Up there with the most powerful chemicals known to the human body, it's time to start showing hormones the respect they deserve and stop using term 'hormonal' as an insult.
Most of us learn a little about our bodies and reproductive systems while in school (and going through puberty) but are less than an expert on what happens within them each month. Unless we are trying to get pregnant, or are having some sort of issue - like raging premenstrual syndrome (PMS) - our hormones and the effect they have on us tend not to be at the forefront of our minds.
But those hormones dictate much more than simply when we have a period - and keeping them level is something a lot of women battle with but don’t often talk about. Research commissioned by Irish supplement brand, Cleanmarine showed that 43 per cent of women suffer from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and 37 per cent suffers from perimenopause/menopause.
For all of these women, the symptom of biggest concern is hormonal imbalance – something that is often equated with the beginning and end of our menstrual life and not the in-between. “When we think of female hormonal stages we tend to focus on puberty and menopause, but there are so many female hormone stages in between,” explains Sarah Brereton, Nutritionist for Cleanmarine. “Being aware of hormonal changes in our bodies through life’s stages is the first step in learning to manage our hormones to enable us to live happy, healthy lives.”
YOUR HORMONES MATTER
Our hormones can be responsible for our general health, mood, focus, energy levels and sex drive – so knowing what you’re dealing with is the first step to getting to grips with them. The so-called sex hormones have specific roles and work together in harmony, although external factors can impact on them.
Familiar modern life traits such as stress, poor diet and a lack of exercise can disrupt them, resulting in things like fluctuating energy levels, mood swings, skin problems and period issues.
There are four main sex hormones to be aware of:
Oestrogen is produced by the ovaries around days five to seven of your monthly cycle. It peaks at day 14, when it initiates ovulation and the subsequent depletion triggers the start of a period. Outside of that function, oestrogen stimulates bone cells and is important for heart health. It also stimulates collagen production, improving skin tone and elasticity influences the metabolism and helps keep the mind sharp.
Produced after ovulation, progesterone helps the body prepare for and support a healthy pregnancy. Other health benefits include a calming effect on the nervous system and mind, and it can keep the stimulation of oestrogen under control.
While it’s thought of as a male hormone, women produce a small amount of testosterone. It’s helpful for good energy levels, cognitive function, metabolism, sex drive, muscle mass and focus.
FOLLICLE STIMULATING HORMONE (FCH)
Produced by the pituitary gland, FCH helps to bring on puberty and your monthly cycle. It also stimulates the growth of ovarian follicles, enabling an egg to be released every month. Levels increase during perimenopause (which can be at any stage from late thirties to early fifties).
NUTRIENTS TO KNOW
Our bodies are complex systems and nutrition and overall health play important roles in keeping the thing on a (relatively) even keel, hormonally speaking. For general and hormonal health, you should make sure to get adequate amounts of the following into your diet:
Omega-3: Essential fatty acids can’t be made by the body so need to be found in the diet or via supplements. Fish oils, full of good fats, are important for heart and brain health and are also thought to help with PMS symptoms.
Magnesium: Sarah Bereton advises introducing magnesium into your diet – you’ll find it in wheat germ, green leafy veg, nuts, seeds and buckwheat. “Magnesium is excellent for both muscle cramps and bones, it’s also known as nature’s tranquillizer,” Sarah explains.
Iron: Important for the development of new red blood cells. Women are more at risk of anaemia due to the iron lost during menstruation. Riboflavin, or Vitamin B2 is important too, as it contributes to the normal metabolism of iron.
Zinc: If you’ve been on the pill for many years, you could be deficient in zinc or other important nutrients. “Zinc contributes to normal fertility and reproduction. Increase zinc containing food such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds oily fish and almonds,” advises Sarah.
Vitamin B6: This water-soluble vitamin can improve energy levels and regulate hormonal activity. It’s also involved in the formation of healthy red blood cells and some research suggests it helps with PMS symptoms.
As research into hormones and health increases, we are learning more about what’s needed and a new supplement brand is taking a different approach.
The Triump Cycle Supplement from Vitropics works around the three phases of the menstrual cycle. “The more we talked to other women, the more we understood the need for a supplement that changed throughout the month,” said founders Donna Ledwidge and Renée O’Shaughnessy.
Rather than one supplement, the brand offers three – for use during the menstrual, pre-ovulatory or post-ovulatory phases. Taking the monthly ebb and flow of as its guide, the supplements are designed to offer a blend of nutrients relevant to what the body needs at the time of the month.
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This article was first published in the April 19 issue of Irish Tatler