The majority of women bemoan their menstrual period as a hassle and a real drag. Millions of Rands are spent on researching and marketing personal products, offering women freedom and freshness during that time. Even so, from the very first time you experience your monthly blues, it’s become a dreaded time of the month. Young girls, starting their menstrual period are deemed to be on the edge of womanhood, and your period indicates that your body is working well and is primed for procreation. But what’s it all about? What actually happens in your body over a monthly cycle and how do the changes affect your mood?
THE FERTILE WOMB
Starting in your brain, the hypothalamus, which is responsible for regulating your body’s thirst, sleep, hunger, libido and hormone patterns, releases a chemical messenger to tell another gland in the brain (pituitary) to release follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH) into the blood.
Your menstrual cycle is counted from the first day of your period. This begins when hormone levels drop at the end of your previous cycle. This is a signal for the blood and tissues lining your uterus to break down
• Each woman’s cycle is unique to her, but bleeding usually stops between three and seven days after the first day. During this time, follicles develop in your ovaries, each containing an egg. FSH levels are highest during the first phase of your cycle
• One of these follicles will develop and reach maturity between approximately seven and 14 days after the start of your period. LH levels rise during this period and are responsible for assisting the egg to reach maturity. Estrogen levels rise and cause the lining of the uterus to thicken, in preparation for a fertilised egg. The lining includes a rich mix of blood and nutrients
• As the egg reaches maturity, the hormonal mix causes the mature follicle to burst and release its egg from the ovary (ovulation). The egg then travels down the fallopian tubes towards the uterus over the next few days
• If, during this time, the egg is fertilised by sperm, it will continue along the fallopian tube and attach itself to the lining of the uterus. But, if not fertilised, progesterone and estrogen levels will drop at around day 25, which will be a signal to your pituitary gland to begin producing FSH. The egg will break apart and your body will begin preparing for the next menstrual cycle.
It’s obvious that your hormones play a pivotal role in healthy menstruation and fertility. But, because there are so many ups and downs during your cycle, there are also other effects. Most women have experienced at least some symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and it’s all down to your individual make-up whether your experience is a walk in the park or makes you unfit to be out in society for a period of time each month.The list of PMS symptoms is long and includes over 100 different aspects. Common symptoms include: fluid retention and feeling bloated; abdominal pain and discomfort; headaches; changes to your skin and hair (greasier or drier); backache; muscle and joint pain; breast tenderness; difficulty falling or staying asleep; dizziness; fatigue; nausea; weight gain; mood swings; feeling upset or emotional; irritation or anger; depression, crying or feeling tearful; anxiety; confusion, forgetfulness or difficulty concentrating; restlessness; decreased self-esteem; loss of libido; food cravings or appetite changes; and any long-term illness might get worse (like asthma or migraine).
WHICH ONE’S TO BLAME?
The increase in estrogen creates a more sensitive skin – so while your estrogen levels are highest (during ovulation), you’re likely to be more sensitive to UV rays. Also, high levels of estrogen affect your microflora and this can negatively affect your immune system, making you more prone to infections and disease.
However, the increase in estrogen also causes your skin to become more hydrated and increases your levels of lipids, giving you a glow and softer skin in the days during ovulation. Estrogen also increases pigmentation, which is why some women experience darkened nipples or darker areas under their eyes.
After ovulation, estrogen levels decline, but male sex hormones increase and this increases your skin’s sebum levels, making you susceptible to acne breakouts – experienced by many in the premenstrual period. Also, you may find you sweat more than usual and your body temperature increases slightly. Your skin will also become drier.
As your follicles develop, estrogen levels are high and this causes your breast tissue to grow. After ovulation, progesterone causes your breast milk cells to swell; this is what causes breast sensitivity and pain. Progesterone also causes water retention, which is major factor in feeing bloated.
CHANGE FOR THE BETTER
Although it’s been called the curse by generations of women, your period should actually be celebrated as a sign that your body is working optimally. There are lifestyle changes that can be made to reduce your symptoms of PMS.
Regular exercise is so important. Ensure you’re getting at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week, or an hour of vigorous-intensity, and muscle strength training on at least two days a week.
Eat a healthy diet filled with fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Avoid salt, sugary food, caffeine and alcohol. Don’t smoke – women who smoke invariably experience worse PMS symptoms than those who don’t.
Sleep is important, so try to get enough and try to reduce your levels of stress.
Whatever your symptoms are every month, or if they change from month to month, knowing that there are simple lifestyle changes and easy-to-take supplements that will ease the symptoms of PMS will help you to celebrate that your body is working as it should.
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