Hormonally Challenged From Puberty to MenopauseChocolate cravings, mood swings, hot flashes and “senior moments” are the punch lines of endless jokes, but women experiencing these symptoms rarely see the humor. Stereotypes aside, there is a kernel of truth to be considered.
Whether you crave certain foods once a month, are pregnant for the first time or are entering menopause, don’t let anyone fool you — hormones play a significant role in every woman’s life. For some women, it seems as though everything from the way their pants fit to what mood they are in is dependent on hormones and what stage of life they have entered. No matter your age, here’s how to handle fluctuating hormones.
It Starts Here
Hormones make their first — and perhaps most lasting — impression on a woman during puberty. Increased levels of estrogen and progesterone cause her height to increase, her
breasts to grow larger, underarm and pubic hair to develop and, in some cases, acne to appear.
“Once a woman has started her period, her hormone levels will rise and fall according to her menstrual cycle,” says Laura Bradford, M.D., OB/GYN on the medical staff at Harris Methodist Fort Worth Hospital. “As her period approaches, a woman’s hormone levels begin to drop, and it is this drop in hormones that causes many women to experience premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, symptoms such as increased emotional sensitivity, a lack of energy or acne.”
For women who experience severe PMS, Bradford recommends using calcium supplements, but for serious PMS, oral contraceptive pills may help. Oral contraceptives relieve premenstrual symptoms by maintaining hormone levels every day.
Hormones make their next big impression on a woman during pregnancy. Rather than falling gradually throughout her menstrual cycle, a woman’s estrogen and progesterone levels continue to increase when she does not have her period.
In addition, a new hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) appears and causes many of the side effects of pregnancy, such as nausea and vomiting, breast soreness, increased vaginal discharge and increased emotional sensitivity.
“Pregnancy is in a completely different ballpark than the rest of a woman’s life because of the changes in her hormones,” says Manisha Parikh, M.D., OB/GYN on the medical staff at Harris Methodist H•E•B Hospital. “Women often feel much less attractive and more sensitive than usual, and during this time, it’s really important for women to remember that
they’re going through these changes because they’re having a baby. In actuality,
women are much more glowing and vibrant, especially after the first trimester.”
To help women cope with their hormones during pregnancy, Parikh recommends women try to relieve stress through lifestyle modifications — such as exercising, eating healthfully and getting more sleep — rather than taking medications, which could harm the baby.
After her baby is born, a woman’s hormone levels fall drastically, causing
changes that enable her body to return to its non-pregnant state, as well as putting her at risk for post-partum depression.
“The lowered levels of hormones combined with the numerous new responsibilities and broken sleeping patterns of parenthood can make the first few months after childbirth challenging for women,” says Parikh. “The best thing you can do is try to delegate your
responsibilities and do something for yourself, such as taking a nap or exercising. Remember, when the baby is sleeping, you should be sleeping too. If you’re feeling really depressed, however, talk with a counselor or ask your physician about medications that may help.”
The Challenge of Infertility
Several hormones are involved in the process of conception, and they all have to work together in perfect time for a successful pregnancy. New treatments are available for infertility that is due to hormone levels. These treatments help regulate or supplement the hormones needed for conception and are helping more women become pregnant who were
unsuccessful with other methods.
The Last Stand
The last chance hormones have to impact a woman is during peri-menopause. During this two- to nine-year period, a woman’s hormones fluctuate unevenly almost daily as her ovaries begin shutting down. It is this fluctuation that leads to signature menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, mood swings, vaginal dryness and decreased sex drive.
“Peri-menopause can be a challenging time for many women, but there are a
number of things that can help,” says Bradford. “As with other stages of life, managing changes in hormones should include simple modifications like making sure you are getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating healthfully. In many situations, hormone replacement therapy may also be beneficial.”
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