your hormones ebb and flow throughout the month. “Our hormonal levels fluctuate during our menstrual cycle, which usually lasts around 28 days,” says Dr Harper. “In our follicular phase of a menstrual cycle – which is the first half – women have more of the hormone oestrogen.”
Oestrogen is the female sex hormone responsible for egg production and reproductive processes. “Oestrogen tends to give us more energy, is more uplifting when it comes to mood and repeats mid-cycle due to ovulation,” she says.
Progesterone is then released in the second half of the cycle. “We then have higher levels of progesterone – this is called the luteal phase of the cycle,” says Dr Harper. “Knowing how your menstrual cycle causes variations in your hormones can help us understand our bodies and how to manage them best during the different phases of the cycle.”
So what symptoms do hormones cause?
During menstruation, hormones can cause a whole host of problems – some of the most common symptoms include:
– PMS (premenstrual syndrome)
– Mood swings
– Menstrual cramps
How can diet and lifestyle help?
(Image credit: Getty)
“Your lifestyle can have an effect on the levels of a hormone and a western sedentary lifestyle – with a more processed diet – can cause fluctuations in insulin (a hormone created by your pancreas) and your blood sugar levels, that then can affect energy and mood,” explains Dr Harper.
“Having a stress/anxiety-free life and managing your environment by making it less stressful can reduce fluctuations in hormones, which can make us feel unsettled,” she says.
But it’s not just your lifestyle that can have a direct knock-on effect on how you feel, your diet – and how much you exercise – can affect your hormones too. “Having a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle can help to improve hormonal health and balance,” says Dr Harper. “Regular exercise can affect your hormones by improving blood flow and circulation to your brain, heart, and muscles, and triggers the release of happy neurotransmitters that will help to reduce anxiety and boost mood.”
Her top tips? “Ensure you have a diet with plenty of vegetables (such as dark greens including broccoli and kale), fruit and omega three oil – as these all aid metabolism, help manage appetite, reduce stress levels and provide energy. Reducing refined sugary foods can help to maintain our hormonal balance and having food based on a Mediterranean diet will also help to support our bodies.”
Do I need to get a hormone test?
“The only time to consider getting your hormones tested is if you feel out of kilter and it’s not just your female sex hormones, it’s things like your thyroid which sometimes can be overactive or underactive,” says Dr Harper. ”An underactive thyroid can cause you to feel fatigued, cause weight gain and be flat in mood. An overactive thyroid can make you feel anxious, give you palpitations, and give you loose bowels – so really any time to get your hormones tested is when you don’t feel like yourself.”