We hear so much about hormones during pregnancy, but hormones are a pretty geeky topic that can be hard to understand. When I was pregnant and suddenly become hot natured instead of my usual cold self, my best friend said, "it's hormones." When I ate an entire chocolate cake (true story), my mom said, "it's your hormones." What are these mysterious hormones and what else are they doing during pregnancy? Here's an overview of three big ones: Estrogen, Testosterone, and Progesterone.
Besides playing a significant role in the menstrual cycle, estrogen promotes blood flow and lubrication to the vagina/vulva. It keeps vaginal tissue elastic and supple. If I didn’t have your attention before, I’m guessing I do now!
Right after you give birth, the levels of estrogen and progesterone in your body dramatically drop. This is good news if you’re breastfeeding, as that drop allows a hormone called prolactin to be released, and it maintains your milk production. If you continue to breastfeed, your levels of prolactin will stay elevated and prevent you from ovulating. No ovulation means: low estrogen.
As women, our bodies go through tremendous changes across our lifespan. The drop-in estrogen that we experience after childbirth mimics the drop-in estrogen brought on by menopause. So in learning how to best take care of yourself after giving birth – how to care for your skin when it’s more fragile, how to moisturize the sensitive tissue of your vulva – you are getting ahead of the curve and learning how to care for yourself down the line. It’s a blueprint for the future.
I emphasize the importance of using moisturizer on the vulva (something pure like coconut oil or Vitamin E) and silicon or water-based lube during sex with every one of my female clients, but especially with new moms, perimenopausal, and menopausal women. Our skin is extra grateful to have a little buffer during those periods in life. This is important from a pelvic floor therapist’s perspective because if you’re experiencing pain during sex due to dryness, your muscles will be more prone to clench up. Comfortable skin opens us up to deeper relaxation – which, incidentally, leads to better orgasms.
A quick note about what you’re putting on your skin: choose wisely! The tissue of your vulva and vagina is the most sensitive tissue of your body – and it’s incredibly absorbent. It’s so important that we all choose vaginal products that are free from unnatural chemicals and mystery ingredients (which can lead to yeast infections and UTIs to boot).
Women are always hearing about estrogen and the ways in which it affects us at various stages of life, so it’s about time we shed some light on the helpful role of testosterone for women. “The concept that one is male and one is female is completely incorrect,” says Dr. Irwin Goldstein, who has researched sexual function since the late ‘70s.
I’m going to dive right in here and let you in on a little secret. When you’re aroused, your tissues plump up and your clitoris and nipples become more sensitive. This in turn increases your partner’s pull towards you, as these bodily changes signal that you’re ready for action. Guess which hormone is behind these amazing changes in your body and your libido levels? Testosterone.
As a pelvic floor therapist, I got interested in the role of testosterone in women’s health when I began to encounter clients who either over- or under-produce the hormone. You see, whereas estrogen affects the mucous membrane, testosterone works on tissues and muscles beneath the surface. This means that it may be a part of the puzzle when it comes to physical therapy and healing in the pelvic area.
Why am I telling you this? Because knowledge is empowering; it helps us to take ownership of our bodies and our experiences. Plus, who doesn’t need a healthy dose of wonder about the intricacies of our feminine biology! But I’m particularly intent on getting this information out there because of how many women take a daily medication that significantly decreases testosterone levels: the pill. (The drop in testosterone is actually why the pill is so effective in reducing acne!) Menopause also reduces our testosterone production, causing it to drop to half of its peak level.
Meet a helpful hormone who doesn’t get a lot of press: progesterone. “That has something to do with periods, right?” Yes – and so much more!
Progesterone is made in our ovaries and adrenal glands and prepares the uterus’ lining for a baby each month. Essentially, it preps the guest room in your body for a visitor. If you do happen to have a little someone set up camp, progesterone then steps into the important role of suppressing further ovulation and cheering on milk-producing glands.
This gives you a hint as to why progesterone is also helpful for women who don’t want to have children: artificial progesterone (aka progestin) in birth control pills prevents the body from ovulating.
As recently as January of 2017, exciting new research has shown a link between progesterone and repeated miscarriage. Remember the effect the hormone has on your uterine lining each month? By giving women additional progesterone, it seems we may be able to create an internal environment that’s better able to hold and nourish an embryo in the first eight weeks of pregnancy (before the mother’s blood takes over the job of feeding). If you’ve had two or more miscarriages in your first trimester of pregnancy, talk to your doctor about progesterone and how it might help.
Is there anything you’ve noticed about your own hormones that you can share? Drop comments or questions below, and if you’re interested sign up for my weekly newsletter the Humpday Hustle where you get 3 ways to turn up your body literacy each week or follow me on IG @functionalpelvis
Yours in pelvic health,