As some of you may already know, when there’s a balance in the hypothalamus-pituitary-ovary axis, meaning the connection between the brain and the ovaries works correctly, the menstrual cycle proceeds as usual. During the initial phases (menstrual and follicular), estrogen levels dominate, and in the final phase, progesterone takes over. It’s also worth noting that a drop in progesterone levels in the blood triggers the shedding of the endometrium, commonly known as menstruation.
For both phases of the hormonal cycle to stay balanced, the brain must play its part by producing high concentrations of LH (luteinizing hormone), which initiates ovulation and, subsequently, the second phase of the cycle (the luteal phase). However, if our brain doesn’t produce enough LH, ovulation won’t occur, and consequently, there won’t be a corpus luteum. The result of this is insufficient progesterone production, and when there’s not enough progesterone, we begin to notice changes indicating that we’re approaching this transformative moment. Here are some of the alterations we may experience:
- Experiencing menstrual bleeding more or less frequently than usual, like having shorter cycles of less than 25 days or longer cycles with menstruation every five or six weeks instead of once a month.
- Having a period that lasts for fewer days either due to lighter bleeding or because the same amount of bleeding is concentrated into fewer days of the menstrual cycle.
- Missing one or more menstrual periods. Perhaps our cycles remain regular and have the same duration as always, but suddenly, for one or more months, our period doesn’t arrive. We might have attributed this to a stressful period, but let’s not rule out that this hormonal transition could also be a contributing factor.
- Experiencing menopausal symptoms. It’s possible that our menstrual cycles haven’t been disrupted yet, but we might have noticed recent weight gain, poorer sleep quality, or occasional hot flashes.
Progesterone is the first to leave the party. Progesterone is the hormone that decreases first because its production depends directly on ovulation. The job of making it is carried out by the corpus luteum, and as we progress through perimenopause, the follicles become less responsive to the signals from the hypothalamus-pituitary-ovary axis (which controls follicular maturation and ovulation). As a result, we ovulate less frequently, experience more anovulatory cycles, and the ovaries struggle to form the corpus luteum and produce progesterone.
The problem with chronic stress in perimenopause
During perimenopause, hormonal changes are already occurring, and the body’s hormone production pathways may become less efficient. When stress is added to the mix, the body may prioritize the production of stress-related hormones like cortisol. This prioritization can divert pregnenolone, a precursor hormone, away from the pathway that leads to the production of progesterone, which is essential for hormonal balance during this phase.
As a result, perimenopausal women experiencing chronic stress may find that their progesterone levels decrease, leading to an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone. This imbalance can contribute to the above mentioned symptoms.
It’s essential for perimenopausal women to manage stress effectively through relaxation techniques, exercise, and self-care to help support hormonal balance during this transitional phase.
Why our circulatory health is so important to preserve progesterone levels
Perhaps you didn’t know, but in the last phase of the menstrual cycle, the luteal body becomes the part of the endocrine system with the most blood flow, meaning it needs the most blood.
Taking good care of blood circulation is a smart move to maintain progesterone levels. What’s more, this approach is backed by scientific evidence. To do this, it’s a good idea to include foods in our meals that help our bodies make nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a natural substance that makes our blood vessels widen, protecting them and ensuring the luteal body gets enough blood.
Plenty of foods boost nitric oxide:
- Beets (they are our number one food for nitric oxide production)
- Red Cabbage
- Red Onions
I hope this information has given you some more insights into the fascinating world of our female hormones. If you are interested in learning more, check out my article about ESTROGEN DOMINANCE.
If you would like personalised menopause diet and lifestyle support, please get in touch with me.