Ovary Acting: Sex hormones, mental health & me

Kay Ali, mental health and hormone expert. Nutritional Therapist & Co Founder of You Need A Nutritional Therapist. © You Need A Nutritional Therapist Ltd 2018.

The response to my post last week was incredible. If you missed it, you can read it here. I never expected so many of you to come forward with your own experiences of mental health and hormonal imbalance. You’ve inspired me to share more so I’ve decided to create a weekly women’s mental health series this month that I’m calling ‘The Ovary Act: Sex hormones, mental health and me.’

I realize the title might be a little controversial. I mean, ‘ovary acting’ kind of implies that as women our ovaries rule over our behaviours and emotions, undermining the legitimacy of our actions as a whole. I can personally vouch for the fact that there’s nothing more frustrating than a man (or woman, in fact) asking you whether you’re on your period just because you’ve lost your rag over something that’s fundamentally wrong. So let me make myself clear, that’s not what I’m saying. Our ovaries alone do not define us. ‘Ovary acting’ is about understanding the potential disruptions in our hormone cycle at every stage in our lives and how they can affect our wellbeing (no misogyny here, thank you very much). Albeit powerful, it’s just one of many contributing factors to our mental health. This series is about celebrating the complexity of the female body and maximizing our potential through optimal hormone and mental function. So now I’ve got that off my chest we can start the series.

Act 1: Mental Menstruation: Our secret monthly cycle

Kay Ali, mental health and hormone expert. Nutritional Therapist & Co Founder of You Need A Nutritional Therapist. © You Need A Nutritional Therapist Ltd 2018.

Our bodies are amazing. No, really. Don’t get me wrong men are pretty special too, but the things the female body can do, in my opinion, are far more astonishing. Aside from doing the same extraordinary things men can do – lead nations, build businesses etc, we build humans within us; we’re a portal for new life into the world and our breasts are a source of food for newborns. It is precisely the ebb and flow of our sex hormones every month that yields us these super powers. And guess what? There’s another.

The rise and fall of estrogen throughout our monthly cycle triggers the growth and shrinkage of our brains every month too. Yep, that’s right. The size of women’s brains (the hippocampus to be precise) constantly changes and it’s pegged to our periods. A bunch of impressive people at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig discovered that the hippocampus grows each month as estrogen levels rise and it shrinks as levels drop. Considering for most of us, the rise and fall of hormones happens every month, our brains menstruate every month too. What does this even mean?

Kay Ali, mental health and hormone expert. Nutritional Therapist & Co Founder of You Need A Nutritional Therapist. © You Need A Nutritional Therapist Ltd 2018.

The hippocampus is responsible for our memory and mood. By looking at neuroplasticity (that’s brain growth in science talk), it might offer us a window of opportunity to harness an optimal lifestyle for women. The larger the hippocampus the better our memory and more intense our emotions are. Vice versa. But the scientific evidence is thin. We can only assume that if estrogen causes the hippocampus to grow every month, resulting in heightened emotionality, it’s possible that long term estrogen excess predisposes us to heightened sensitivity, razor sharp receptivity and memory (it’s no wonder we’re so good at remembering the detail and cornering men in an explosive argument).

Similarly, low estrogen as commonly experienced in anorexia, menopause and with excessive exercise, could lead to brain shrinkage resulting in poor memory and difficulties with emotional expression. It goes without saying of course, that our hormones are only one of many factors that may influence our memory and mood.

Nevertheless, understanding brain menstruation reinforces the importance of women familiarizing themselves with their hormones. By testing them and mapping our monthly cycle (there are tons of apps that help with this like Flo), we gain an understanding of how changes in our brain size might be affecting how we act. This is empowering.

#ovaryacting at play

For example, let’s assume we’ve worked together and supported your hormones naturally so that they’re well balanced. We know that from days 11 to 16 of our cycle estrogen is at its peak. This would be a good time to engage in the activities you love to heighten pleasure and avoid extreme upset. Your memory is at its best now too. So squeezing in anything that requires high cognitive function would be a good idea. Preparing assignments, presentations, important meetings etc.

Kay Ali, mental health and hormone expert. Nutritional Therapist & Co Founder of You Need A Nutritional Therapist. © You Need A Nutritional Therapist Ltd 2018.

We experience a stark dip in estrogen on days 17 to 19. And again, roughly from day 27 right through to day 8 of our next cycle. That’s when estrogen levels start to pick up momentum again. It’s possible that our brains shrink during these times making us a little more forgetful, albeit more emotionally stable. So, if you’ve got to face difficult conversations with employees, colleagues, family members and friends, now is probably a good time to have them. Just be sure to have a prompt list at hand, in case your memory runs off track.

But all of this assumes that your hormonal cycle is in good shape. What if it’s not? There’s so much that can throw our hormones out of balance like plastic toxicity, anorexia, hormonal contraception, menopause, genetics and even poor gut health. Regardless, the starting point for anyone is to get booked in with a practitioner that follows a functional medicine approach. This allows us to advise on the best hormonal testing for you and targeted nutrition plan. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a one size fits all approach.

If you’d like to book in a session with me you can get in touch via info@youneedanutritionaltherapist.com. I’d be delighted to hear from you. Otherwise, hopefully we’ll touch base here again next Monday with our second post of ‘The Ovary Act.’

Much in health,

Kay Ali x

Nutritional Therapist & Co Founder of You Need A Nutritional Therapist Ltd

P.S. Please don’t forget to tag us back on @youneedant and use #ovaryacting if you’re sharing this information on Instagram!

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