Women’s Health #1 – The Menstrual Cycle, Hormones At Play & Carb Cravings

Disclaimer: Before you read, I want to clarify that I am not a medical practitioner and the following information is for educational purposes. If you want to apply any medical related issues to your own life then seek help from your GP or medical practitioner before hand.

Now lets’ get started…. THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE.

Arguably one of the most important aspects of a womens physiology, however it’s common for a female to not have any understanding of the details of their cycle and its impact. In this article I will run through the details of it and explain it to the best of my ability – note* this is my understanding, so don’t quote this as a medical conclusion as this is meant for educational purposes only as stated above.

The Menstrual Cycle is stated to be 28 days on average, however this can vary between 24-32 days. The issue here is that the Menstrual Cycle is very much an anomaly, and that no two women will have the same cycle, and even the same one woman may have different cycles from month to month. It is nearly impossible to be “precise” with the details of it, as so many variables can effect it. The main three variables that may effect it would be stress, diet and training. Before moving forward, let’s discuss the basics of it – this all being a general example, because as stated above this can very greatly for different females.

Thee are two phases to a females cycle, the follicular phase (day 1-14), and the luteal phase (day 14-28). In the follicular phase, Follicular Stimulating Hormone (FSH) increases to help follicles develop – where one follicle will eventually release an egg. The hormone progesterone usually remains low here in this phase. Oestrogen gradually rises and has one large surge in the last few days of the follicular Phase – with ovulation and release of the egg occurring on day 14.

Before delving any further, it would not make any sense without briefly touching on the hormonal profiles that are at play within female physiology. There are 3 main hormones – oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone: with the third one more so involved in male physiology. 

Oestrogen – Oestrogen usually gets the blunt of the blame for any negative effects within a females physiology, but it infect does have a lot of positives and is greatly misunderstood. When oestrogen Is high in any stage of the cycle, it does the following:

– Increases leptin thus improving appetite control

– Increases insulin sensitivity thus improving your ability to utilise carbohydrate as fuel

– Aids Serotonin (feel good) and dopamine (reward) neurotransmitter production which are both are high when oestrogen Is high thus resulting in good mood

However when oestrogen falls drastically at the start of the luteal phase, so does leptin, serotonin and dopamine – thus increasing cravings, lowering mood and lowering motivation. (This is where the stereotypical association and blame comes in for carb cravings and poor mood). What is key here is the oestrogen can have different effects in different parts of the body – for example, in females it can increase fat storage in the lower half, while increasing fat mobilisation in the upper half. Different receptors are present in different cella, and respond differently when bound to oestrogen. There are also three types of oestrogen. E1, E2 and E3. 

E1 (estrone) – when produced in excess E1 can be pro-inflammatory and carcinogenic, however it also has neuroprotective properties which can maintain brain health. This is mainly produced in menopause.

E2 (estradiol) – this is the main type of oestrogen produced through the female life cycle. It helps develop the fame sex characteristics through puberty, can help manaitain pregnancy and helps produce lutenizing hormone (LH) aiding ovulation. It also helps regulate appetite control and supports the repair and growth of string connective and skeletal tissue. However in excess this can cause many issues such as increased risk of breast cancer, and issues with getting pregnant.

E3 (estriol) – This is a weaker form of oestrogen, but has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancerous properties. This is mainly produced droning pregnancy, and low levels may lead to issues with, or even loss at child birth.

So as you can see not all forms of oestrogen is the same, and different types have different impacts. The all have pros and cons, and are important at different stages of life. They all also may have a negative impact when in excess or too low.

Progesterone –

Progesterone can very much be seen as more negative than oestrogen in the overall scheme of things. Progesterone actually acts to INHIBIT the positives of oestrogen. Progesterone is a steroid hormone and has a similar structure to other steroid hormones such as the aldosterone which is responsible for water balance retention and testosterone. An interesting fact is progesterone can mimic other steroid hormones and bind to their receptors which can prevent those hormones from working as they are meant too. This can cause health issues and metabolic problems.

Now let’s cover the topic most females will confess to and be able to tell you about – the carb & sugar cravings.

In the follicular phase as oestrogen increases and makes a surges towards ovulation, other variables increase also. In particular leptin increases which controls appetite, and both dopamine and serotonin are also high so you have a sense of that “feel good factor”. It is researched that insulin sensitivity is high throughout this period also, so your ability and tolerance to handle and manage carbohydrates is also improved through this period.

After this surge and increase in oestrogen and ovulation occurs, we then move in to the luteal phase. Here oestrogen now lowers and drops to its lowest point and so does leptin, dopamine and serotonin. So now we have a massive dip in mood, and and far less appetite control. Leptin is also responsible for messenger signalling within your brain which can influence decision making and rationale. Also as oestrogen drops, progesterone now starts to rise in tandem. Progesterone acts on and inhibits the positive effects of oestrogen and can create insulin resistance. This can lead to poor blood sugar management and lead to an increase in cravings.

Progesterone can work to mobilise fat intra muscularly but it can do the opposite and can also  act to store fat in fat cells – especially in the lower body. This is because progesterone increase LPL and ASP which are two enzymes/proteins that can work to store fat in subcutaneous fat calls, and there is active alpha-2 receptors in the lower half which are receptors sensitive to fat storage.

So long story short – you simply won’t gain fat if CALORIES ARE CONTROLLED. However, the kicker is if you do over eat when cravings are high and you are in a more sensitive state for fat storage – then potentially if you eat in excess you are at a higher likelihood of fat gain, and will probably store fat easier. Again however, a calorie surplus always needs to be present.