beyond the pill Chapter 2:the lowdown on your hormones
Beyond the Pill Chapter 2 describes the menstrual cycle in depth, takes a look at some of the major hormones disrupted by the pill as well as the most common hormone imbalances and their symptoms.
As women, many of us grow up feeling shameful about our periods. We feel betrayed by our bodies when our periods are painful. We do not receive thorough education on the way our own bodies work as women and what our period symptoms actually mean. Many doctors dismiss our concerns when we discuss painful symptoms and when we do share our symptoms, we do not receive a root-cause approach to resolving them.
“Look, your body has something important to say, but when you’re on the pill, it’s like your body has been bound and gagged and thrown in the trunk of a car. By the time you pop the trunk and remove the gage, your body is screaming for help because it doesn’t want to get stuck in that trunk again” (Beyond the Pill Chapter 2).
Hormones & The Pill
The menstrual cycle tells us so much about our health as women that is has now been labeled the 5th Vital Sign. Every symptom you experience during menstruation and even throughout your cycle can provide critical insight into your whole-body health.
The pill, however, masks many underlying symptoms (PMS, heavy periods, painful periods, etc). While on the surface our symptoms appear to have been resolved, the hormonal imbalances that caused those symptoms in the first place are still festering.
“The pill, on the other hand, causes your hormones to flatline. The pill floods your system with a constant dose of synthetic hormones while suppressing others, throwing your entire system out of balance and causing many of the problems we’ll explore in this book: blood sugar imbalances, night sweats, headaches, depression, and much more” (Beyond the Pill Chapter 2).
How many of you feel like you received a thorough and informative education on how your menstrual cycle works? Cue the crickets…we are so poorly educated on something that is critical to our overall health.
A few facts about your cycle:
- Most girls get their first period between the ages of 11-14.
- Cycles can range anywhere from 26-36 days
- If you don’t fall within this range, but your period is still regular, that’s okay
The Cycle Timeline
Days 1-12 – The Follicular Phase
Day 1 – the first day you see blood
What’s happening: Estrogen and progesterone drop which causes the lining of the uterus (endometrium) to begin to shed.
Days 1-7: endometrium is shedding (AKA you’re bleeding)
What’s happening: The drop in these hormones also triggers your brain to release follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). This leads to follicle growth in your ovaries to prepare an egg for ovulation.
Day 8: Breasts and other areas begin to “plump up”
What’s happening: Estrogen is rising in the body.
Days 9-11: Your libido gets turned on full blast.
What’s happening: Testosterone is rising because your body knows that it will be releasing an egg soon and wants to increase the chances that said egg will be fertilized.
Days 12-14 – Ovulatory Phase
Days 12-14: Ovaries are stimulated to release an egg
What’s happening: Estrogen levels reach their peak and stimulate the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) which triggers the release of the egg your body has been working so hard to create. During this time the egg travels down the fallopian tube. If it becomes fertilized during this time it will then implant into the endometrium If it is not fertilized it will slowly begin to dissolve and pass out of the body.
The spike in estrogen also causes the uterine lining to thicken in preparation for the potential implantation of the embryo. When there is too much estrogen in the body you can begin to experience painful and heavy periods.
Days 15-28 – Luteal Phase
What’s happening: Progesterone begins to be released in the body. This hormone is responsible for feelings of calm and happiness. When progesterone levels are too low you may experience sadness or anger (AKA PMS).
If the egg is not fertilized then the progesterone drops again and the process repeats itself.
Your Period on the Pill
The pill directly or indirectly affects every hormone in our body. It delivers high doses of synthetic estrogen AND progesterone throughout the entire cycle (unlike our natural cycle where the first half we have higher estrogen and the second half we have higher progesterone).
These high doses of synthetic hormones prevent the brain from releasing FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinizing hormone) in order to prevent ovulation. Therefore, the “period” you get while on the pill is not a real period, but rather a withdrawal bleed.
Types of Pills
Combination: both synthetic estrogen and synthetic progesterone (progestin)
- More effective
- Less breakthrough bleeding
- Suppresses ovulation
- Thickens cervical mucus to block sperm
- Changes tubal motility
- Thins the uterine lining
Progestin only: AKA the mini pill
- Taken by women who have adverse reactions to synthetic estrogen
- Stops ovulation in about 60% of women
Major Hormones Affected by the Pill
The pill discontinues any communication between your brain and your ovaries creating hormone chaos throughout the body. Here are just a few of the major players getting disrupted:
- All steroid hormones are made from this hormone.
- It also depends on other hormones to function properly like the thyroid hormone.
- Responsible for thickening the uterine lining to prepare for pregnancy.
- Makes your lips look fuller and skin plump.
- Estrogen affects nearly every tissue and plays a huge role in peak brain, heart, bones and skin health.
- Estrogen is produced naturally in the body in our ovaries, adrenals, fat cells, brain and other tissue.
- Regardless of what your doctor may have told you, synthetic estrogen is nothing like natural estrogen.
- Progesterone is only naturally produced after ovulation occurs.
- Inadequate amounts of progesterone can lead to anxiousness, sleeplessness, irritability, weepiness, etc before periods.
- Proper amounts of this hormone lead to calmness and feelings of satisfaction with life.
- Produced in the ovaries and adrenal glands.
- Allows the body to process fat for energy.
- Plays a role in strong bones.
- Protects against cancer in the breasts and uterus.
- Also plays a role in cortisone production, maintaining appetite, fat storage and the use of thyroid hormone.
- Keeps bones strong, brain sharp, libido up, and motivation high.
- Raises energy.
- Too little testosterone and we may be insecure, fatigued, low libido, weak.
- Too much and we may have oily skin, acne, excess hair growth or even loss of hair on head.
- Regulates inflammation and immune cells helping with immunity.
- Regulates blood sugar and blood pressure (plays a big role in the prevention of diabetes and heart disease).
- Reduces wrinkles, raises energy, improves memory, reduces fat cells, increases libido.
- DHEA gets converted into estrogen and testosterone.
- Produced in the adrenals.
- Secretes thyroid hormones T4 and T3.
- T4 relies on other parts of the body in order to be activated: gut, kidneys, and liver.
- Once it is activated it becomes T3.
- T3 affects mood, energy, metabolism, menses.
- Low thyroid can also lead to infertility, miscarriages, digestive disorders, skin issues, hair loss and more.
- Brings blood sugar to the cells.
- Consistently high insulin levels can lead to high levels of estrogen.
- Produced in the pancreas.
- Regulates hunger by signaling the brain if the body is hungry or not.
- Produced by fat cells.
- Leptin resistance can lead to difficulty losing weight because the brain is not receiving correct hunger signals.
- The “love” hormone, stimulates bonding between mother and child as well as between mates.
- Reduces anxiety, improves memory.
Hormones are always fluctuating based on what other hormones and systems of the body are doing. This is why Dr. Brighten insists that a holistic approach to hormone health is absolutely necessary. If one system of the body is not functioning optimally, all the others will eventually go off balance as well.
Dr. Brighten recommends testing overall hormone health and provides a list of hormones to check on pg. 37 of Beyond the Pill.
Most Common Hormone Imbalances & Their Symptoms
- Heavy and painful periods
- Ovarian cysts
- Breast tenderness
- Fibrocystic breasts
- Increased risk of cancer
Too Little progesterone
- Uncontrollable crying
- Irregular menstrual cycles
Too Much Cortisol
- “Wired and Tired”
- Brain keeps running, but body feels exhausted
- Excess belly fat
Too Little Cortisol
- Adrenal fatigue
- Weakened immune system
- Chronic headaches
- Slow wound healing
- Hard to wake up in the morning
- Too Little Thyroid
- Irregular periods
- Dry skin
- Hair loss
- Brain fog
Too Much testosterone
- Can be caused by PCOS or post-pill androgen rebound
- Oily skin/acne
- Hair loss on head or excessive hair growth on the chin, chest, abdomen
Too Little Testosterone
- Lost muscle mass
- Decreased or lost libido
- Less motivated
- Frequent crying
- Very common on the pill
Chances are if one of these is imbalanced, several others will be as well. Chapter 3 looks at how these imbalances can lead to post-birth control syndrome after quitting the pill or other hormonal birth control.