Many of us talk about being ‘hormonal’ as a catch-all phrase to describe the way we’re feeling.
And as we approach menopause, our hormones go through a time of transformation, and feeling ‘hormonal’ can become an everyday occurrence for some women.
There’s a symphony of hormones at play throughout your life. When your hormones are balanced, you generally feel good. But when the balance of your hormones changes that’s when you often experience problems.
Below, we explain some of the symptoms you might notice with both excessive and declining hormone levels, and you may find that some of these overlap. The key is to find your own way to restore some balance to your hormones. Hormonal balance and preservation of your remaining hormones is important to help you through your perimenopausal years, menopause and beyond.
While you can’t avoid the natural transition into menopause, there are certainly plenty of things you can do to help yourself as your hormones begin their sometimes wayward journey of change. And as with most things, forewarned is forearmed. In the same way it’s a good idea to have an understanding of your menstrual cycle, knowing what’s happening to your body during menopause can help you make the right decisions for you to restore some balance.
What are oestrogens?
Oestrogen is the hormone most commonly associated with women. And if you’ve spotted signs of the perimenopause or you’re further along your menopausal journey, you’ll probably have discovered that the levels of this powerful hormone play a vital role in how you look and feel.
Perhaps you’ve come across claims that your ovaries just ‘fail’ one day and your oestrogen levels take a nose dive towards oblivion and disappear once your body approaches the menopause. But it’s all rather more complex than that.
What do oestrogens do?
This hormone is responsible for lots of processes in your body. It:
- Triggers the ‘ripening’ and release of an egg every month ready for fertilisation.
- Stops the release of follicle stimulating hormones (FSH) so that only one egg is released.
- Nourishes the tissues of the body with blood and keeps them youthful and elastic, including the tissue of your skin and the vagina.
- Regulates new bone turnover and cholesterol levels.
- Keeps your organs such as your brain, liver and heart healthy.
- Maintains your brain power by affecting your levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter associated with neuron growth and associated with memory and learning.
Throughout your reproductive years, it’s mostly produced in your ovaries, then after the menopause, when ovulation no longer occurs, your fatty tissue, breast tissue, liver and adrenals take over the role, producing lower levels of this hormone.
Did you know there are three types of oestrogen?
There are actually three main types of oestrogen which each work differently in the body.
This is the strongest and most active form of oestrogen. It is produced in your ovaries and is responsible for those changes during puberty and your menstrual cycle. When we discuss perimenopausal oestrogen levels, we are usually referring to this one.
At the time of the menopause itself, our bodies begin to produce oestrone – another form of oestrogen which our bodies convert to oestradiol. This hormone is produced in your ovaries while they are still operational, then switch to your fatty tissue, liver and adrenals. Unlike oestradiol, oestrone doesn’t fluctuate on a monthly basis and is significantly weaker.
This is the weakest form of oestrogen and is produced in the placenta during pregnancy. While it doesn’t play a role in your menopausal journey, it’s part of the whole oestrogen picture.
What happens to our oestrogen levels during the menopause?
The hormones oestrogen and progesterone work together in your body to regulate your menstrual cycle. During your perimenopause, the levels of these hormones fluctuate greatly and it is often the imbalance of these hormones which leads to symptoms of the menopause occurring.
Here’s what happens:
If you’re like many women, you’ll probably notice that something is changing from as early as your mid 30s, even though you might not be able to quite put your finger on it. Around this time, your levels of progesterone begin to decline and fall out of balance with oestrogen.
Additionally, your ovaries become less sensitive to the powerful effects of FSH – the hormone which stimulates your follicles to produce oestrogen – so your body creates yet more of the stuff. This makes you ovulate sooner, shortening the second half of your menstrual cycle (the time between ovulation and your period).
Towards the final year of the perimenopause, you’ll have a sharp decline in your oestrogen levels and are likely to experience ‘classic’ menopause symptoms such as hot flushes and memory problems.
There is a considerable overlap between oestrogen dominance and oestrogen decline. The best way to tell the difference between the two is to look at your menstrual cycles.
With oestrogen dominance, you’re likely to notice heavier periods with increased clots which yo-yo with unpredictable cycles. With oestrogen decline, your periods will grow noticeably lighter and further apart.
What is progesterone?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking menopause is about oestrogen and ovaries and nothing else, but there are other powerful hormones at play during this time, too.
Progesterone is one of the primary hormones which plays a vital role in the health of your reproductive system, your overall health and how balanced your hormones are as a whole. It also helps keep your oestrogen levels in check.
What does progesterone do?
Progesterone plays a number of important roles. It:
- Boosts natural feelings of calmness
- Helps us to enjoy relaxing, rejuvenating sleep
- Increases your pain threshold
- Helps normalise blood sugar levels
- Can improve your mood
- Plays a central role in achieving and maintaining pregnancy
Progesterone is produced in your ovaries after you ovulate, in the placenta during pregnancy and smaller amounts in the adrenal glands.
What happens to our progesterone levels during menopause?
Progesterone plays an opposing role to oestrogen, helping it to achieve balance and keeping tissue growth in check.
Throughout the course of your menstrual cycle, these hormones are in perfect balance, first oestrogen rising in the weeks leading up to ovulation, then progesterone taking over until your period arrives.
But during the perimenopause, this doesn’t happen. The relative balance of progesterone and oestrogen changes, making your cycle less predictable.
Here’s what happens:
During the perimenopause, the first symptom that many women notice is a lengthening of PMS symptoms, along with a constant feeling of irritation and even weight gain. This is thanks to declining levels of progesterone which can no longer ‘oppose’ oestrogen during the second half of your menstrual cycle and can cause you to become oestrogen dominant. You might notice changes to your menstrual cycle, such as heavy bleeding, light bleeding, shorter or longer cycles or a shorter time from ovulation to bleeding.
Other potential symptoms at this time could include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Mood swings
- Brain fog
- Migraines and headaches
- Hair loss
- Heart palpitations
- Itchy, twitchy legs
Continued decline of progesterone and oestrogen
Later on, these hormones both continue to peak and trough as your reproductive system winds down.