… the story of menstruation

The average age of starting your periods (menarche) in the UK is 12. The average at which they stop completely (aka menopause day), based on the typical hormone blueprint, is 51. That’s nearly 40 years of bleeding for 3-4 days, often longer every month for our whole lives (subject to certain health conditions, pregnancy or birth control contraception).

Other than managing the physical process of the flow of blood and the timing of the event, how much do you know about the hormones involved in the monthly-ish cycle? I’m not going to go into massive details right now, but at the very least I think it’s helpful to know that one of the key hormones released by the ovaries is estradiol, aka oestrogen. It is one of the family members of Oestrogen(s). This collective of hormones are steroid based and come classified as major and minor. Estradiol is a major one.

The way the menstrual cycles was explained to me, and in fact having checked lots of resources very recently still is, is that the focus is very much on the ovaries and the uterus. There are 4 hormones that ebb and flow, and together over approximately a 28 day cycle, trigger ovulation, followed by either a pregnancy or a period. I knew it could involve pain, food cravings, when you could get pregnant most likely, and the options for coping with the blood. Not much else really.

What goes through your mind when I tell you that the hormones called Oestrogens are also incredibly important for the following systems in the body?

  • Muscle and Bones
  • Digestive
  • Cardiovascular
  • Nervous
  • Brain
  • Liver
  • Respiratory
  • Reproductive
  • Immune
  • Energy release (metabolism)

That’s quite a lot of vital functions, wouldn’t you agree? Knowing that our oestrogen levels fluctuate during our menstrual cycle for 40 years, this would clarify why we can feel so different before, during and after our periods. Now, I’m no rocket scientist, but isn’t that the kind of detail that would have allowed you to put things into perspective and understand your biology?

You may have spotted the brain on the list too. That was a real shock to me. It turns out that, as well as being a hormone in general circulation, in the brain oestrogen acts as a neuroprotectant and neurotransmitter. Who knew?

JOINING THE DOTS … One of the key hormones in the menstrual cycle that goes up and down like a yoyo, plays an important role in practically every cell in our bodies.

Being aware of how we feel during our regular menstrual cycle, and how we respond to different foods, exercise and stress at certain points in your cycle, in my opinion, is worth recording as soon as you can. The hormone tipping point and shift into perimenopause is a curious thing. I often hear people who menstruate say they think they are at that point, but it’s hard to tell. I can relate to this, and my advice to my younger self would be to record your menstrual cycle as soon as you can.

During the early part of our reproductive years as our body’s are adapting to periods and the overall hormone collective (of which there are around 200), with wide reaching functions not just the sex kind, total background levels of oestrogen rise. That’s how important they are to our overall health. Not just biological females but males too. In females the primary location of the production of these hormones is the ovaries and in males the testes. In addition these hormones, with us from birth to death, are also made in other areas of our body’s, such as skin, liver, brain and fat cells.