Hormones are responsible for myriad bodily functions, and they affect our bodies in myriad ways, including our mood. Since the menstrual cycle features so many different hormonal processes, most women experience related emotional symptoms.
Many women report their symptoms being trivialised, their suffering considered unimportant and inevitable. This attitude discourages seeking treatment, and in many cases prolongs our suffering with symptoms that could have been diminished, even eliminated, with relative ease.
‘Hysteria’ was once a common medical diagnosis for women, based on the theory that the uterus could travel freely around the body. (This idea was later connected to demonic possession!) Symptoms of hysteria included anxiety, irritability, fainting, sexually forward behaviour, lack of sexual desire, and generally inconvenient and unpredictable behaviour.
We have now arrived at a much more accurate understanding of the female body and its cycles and are able to analyse mood swings from a hormonal perspective.
In this article, we will be talking about estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. The first two are generally considered female hormones, while the third is thought of as a male hormone. However, both men and women produce all three to a certain extent.
Estrogen—the female sex hormone—plays a major role in the female reproductive system. Most of a woman’s estrogen is produced in the ovaries, but it is also made in the adrenal glands and in fat cells in small amounts. During pregnancy, the placenta produces estrogen.
The term ‘estrogen’ actually refers to a family of chemically similar hormones—estrogens:
The levels and development of estrogens vary at each stage of life—puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. At the onset of puberty, estrogen plays a role in the development of so-called female secondary sex characteristics, such as breasts, wider hips, as well as pubic and armpit hair.
But it doesn’t stop there! Estrogen…
Estrogen also controls lactation and other changes in the breasts, it is instrumental in bone formation and plays a role in blood clotting. This hormone maintains the strength and thickness of the vaginal wall and the urethral lining and regulates vaginal lubrication.
These are only some of the reasons we need estrogen. It’s fair to say that estrogen is a pretty important hormone when it comes to how our bodies and minds function. Unsurprisingly, this means that when estrogen levels fluctuate, other things do too, including menstrual cycle, hair growth, and happiness.
Progesterone is a steroid hormone belonging to a group of hormones called progestogens; progesterone is the major progestogen in the human body. Its physiological impact is amplified by the presence of estrogens.
The corpus luteum in the ovaries is the main site of progesterone production, but it is also produced in smaller quantities by the ovaries themselves, the adrenal glands, and the placenta (during pregnancy).
Progesterone plays many roles, but we will focus primarily on its role within the reproductive system.
Progesterone prepares the endometrium for a potential pregnancy—in the event that the released egg is fertilised. Progesterone also prohibits muscle contractions in the uterus, which would cause it to reject an implanting egg. If the egg is not fertilised, then the corpus luteum breaks down, lowering progesterone levels in the body, and another menstrual cycle can begin.
Progesterone is sometimes referred to as the ‘pregnancy hormone' as it plays a major role in the development of the foetus, including:
Once the placenta has developed, it becomes a secondary source of progesterone (the primary source being the corpus luteum). This causes a pregnant woman’s body to maintain elevated levels of progesterone throughout her pregnancy; this stops additional eggs from maturing and helps prepare the breasts for milk production.
Both estrogen and progesterone levels drop significantly before menopause. This is thought to be the cause of many common menopausal symptoms, so women going through the change are often prescribed hormone replacement therapy to treat their symptoms. However, this must be done with caution as there can be side effects.
Testosterone is a primary sex hormone and an anabolic steroid. It is produced by the gonads—the testes in men, and the ovaries in women. The adrenal glands also produce small amounts of testosterone in both sexes. Testosterone levels surge during adolescence and drop in the later decades of life in both men and women.
Testosterone is an androgen, which means that it stimulates the development of secondary sex characteristics in males:
Testosterone in women is generally found at 5–10% of the amount found in males. In women, testosterone works in combination with estrogen to help repair, grow, and maintain tissue and bone mass.
Current theories point to the hormonal fluctuations present in the second half of the menstrual cycle as the main cause of mood swings. During the ovulatory phase, a woman’s body releases an egg, which triggers a drop in estrogen and progesterone levels that can cause both physical and emotional symptoms.
Changes in estrogen and progesterone levels influence serotonin levels. Serotonin is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It helps regulate your mood, sleep cycle, appetite, and digestion.
About 95 % of the serotonin in your body is produced in the lining of your gastrointestinal tract, where it regulates the movement of your intestines. The remaining 5 % is produced in your brainstem, where it transmits signals between nerve cells in your brain.
Serotonin in the brain is thought to be one of the most important hormones regulating mood. However, it’s important to keep in mind that serotonin’s role in preventing/causing the symptoms of PMS, especially the psychological ones, isn’t fully understood.
The hormonal system is complex, and we are only scratching the surface here. Hormones often work in combination to regulate the complex systems on our bodies. Therefore, it is not possible for a doctor to prescribe a magic pill to improve your mood.
If you think you are experiencing mood swings related to your menstrual cycle, keep a mood journal so you can track how you feel through the different stages. PMS will be rhythmic, cyclical.
Having a detailed log of your last few cycles is also handy if you want to bring up your symptoms with your doctor. It can help your doctor get a better idea of what’s going on.
Our period–tracking app is a convenient place to log information about your mood and other symptoms as you track your cycle.
Make a note when you experience any of these symptoms:
Depending on your medical history, your doctor may recommend a hormonal birth control method, such as the pill or the patch to help relieve bloating, tender breasts, and other physical symptoms of PMS. For some people, they can also help relieve emotional symptoms, including mood swings.
For others, hormonal contraception can make mood swings worse. You may need to try several different types of birth control before you find one that works for you.
Several lifestyle factors also appear to play a role in PMS symptoms. Addressing these may help:
Some women learn to love their mood swings and use the introspective time to engage in creative activities. It’s ok to feel low or unsure. It’s ok to take time to process the events of your life. It’s ok to feel all of your feelings. They are telling you something.
Is what you are experiencing more serious than the change in mood associated with the onset of menstruation? It’s not always easy to tell. Again, a mood journal can help you understand how long you have been feeling blue and how your feelings change over time. A trusted friend or family member may be able to give you some perspective.
If nothing seems to help, consider talking to your doctor about antidepressants. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common type of antidepressant used to treat PMS-related mood changes. These are prescription medications that some women find very helpful when going through a rough patch.
Nothing ever stays the same. Paying attention to the way hormones work in your body reinforces this truth. None of us is perfectly healthy and happy all of the time. We get off track in many ways. If you are out of sorts, you may be able to push the feelings aside for a while, but in the long run you will be glad if you take the time to consider what is affecting you and what can help you get back to where you want to be. It’s always going to be an inside job. It’s true for all of us and that’s ok.
You can track your period using WomanLog. Download WomanLog now: