Like it or not, hormones control your life. These chemical messengers that travel through the blood to every organ and tissue in your body have a say in everything, including your height and weight, how your skin looks, how strong your bones are – and that monthly womanly occurrence otherwise known as your period.
The menstrual cycle ends the day before your last period finishes, and starts when you have your next one. Many women are familiar with the cramps, tiredness, bloatedness and moodiness that announce a period’s arrival. But are you familiar with what happens in between?
Interestingly, the hormonal fluctuations during this time may also affect your libido, openness to try new things, how you socialise, and even your pain threshold.
Based on a typical 28-day cycle, here’s a look at how your hormones may affect the way your mind and body function, and how you can not just deal but take advantage of these changes.
Do note that hormonal changes and their accompanying effects are generalised in this story and not every woman reacts to them in the same way. In fact, the same woman may have different reactions in different menstrual cycles.
WEEK ONE: DAYS 1 TO 7
WHAT HAPPENS: This is when your oestrogen level falls to the low end of the normal range. “Oestrogen is one of the most important hormones other than progesterone for women,” said Dr Cindy Pang, a gynaecologist from Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital. “It is produced by the ovaries, fat and adrenal glands in women.”
The hormone is credited for helping the reproductive organs function, such as egg growth, vaginal lubrication, and maintaining fallopian tube function as well as the growth of the uterus lining, said Dr Pang. Oestrogen is also responsible for fat storage. “It enhances the effect of the brain’s feel-good chemicals such as serotonin, maintains bone strength, and regulates cholesterol for good heart health.”
CLEAR YOUR SCHEDULE FOR "ME TIME": It may be a good idea to decline social invitations if your energy level is flagging. “It is possible that low levels of this hormone at the beginning of the week may make you feel like lying low and staying in,” said Dr Vivien Lim, an endocrinologist from Gleneagles Hospital and president of the Endocrine Metabolic Society of Singapore.
WEEK TWO: DAYS 8 TO 14
WHAT HAPPENS: Oestrogen and testosterone levels start to rise. Yes, women have testosterone, too, just as oestrogen is present in men, said Dr Lim. In women, the male hormone is essential for energy, libido, lean muscle mass, strength and brain function. This is also the time to say hello to an increasing progesterone level, the hormone required for maintaining a regular menstrual cycle.
SCHEDULE A FACIAL, DENTAL OR MEDICAL APPOINTMENT: If you have a low pain threshold, the increasing oestrogen level will bring you some comfort. “Higher oestrogen levels can trigger more endorphin output, making you more tolerant to pain,” said Dr Lim. This is the best time to have your facial, laser treatment, dental work or medical procedure that make you uncomfortable.
TRY SOMETHING NEW: Why not? You are feeling great with oestrogen on the rise. “As the oestrogen level rises, it may boost your mood, energy and patience. The effect can ratchet up your desire to socialise and seek adventure,” said Dr Pang. So go out and make up for all those dinner parties and drinks you’ve missed out on. Plan a holiday or try something new.
NAIL THAT PRESENTATION: If you’re up for a big presentation or public speaking event, this is the best time for you. According to Dr Pang, you are likely to think quicker, your verbal skills peak and your memory is sharper. You're also more coordinated and have faster reactions.
WATCH THE PASTA AND CAKES: Oestrogen and progesterone can cause food cravings, said Dr Lim, so you may find yourself going for foods that are high in carbs and sugar.
SPEND MORE TIME IN THE BEDROOM: Thanks to the rising testosterone and progesterone levels, your other half will be happy to know that your libido may experience an uptick. Be careful if you’re not trying to get pregnant because the mid cycle – around Day 14 – is when you may be at your most fertile.
WEEK 3: DAYS 15 TO 21
WHAT HAPPENS: Progesterone rises throughout the week. Oestrogen and testosterone levels drop in the first half of the week, before only oestrogen rises again, said Dr Pang.
WATCH YOUR MOOD: During the first half of the week, the plunging oestrogen makes you irritable, bloated, tired, and moody – symptoms commonly associated with Pre-menstrual Syndrome (PMS). The good news is, the hormone’s comeback in the second half of the week may ease the PMS.
SWAP KICKBOXING FOR YOGA: If you work out, you may be more in tune with your body if you turn down the intensity a bit. Progesterone, a sedating hormone, can make you feel quieter, more cautious, foggy and fatigued. You may also feel weepier than usual. It is possible that you are at your most tired during this week, said Dr Lim.
DON'T SKIP MEALS: Progesterone makes you crave food high in fat and calories. Your body is preparing in case you're pregnant and need the extra calories, said Dr Pang. “You are also more sensitive to blood sugar drops, which can make you feel cranky.”
STAY OFF THE SALT: Oestrogen has been linked to water retention and you may feel slightly bloated, according to Dr Lim. It may be wise to steer clear of salt-heavy foods such as Teochew porridge, charcuterie boards and instant noodles for now.
GET CUDDLY: The higher progesterone level may make you more responsive to sex. But the mood you're in may make you more inclined for cuddling in bed instead.
WEEK 4: DAYS 22 TO 28
WHAT HAPPENS: Progesterone and oestrogen levels peak and then they fall until the start of menstruation and the cycle restarts, said Dr Pang.
WARN YOUR PARTNER: The PMS symptoms experienced in the third week may persist and even worsen in the fourth week. The stronger progesterone presence can also bring on the mood swings for those who are susceptible, said Dr Lim.
“Not all women experience bad moods,” said Dr Pang. “But low oestrogen level can make you focus on the negatives than positives.”
GET TO THE GYM: You may feel energised as progesterone levels dip this week, said Dr Pang. Exercise is a good way to get your serotonin levels up, and you’ll need the boost to overcome your moodiness this week.
SAY HELLO TO PASTA AGAIN: If you’re craving rice, noodles and bread more at this time, it could be your low serotonin level talking. The low oestrogen level can bring down the mood-moderating chemical, said Dr Pang. Low serotonin can induce you to crave for carbs as starchy foods are known to replenish it, so you end up wanting to eat pasta more than a chicken chop, for instance.