Reviewed by: Lauren Thaxton, MD
Written by: Abbi Havens
The first known documentation of a sex-specific mental disorder occurred in Ancient Egypt in 1900 B.C. The disorder? Irrational behavior caused by spontaneous movement of the uterus in the female body. Fast-forward 1,400 years to 500 B.C., and we encounter the first use of the word “hysteria” to describe female madness related to spontaneous movement of the uterus. Of course, we now know uteri do not adopt minds of their own and sporadically choose to roam the body. But that didn’t stop doctors from diagnosing women with “hysteria” well into the 20th century. Hysteria was present in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until it was removed in 1980.
What does this history lesson have to do with your health? According to UT Health Austin’s Lauren Thaxton, MD and Obstetrician Gynecologist at the Women’s Health Institute, all of this may (loosely) contribute to how women view their relationship with their gynecologic organs and the hormones they produce. In short, it’s a love-hate relationship (heavy on the hate). Dr. Thaxton has heard the phrase, “My hormones are out of whack,” more times than she can count. Women sometimes attribute weight gain, anxiety, headaches and mood swings to their hormone production. Your hormones may play a role in these symptoms and hormonal imbalances and conditions certainly occur. However, according to Dr. Thaxton these symptoms are often multifactorial. She believes women deserve to know more about the positive and natural role of hormones in the body.
“There is broadly a lack of teaching surrounding what hormones are responsible for, and equally as important, what they are not responsible for,” says Dr. Thaxton. “Creating an awareness of the positive impact of hormones and what they do for your body on a daily basis is necessary for women, and for people in general, to be their healthiest selves.”
Your body produces and circulates fifty different hormones. These hormones are the chemical messengers that control nearly every bodily function you experience, from simply regulating body temperature to the complex process of reproduction. As an Ob/Gyn, Dr. Thaxton focuses primarily on five hormones: follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Let’s break down these five hormones working together inside your body to regulate your reproductive cycle and keep you healthy.
Follicle Stimulating Hormone, or FSH, is released from the pituitary gland (inside the brain) and into the bloodstream. For women, this hormone stimulates growth of the ovarian follicles before ovulation each month, which are the fluid-filled sacs containing eggs within the ovary. Additionally, FSH is largely to thank for puberty (but you can’t blame FSH for your many questionable haircuts).
Luteinizing Hormone, or LH, is also released inside the pituitary gland and released into the bloodstream. In women, LH causes the egg to release from the ovarian follicles. If the egg is fertilized, LH will stimulate the production of progesterone which sustains the pregnancy.
Estrogen (now we’re getting to the good stuff) is a female sex hormone mainly produced inside the ovaries. Estrogen is responsible for growing and maturing the uterine lining and the egg before ovulation. Like FSH, estrogen plays a key role in the development of breasts and pubic and armpit hair and is responsible for structural differences in the male and female body.
Progesterone is another female sex hormone responsible for balancing the effects of estrogen (think of estrogen and progesterone as the yin and yang of your reproductive cycle). Progesterone is produced after ovulation and is responsible for creating and maintaining an environment for a pregnancy to thrive (if there is a pregnancy). If not, progesterone levels drop, uterine lining sheds and hello, Aunt Flow.
Testosterone is a sex hormone produced by both men and women. It is produced in the ovaries and adrenal glands and spikes during ovulation. Testosterone is responsible for enhancing women’s libido (hence its release during ovulation), maintaining muscle and bone strength and is crucial to ovarian function.
According to Thaxton, these fierce five are responsible for so much more than just regulating your reproductive cycle. In addition to this powerful function, these hormones work together to protect your bones from osteoporosis (one of the reasons women have a higher risk of developing osteoporosis after menopause), sustain muscle health, protect your heart from risk of heart disease and even alter your cholesterol profile to promote heart health.
A negative relationship with your hormones is not without risk.
“I believe people feel if they can just ‘fix their hormones,’ everything in their life will fall into place. I wish it was that easy, but it’s simply not. When people place 100% of the blame on their hormones , they often neglect to treat those symptoms in other proactive ways,” says Dr. Thaxton. “Additionally, many women who are unhappy with their hormonal birth control just cease using birth control all together, which puts them at risk of unwanted pregnancy.”
Of course, hormonal contraception is not without its own set of problems, and many women do experience adverse side effects to particular types of hormonal contraceptives. The solution?
“It’s 2019!” Says Thaxton. “No person should have to stick with a contraceptive they hate. Try new things and find something that is right for your body, because the options are out there.”
When it comes to reconciling your rocky relationship with your hormones, knowledge is power. Hormones are not stagnant. They comprise an entire signaling mechanism that begins in the brain and travels to the pituitary gland, ovaries and more. The system runs on a never-ending monthly loop and dictates when you menstruate, when you ovulate, when you are able to get pregnant and much more. Hormonal fluctuations are natural, necessary and keep your machine running smoothly.