What is a Hormone Anyway?
The menstrual cycle is a dance. The hormones ebb and flow to help with ovulation, prepare the uterus for a potential conception, and menstruate (if there is no pregnancy). They are powerful enough to make us buzz with the potential of new life, as well as leave us on the couch in rage and cramps. We tend to blame a lot on our hormones, without much consideration or knowledge of what it is that they actually do for our bodies.
Recently, I told my four year old that Mommy was crying because she was hormonal. I regretted it immediately, going down a spiral of ponderings on what I was communicating to him about being in a menstruating body, hormones, accountability, emotions, and respect; while he looked at me with compassion and curiosity, and said, “I am sorry you are crying Mommy, but…What is a hormone anyways?”
Kids have this amazing hunger for knowledge and the ability to break life into bite-sized bits. What’s a hormone anyways? Let’s start there.
Hormones: An Overview
Hormones are messengers that travel in our bloodstream carrying messages to specific sites in the body to create certain responses that would otherwise not occur. I like to visualize them as mail carriers with awesome calves. Their concentration in the bloodstream ebbs and flows depending on the time of the day, the season, and where someone is in their menstrual cycle. Some work overtime during Christmas – or ovulation, and tend to be quietly resting in early January – or pre-menstruation (ie. estrogen). Some tend to keep a steady workload throughout the year (ie. testosterone). All in all, hormones act to regulate and maintain balance within the body.
Hormones are produced in glands and they deliver messages to target cells spread throughout the body, in receptor sites such as organs and glands. For a response to occur, the messenger (hormone) needs to find the right address (target cell) that was designed to receive the message.
These messages are delivered + reactions occur in specific hormonal loops – carrier routes- that are known as an axis. The menstrual cycle occurs within the Hypothalamic – Pituitary – Ovarian (HPO) Axis. In a nutshell, the hypothalamus tells the pituitary gland to inform the ovaries to make hormones. The HPO Axis controls the changes in the Ovaries: maturing of the follicle, ovulation, forming of luteum corpus; as well as the changes in the Uterus: preparation, shedding, and regeneration of the uterine lining.
Why, oh why our menstrual cycles get impacted by other aspects of our lives and being? Much like everything in the body, the HPO Axis is not a stand-alone mechanism, and can be impacted by other hormonal loops. This is why our stress levels and lifestyle matters in relation to our menstrual cycles.
The (HPA) Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis controls our stress response. Why does this matter? If the body experiences long periods of stress, excessive exercising, deficient food intake and doesn’t have adequate energy all in all to spend on creating a baby, the HPA axis can decide to inhibit the reproductive system and make you stop menstruating or ovulating.
The (HPT) Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Thyroid Axis is involved in the regulation of metabolism. HPT also responds to stress (what doesn’t?). If the thyroid function is overactive (hyperthyroidism) or underactive (hypothyroidism), it can result in menstrual disturbances.
Hormones of the Menstrual Cycle
Here’s a very brief overview on the hormones of the menstrual cycle:
GONADOTROPIN-RELEASING HORMONE(GnRH): The hypothalamus releases GnRH to the pituitary gland, which then releases FSH and LH to communicate with the ovaries to make the menstrual cycle happen.
FOLLICLE STIMULATING HORMONE (FSH): Pretty self explanatory, FSH is secreted by the pituitary gland when hormone levels are lowest to stimulate the follicles to mature the eggs. FSH takes a break while estrogen levels are rising, and along with LH gives the ovaries one last boost for ovulation.
LUTEINISING HORMONE (LH): Essential for ovulation, LH is secreted following the peak of estrogen. LH, along with FSH, stimulates the follicle to produce more estrogen for the ovulation to occur. LH also tells the corpus luteum to produce progesterone after ovulation to start the luteal phase of the cycle.
ESTRADIOL : A form of estrogen, estradiol controls the first half of the menstrual cycle (aka- follicular phase), and is released by the developing follicles. Rising estrogen levels cause the lining of the womb to thicken and the cervix to start producing mucus to help conception.
PROGESTERONE: Produced by the corpus luteum, progesterone controls the second half of the menstrual cycle (aka – luteal phase). Progesterone causes the endometrium to secrete certain proteins to support the receiving and nourishing of a fertilized egg. Progesterone levels continue to rise after conception to support the pregnancy.
TESTOSTERONE: Not exclusively a *male* hormone, testosterone helps humans maintain and build muscle and bone density. It peaks before ovulation and gives menstruating folks a libido boost.
Hope this overview gave you an idea of what I mean when I say “dance”! Good news is that our bodies are incredibly wise and we don’t have to know the names of our hormones to have easeful menstrual cycles. However, it is useful to familiarize ourselves with the cyclical nature of our bodies, and to learn how to listen for our bodies’ needs, so that we can move through each phase with ease ~ both physically and psycho-emotionally!
Stay tuned for our next journal post on the phases of the menstrual cycle.
*Disclaimer: This information is meant to invite curiosity and inspiration about what TCM Acupuncture can offer to one’s wellness. TCM is a rich and nuanced medicine that takes a comprehensive and holistic approach to wellness. If available to you, please reach out to a licensed TCM Acupuncturist / Practitioner/ Doctor to receive treatments and lifestyle counselling tailored to your unique self.
** You can find me at Island Optimal Health + Performance (Rutherford Location) on Monday and Tuesdays!.
Period Power by Maisie Hill.
Treatment of Infertility with Chinese Medicine by Jane Lyttleton.