Weight, mood, sleep and sexual desire are all controlled by your endocrine system, which produces over 30 hormones. Here’s an A-Z guide for how to keep them in check…
Words by Holly Grigg-Spall
Plan life around your period or fertility with a free hormone-tracking app:
CLUE: Monitor your basal body temperature (BBT), cervical fluid and menstrual cycle to calculate the best days for a breast exam, smear test or when to expect mood swings.
MY MOONTIME: This app allows you to pinpoint the optimum time in your cycle for productivity (and that meeting with your boss), lust (hello, date night!) and calmness.
KINDARA: This app gives you greater control of your fertility by charting basal temperature ‘shift’ to help you better achieve or avoid pregnancy.
When we’re at our most fertile – after ovulation and before your period – high levels of the ‘social hormone’ progesterone makes heterosexual women more open to same-sex experimentation. According to the University of Portsmouth, we are less driven to procreate and more interested in experimental, non-baby-making-sex. Who knew?
Women who are not on the pill have more sexual fantasies, because oral contraceptives suppress the natural hormones that increase libido, according to the Kinsey Institute. During the first stage of the hormone cycle, fantasies focus on physical sex, but once women ovulate they’re more turned on by emotions.
The hormone oestrogen is responsible for those white stains in your underwear during your fertile phase – cervical fluid, or discharge, is produced as a natural lubricant to improve vaginal PH and help sperm on its way to your uterus. After ovulation, it may become less watery and thicker in consistency. Be aware of brown or yellow discharge, which could signify an infection.
Nasty parabens in some plastic shampoo and cosmetics bottles have been found to disrupt your endocrine system- the control centre for your body’s hormone production – causing PMS, cramps and weight gain. Studies are inconclusive, but those chemicals have been found to interfere with your natural hormone functions, so look out for paraben-free products.
Why is it, some days you want to wear brights and statement jewellery, and others not? ‘During pre-ovulation, we feel more body confident, so we dress in tighter, bolder clothes,’ explains Miranda Gray, author of The Optimized Woman: Using Your Menstrual Cycle to Achieve Success and Fulfillment. ‘In the menstrual phase, we usually wear darker, looser clothes.’
We’re at our most alluring during ovulation, about two weeks before your period, according to a study in the Oxford Journal of Human Reproduction. Your face and breasts become more symmetrical, there’s a natural rouge to your lips and cheeks and men are attracted to subtle changes in your voice and scent.
Unsurprisingly, alcohol plays havoc with your hormones, but there’s a reason why you feel horny on a hangover. Sex releases oxytocin, a natural pain and stress reliever, so it’s nature’s best cure.
In her book Period Repair Manual, Dr. Lara Briden explains how to spot a hormonal imbalance. This usually means you’re making too much or too little oestrogen and progesterone, which can trigger anything from acne to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.
But what are the signs?
– You’re in bed by 10pm most nights, but not ready to wake up by 7am.
– You get seriously hungry if you don’t eat every two hours.
– You’ve called in sick to work because of period cramps
– You’ve noticed excess hair on your face, arms and chest, or experienced hair loss
– Your concentration span has got worse.
If you recognize these symptoms, first go to your GP, but Dr Briden also suggests managing stress to keep the hormone cortisol in check. ‘Get enough rest, relaxation and fun into your schedule and take magnesium and phosphatidylserine supplements, and herbal remedy Rhodiola.’
Long-haul flights disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm – our natural wake and sleep cycle – leading to a lack of melatonin hormone. Combat jet lag and its side-effects by taking melatonin supplements before bed for two days prior to travel, continuing for a few days after arrival in a new time zone.
Scientists from Rutgers University, New Jersey, found that men prefer sloppy kisses with open mouths, because saliva is swimming with testosterone – the hormone responsible for libido – so kissing is more likely to get women in the mood. They also found that kissing gives partners an instinctual insight into their lover’s personality – dopamine is associated with risk-taking and creativity, serotonin with loyalty and calm, testosterone with decisiveness and oestrogen with patience.
For a sustainable diet, eat and exercise in sync with your cycle. Alisa Vitti, author of Womancode, explains how:
– Cut out white carbs and sugar to avoid making the hormone insulin (which controls glucose levels in the body) soar and crash. This helps your blood sugar to stabilize and stops the production of extra fat cells.
– High-intensity exercise, like spinning, raises body temperature, releasing the hormone irisin, which reprogrammes fat cells to burn energy instead of storing fat.
– Rest between exercise days. Tiredness and anxiety cause high levels of cortisol, which makes you crave unhealthy foods and triggers the production of belly fat.
Menopause is caused by a change in the balance of sex hormones. Oestrogen levels decrease as you reach menopause, which causes the ovaries to stop producing an egg each month. Most women experience menopause between 45 and 55 with 51 being the average age. In rare cases – one in 100 – women experience early menopause before 40. Hormone Replacement Therapy is used to control symptoms such as night sweats and mood swings.
Your menstrual cycle lasts 21 to 35 days and an average period is two to five days, with around 3 tbsp of blood loss in total. But here are three totally normal things your period might also do…
1. Be late occasionally, illness, stress, travel and over-exercising are all causes.
2. Changes as you get older. Your cycle tends to either shorten to two or three weeks or lengthen to many months the nearer to menopause you get.
3. Vanish while you change contraception. It could take months to return.
OXYTOCIN AND OTHER HORMONES
The endocrine system creates and manages over 30 different hormones. Here are a few connected to your reproductive system:
– Oxytocin causes the womb to contract in childbirth and makes you produce breast milk. It’s also released during an orgasm.
– A lack of serotonin, a feel-good hormone, can make PMS worse. Increase levels via food (turkey, fish, veg) or supplements.
– Estradial is our main oestrogen hormone. It works in sync with dopamine to keep us content and help us sleep.
– Luteinising hormone is responsible for pushing the egg towards the womb.
Women who were on the Pill when they first met their boyfriends may fancy them less when they stop taking it, but only if their partner was not conventionally attractive to begin with. Good news if he’s more appealing when you come off the Pill. A study of 118 newlyweds by Florida State University found when suppressed natural hormones start flowing again, women’s perceptions of attractiveness changes.
It’s harder to stop smoking when you’re on your period. Wait until you’re in the fertile phase, when not only are your hormones primed to support you, but you’re more open to new, healthy habits that will stick.
In Understanding Your Mind, Mood and Hormone Cycle, author Leslie Carol Butha calls women experiencing rage the week before a period ‘hormonal hostages’. She suggests a cycle-tracking app to prepare yourself, also ‘less coffee and more exercise’.
What’s happening to your face indicates what’s going on inside. Dermatologist and UCLA’s associated clinical professor of medicine Dr Howard Murad explains:
CHIN, JAWLINE AND MOUTH: ‘Acne here is usually cyclical and occurs during or before menstruation and ovulation, thanks to increased androgen levels combined with a drop in oestrogen.’
CHEEKS: ‘During menopause, cheeks may look sallow due to lower collagen production.’ FOREHEAD AND UPPER LIP: ‘Increased progesterone and oestrogen can cause overproduction of melanin, triggering melasma, which causes dark brown or grey skin patches.’
Women have it, too, just less than men, and levels are highest during your fertile years. At optimum levels testosterone makes women more positive and less stressed, keeps skin supple and increases bone-mineral density. But too much testosterone can lead to absent periods, excess body hair, acne and increased muscle mass. It can also be a sign of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.
The NHS now offers fertility awareness method classes, teaching how to interpret changes in your cycle and work out when you’re most fertile, or you can book private fertility awareness clinics at fertilityuk.org.
They have better sex than meat-eaters, apparently. Plant-based foods contain phytoestrogens, which influence hormones that heighten sexual activity. At University of California, Berkeley, researchers found when monkeys ate leaves with oestrogen-like compounds they had more sex.
WHEN HORMONES HIT
You told us:
‘Yesterday, feeling pre-menstrual, I cried uncontrollably watching a documentary about an orphaned baby baboon.’
‘Just before my period was due, I was walking my dog, and another dog started nipping at her. I turned on the owner, unable to contain my fury.’
‘The day I ovulate, I get obsessed with men and start trawling the net for pictures of Channing Tatum with his shirt off.’
Sync your sex life with your hormones:
BEFORE YOUR PERIOD: You’ll feel less physically attracted to your partner, so it might be a good time to break out that new solo toy or erotic read.
DURING YOUR PERIOD: For some, sex is best now, thanks to added lubrication (it’s also a cure for cramps).
AFTER YOUR PERIOD: Try something new, Role play? A different position? Your hormones shift around now, making you more inclined to initiate sex.
WHEN YOU’RE OVULATING: Your sex drive will be highest, but you’re also at your most fertile so play it safe.
As in ‘Yes, I will buy those new Acne boots.’ A study from the University of Hertfordshire showed that ten days prior to your period, you’re more likely to go on a spending spree.
Just before your period, you may find it harder to sleep and wake at night. This is down to dips in progesterone and oestrogen, leaving you without their soothing qualities. Naturopathic Dr Lara Briden says: – Go tech-free an hour before bed. Blue light stops your body producing enough melatonin to make you sleepy. – Try magnesium supplements, which relax the muscles and lower your adrenalin.
Holly-Grigg-Spall is the author of Sweetening The Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control (£12.99, Zero Books).