Change is the only constant they say, but this is especially true for women, whose bodies are in a constant state of fluctuation from puberty through menopause—and beyond. Each phase of the menstrual cycle and of life presents the potential for hormones to upend how a woman feels, thinks, and acts. Since we’ve been on this planet, these female patterns have aroused much intrigue, fear, confusion, and suffering. And while there have been many efforts to demystify the menstrual cycle through science, folklore, and more, what happens to our bodies monthly is still a mystery, even to the women experiencing it.
“WHY DOES MY CYCLE VARY SO MUCH FROM MONTH TO MONTH?”
“WILL MENOPAUSE EVER END?”
“HOW DO I OPTIMIZE MY FERTILITY?”
are questions many women ask themselves, doctors, the internet, and tend to receive answers in pharmaceuticals that may provide temporary relief or a facade of “stability” to hormonal fluctuations. But in reality, fighting our natural chemicals with artificial ones is doing no good to our long-term health when it comes to reproduction. Every woman’s idea of hormonal balance will be unique to her, factoring in physiology, different life stages, etc. No one-size-fits-all protocol or set of practices will adequately or effectively cover that topic(sorry, Google). However, there is one approach to a hormonal balance that does apply to everyone, including people who don’t get a period: digestion. As a matter of fact, digestion is the most critical player in ensuring that our entire system, including reproduction, is healthy and nourished.
When we talk about “hormonal imbalances,” we mainly speak about reproductive hormones. Still, our bodies are literally saturated with hormones that have nothing to do with reproduction. Hormones are nothing more than chemical messengers that tell certain parts of the body to do things. Thanks to hormones, we wake up in the morning and fall asleep at night, feeling sad or ecstatic, hungry and full, stressed or relaxed. That final pair of feelings in the body—stress versus relaxation, is where we can explore the nexus of reproductive health and digestion in a highly transparent way. It begins in the brain, where our autonomic nervous system, the part we can’t control, cycles through two phases: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system wakes us up and keeps us safe in the face of potential or actual danger. Our bodies go into “fight/flight/freeze” mode thanks to a surge of stress hormones—adrenaline and cortisol—that direct the entire system to protect itself. Our heart and lungs pick up the pace to send blood and oxygen to our muscles, and the senses sharpen. Then our bodies are flooded with glucose for energy. At the same time, background “maintenance” functions like digestion, elimination, immunity, cell repair, and reproduction get turned off because they’re not essential when your life is threatened. Those are the job of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is also called “rest and digest.” Without these, we wouldn’t be able to build up the physical structures our bodies need to exist long-term, but when our lives are at stake the body (smartly) deprioritizes them in favor of short-term survival.
Because stress and relaxation can’t exist simultaneously, we’re in a conundrum when, in our modern world, we’re constantly experiencing low (or high!) levels of stress. From work or family responsibilities, a pandemic, or a war, there are plenty of reasons to feel unsafe—meaning our digestive and reproductive capacity are diminished, if not totally turned off, most of the time, even when our survival is not actually at risk. Our bodies were designed to rebound from short-term stress. But under chronic stress, our stores of adrenaline and cortisol run out, and the body resorts to converting reproductive hormones into stress hormones to keep up the vigilance against the danger it senses lurking in our inboxes, phones, and TVs. Increased stress will also, of course, diminish our ability to fully digest our food, even the healthy kind. So we also won’t get the nutrition we need to maintain all the systems of the body, including reproduction. Imbalances in these hormones can show up in several different ways, but it all comes back to how our bodies are coping with stress. Finding ways to reduce our stress response, even if we can’t remove the cause, is absolutely the best solution to this problem. Not everyone has the time and budget for stress-reducing activities such as apps, classes, and programs that teach you meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness techniques, nor is this going to be everyone’s preference. There is, however, a common ground through food. We indirectly support our body’s ability to turn off the stress response and enter into rest and digest mode when we find ways to ensure our digestive system is balanced by choosing foods and eating habits that balance the mind.
Keep reading and get the recipe on Urban Wellness.