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WOMEN'S HEALTH: YOUR DEFINITIVE GUIDE - HOW TO MANAGE YOUR HORMONES THROUGHOUT THE MONTH

By ROISIN DERVISH-O'KANE

You work hard to make sure you look and feel your best. Don't let natural monthly fluctuations hamper your efforts.

Pity the fool who calls out a woman for seeming different (read: below par) at that certain time of the month.

But, while he's clearly a sucker for punishment, he's not altogether wrong. Your monthly cycle is entirely down to your female hormones fluctuating, and given the endocrine system pretty much controls every facet and function of your body, these peaks and troughs of the reproductive hormones - progesterone, testosterone and oestrogen - have widespread consequences.
Skin breakouts, fatigue, abdominal pain and irritability - however much you usually buy into the theory of mind over matter, the physical struggle of this cyclical rollercoaster is real. But rather than trying to fight this natural phenomenon, is there something in pre-empting these fluctuations, and their unwelcome side effects, and, well, working withthem to cheat the female hormones system?

‘There’s no escaping the endocrine system but it is possible to support your body and your mind during your menstrual cycle to minimise the impact of these female hormones fluctuating,’ shares Dr Sabine Donnai, chief executive at Viavi Health Management. Here’s how...


1. HOW FEMALE HORMONES AFFECT YOUR SKIN AND HAIR

'The good news is that your beauty regime can be as flexible as you need it to be,' says facialist Debbie Thomas.

‘Use a core group of products and processes to address your primary, more permanent concerns, from protecting against environmental aggressors to anti-ageing then use booster products at different times throughout the month to counteract the issues of female hormones.’

The week before your period (week four of the menstrual cycle) is when you experience a major spike in levels of your female hormones testosterone. 'This shift results in the skin's sebaceous glands producing more oil, which can lead to blocked pores and breakouts,' explains Dr Rabia Malik, GP, cosmetic doctor and founder of The Peel Boutique at Grace Belgravia.

BLEMISHES

Time for an acid-based action plan; namely salicylic, lactic and glycolic acid, which all come under the umbrella of AHA. These food-derived acids trigger the skin to slough off pore-blocking dead cells, making way for healthier skin cells below and as a result, help reduce blemishes, blackheads and pigmentation. Try a daily treatment toner like Algenist Genius Ultimate Anti-Aging Bi-Phase Peel (£69.47, spacenk.com) to keep breakouts at bay.


BREAKOUTS

For a targeted approach to the breakouts that come with female hormones, a spot zapping treatment containing salicylic acid (we like Neostrata Spot Treatment Gel, £24.00, neostrata.co.uk) can be applied directly onto spots to dissolve dead skin cells that clog pores and dissolve excess keratin blocking blackheads and whiteheads. The same goes for your hair and scalp. ‘They're set to get greasy more quickly than usual as testosterone is at its highest and therefore washing more frequently is a must,’ explains Jane Martins, trichologist at Philip Kingsley.


GREASY HAIR

Daily scalp exfoliation is key to reduce the excess dead skin cells which can trap oil at the hair roots. Adding Philip Kingsley Exfoliating Scalp Mask, (£17, philipkingsley.co.uk) to your week four regime will help, as it contains zinc to control sebum production and betaine salicylate acid to shift skin build-up. Oh hi, period. And so with it oestrogen and progesterone levels fall to their lowest.


DRY SKIN

Frustratingly, rather than being a welcome relief, this type of hormone drop can leave hair lacking moisture (and looking flat and lacklustre), and skin becoming more dry and sensitised, accentuating fine lines and wrinkles. Time to incorporate hydrating powerhouses into your arsenal. Hyaluronic acid (HA) will replenish moisture levels leaving skin plumper and smoother. HA attracts and holds onto water molecules and, when applied to skin, can help it do the same to combat dehydration. The Hero Project Night Drops (£45, theheroproject.co.uk) are just the ticket as they not only contain HA but wrinkle-reducing niacinamide and nourishing essential oils too.

As for your hair, meet manketti oil. Extracted from Sub-Saharan trees, it's an incredibly rich source of vitamin E which, when applied to hair, nourishes and protects against UV damage.

If you suffer from a heavy flow, thereby potentially losing more iron from the body, look to supplement your ferritin levels (a protein which binds to iron, making it easier for the body to store) to reduce hair shedding. Martins recommends incorporating red meat into your diet twice this week, and adding green leafy vegetables on the daily.

Thankfully it’s not all grooming doom and gloom. 'The end of week two and beginning of week three see a rise in oestrogen,' reveals Donnai. Pores shrink and collagen production increases. But if you notice you’re experiencing breakouts during weeks two and three when skin should theoretically look its best, you could be producing too much oestrogen.

‘Supplement with a 400-800mg daily dose of the herbal remedy Angus Castus. Derived from a Mediterranean tree, it works by increasing luteinizing hormones (crucial in regulating the function of the ovaries) and controlling levels of prolactin (a vital female hormone for a healthy reproductive system), resulting in a balance of oestrogen and progesterone levels,’ explains Dr Sohere Roked, a specialist in integrative medicine.

That’s not to say oestrogen and progesterone won’t fluctuate as they should, with any female hormones, but you’ll at least produce the optimum amount of oestrogen at the right time.


2. HOW FEMALE HORMONES AFFECT YOUR DIET

When it comes to dealing with female hormones, you need to consider your endocrine ups and downs. It often pays to chop and change what you're eating.

'Do your body a favour during week one and four and try to cut out caffeine and alcohol – they’re both diuretics, escorting valuable nutrients out of the body, and encourage inflammation and stress throughout your internal systems, which can make cramping, bloating, breast tenderness and irritability worse.' reveals nutritionist Akcelina Cvijetic.

'Stock up on avocados and oily fish as these are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids and can help reduce inflammation, pain and breast tenderness. Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and rocket contain magnesium, which, when combined with calcium-rich foods like tahini and yoghurt, can have a calming effect on your nervous system, helping to ease cramping. Introduce cucumber, fennel and celery into your diet as these are excellent for alleviating water retention, and if constipation is an issue sprinkle ground flaxseeds on meals for extra fibre.’

Hunger strikes during the lead-up to your cycle when you're more likely to experience an increased appetite and cravings. This is due to the decline in both oestrogen and progesterone, which can cause major bouts of fatigue. The body naturally craves energy-boosting foods, and there’s nothing like carbs and sugar for an instant energy hit – which is why you’re drawn to them despite the comedown you know is coming.

Try to avoid sugary foods as they will play havoc with your blood sugar and heighten the cravings and swap for energising foods like nuts, eggs and oranges instead. The oestrogen and progesterone imbalance also creates a dip in the serotonin female hormones.

‘Low levels of serotonin have been associated with increased cravings for sweet foods and carbohydrates too, hence why chocolate becomes a PMS staple. It’s worth trying foods rich in tryptophan like turkey, hummus and bananas as this is a precursor of serotonin and thus can help heighten your mood and reduce your sugar cravings,’ explains Cvijetic.



WHAT TO EAT FOR HAPPY FEMALE HORMONES, WHEN

WEEK ONE:

  • Chamomile tea has sedative qualities and helps relax smooth muscle, like the muscle that lines the wall of the uterus.
  • Wild salmon is protein rich.
  • Pumpkin seeds are packed full of zinc, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus and protein which helps to maintain energy levels.

WEEK TWO:

  • Salmon is omega-3 rich.
  • Asparagus is bursting with mood-enhancing folic acid.
  • Oranges are packed full of vitamin-C that helps to keep cortisol and adrenaline at bay.

WEEK THREE:

  • Spinach as the iron in spinach is a key component of energy production in the body.
  • Apples contain natural sugars, which will spike energy, but thanks to its high fibre content it takes a while to digest, so you’ll experience the ‘high’ for longer than other fruit options.

WEEK FOUR:

  • Cucumber and fennel as it sounds weird but hydrating with water-packed foods helps prevent your body holding onto excess.
  • Celery as its diuretic effect will help you pee out any excess.



3. HOW FEMALE HORMONES EFFECT YOUR FITNESS

Plugging away in the same vein all month may not serve your body best. Australian researchers* discovered that women are more likely to sustain knee injuries in line with their menstrual cycle, particularly during the end of week four and the beginning of week one. Turns out there’s a difference in the way we move during menstruation compared to ovulation. (If you're not sure when you ovulate, you can get to know the signs of ovulation online.)

Poor motor control is the culprit, as the firing rate of nerves that control muscle activity shoots up significantly at the beginning of week four and drops at the end of the week and stays low heading into week one.
'When you're running your knees collapse inwards on the footstrike and let your quads do all the work rather than engaging your hamstrings and glutes,’ says Dr Timothy E. Hewett, Mayo Clinic sports medicine director of biomechanic research.

This doesn’t mean you have to give up running (or exercise in general) for a whole week out of every month because of female hormones. Hewett discovered that by supplementing with neuromuscular training (single-leg balance work, plyometric jumping and hamstring and glute strengthening) for 15-20 minutes twice a week, subjects were able to reduce the load on their knees and ankles and build strength and coordination in both sides of the body, dropping ACL injury, ankle injury and kneecap pain by a whopping 50-60%.

Even so you’d be forgiven for wanting to skip the gym on the first couple of days of your period as the major dip in both oestrogen and progesterone can result in fatigue. Bolster energy levels with a vitamin B supplement and if you’re still feeling exhausted, and/or suffer from intense menstrual symptoms, such as heavy flow, lower back pain, and cramping, perform active recovery exercises instead, such as light jogging, Pilates or foam rolling moves.

‘These symptoms are an indication of inflammation and often hypermobility in the lower back which can be dangerous if doing heavy lifting, powerful agility training or even an intense yoga class,' reveals Niki Rein, founder of ballet workout Barrecore. Between days three and six of your cycle, once oestrogen begins to rise, you’ll find your energy levels improve, so schedule HIIT and heavyweights now.

Trying to get pregnant? It's important to manage stress hormones around ovulation, which would fall during the middle of week two for those on a 28-day cycle. Avoid cardio sessions longer than 30 minutes and opt for interval training such as HIIT, barre, yoga or Crossfit classes instead to keep sensitive cortisol levels grounded.



4. HOW FEMALE HORMONES EFFECT YOUR MIND

Female hormones are complex, but declining oestrogen is what brings about behavioural PMS symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, anxiety, anger, forgetfulness and decreased self-esteem.
You don’t just experience a brief dip when you're actually on your period - there is also the pre-PMS phase that hits in the first half of week three. According to psychotherapist and mind coach, Jess Henley mood swings can be kept at bay through the practice of mindful breath work (that can be done absolutely anywhere – even in the office).

‘This gets you out of your head and in touch with your body and your breath which is really grounding. Focus all your attention on your breath, and notice what the physical sensation is like when you breathe, and what is happening to your body,' she explains. 'By bringing all your attention here, instead of to what is agitating you, it's like throwing soothing water over a fire. Use this whenever you notice your mood shifting, to bring you back into equilibrium.’

When you’re alone try laughing, suggests Leela Isani, a holistic healer at COMO Metropolitan London. ‘Laughing has the ability to decrease female hormones like stress and trigger the release of endorphins the body’s feel-good chemicals. This enables you to relax, gain perspective and relieve distressing emotions and combat depression.’ Find your local laughter yoga class or YouTube laughter exercises. If that all feels a little too weird ease your way in by watching something that will make you LOL organically.