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July 3, 2024

January 10, 2024

Hormone Health and Wellness for Moms: Busting Myths and Understanding Your Cycle

E:
207
with
Dr. Jen Gunter
bestselling author, obstetrician, and gynecologist

What You'll Learn

  • Why Understanding Female Health is Important
  • Myths About Cycles, Hormones, and Health
  • What the Evidence Says About Cycle Tracking
  • Why Science Matters for Hormone Health and Wellness
  • Signs and Symptoms of PMS and PMDD
  • The Relationship Between the Mental Load and Wellness
  • Birth Control, Hormones, and our Health
  • The Problem With Alternative Hormone Treatments

It’s common for moms to put their physical and mental health on the backburner when they have children. 

Not only are we conditioned to think that we should sacrifice our own needs and put all our focus on the baby, but we also juggle a heavy invisible load that can leave us unsure where to begin. 

When we find ourselves struggling with fatigue, mood swings, irritability, anger, or depressive symptoms, it raises more questions and brings added mental load to the table. 

Are these things just normal for moms? Is it sleep deprivation? Typical overwhelm? A sign of postpartum depression or a mood disorder? The weight of the invisible load? Or is it our hormones wreaking havoc? 

Determining what’s going on in our brains and bodies is hard. And it becomes even more difficult when misinformation is shared all over the internet, chalking everything about our health and wellness up to our hormones or menstrual cycle. 

It’s no wonder that so many moms don’t seek the care they need. They often aren’t sure where their struggles lie or what could really be going on. 

And because of all that overwhelm, moms sometimes fall victim to online myths or promises of quick fixes in the form of coaching, courses, supplements, or hormone pellets. 

OBGYN and NYT bestselling author Dr. Jen Gunter is committed to changing that, providing women with accessible research and knowledge about female health. Today, she joins us to discuss her upcoming book Blood and bust myths about hormonal health and wellness for moms. 

Why Understanding Female Health is Important

Dr. Jen became passionate about helping people understand medical knowledge after spending time in the NICU with her premature triplets. She noticed that many of the other parents would misinterpret information from the doctors. 

While her medical degree allowed her to understand what the doctors were saying, that wasn’t the case for everyone. She knew she wanted to find a way to help the general public access the knowledge they needed for their health. 

A misunderstanding of medical knowledge doesn’t just leave us feeling confused. It can also isolate us or push us into believes in conspiracy theories or alternative medicine. 

Dr. Jen believed that communication was key to bridging the gap and helping people access medical knowledge in a way that they could understand. 

This gap is very prevalent when it comes to female health. Women experience medical gaslighting far too often. Medical research is often centered on and catered to men. And there is an ongoing stigma about female health that is still very present in the medical world. 

It makes it difficult for us to understand our own bodies, let alone understand when something isn’t right or when we should seek care. 

Myths About Cycles, Hormones, and Health

There are many myths about women and menstrual cycles that are often shared on the internet. Dr. Jen recently saw a clip from a chiropractor discussing how women detox with their menstrual cycle. 

But this idea isn’t scientific. Dr. Jen pointed out that the human body doesn’t make toxins—and that anything harmful is removed through the liver and kidneys. But she also said that this misinformation is rooted in views of menstruating women being toxic or harmful, stemming back from Greek medicine. 

Dr. Jen said that when we see statements like “women detox with their menstrual cycle,” it’s important to ask ourselves questions and think about the implications. If this were true, then what does that mean about women? Do men not have toxins? Are women dirty? If we carry these toxins that detox with our cycle, what happens when we’re pregnant?

By digging deeper, it becomes clear that this myth doesn’t make sense. Dr. Jen believes that myths like this perpetuate the idea that menstruation is dirty—a core tenant of patriarchy. 

Another common myth that many people believe is that our cycles sync due to pheromones. Dr. Jen said that there is no evidence of humans having pheromones or periods being able to sync. The idea came from one outdated faulty study that has since been disproven. And yet, it’s something that so many people believe. 

Myths about menstruation lead people to learning less about their bodies.

Dr. Jen said that busting myths about menstruation is important because they lead people to learning less about their bodies, potentially causing them to miss out on important medical signs. 

What the Evidence Says About Cycle Tracking

In the last couple of years, a new popular online trend centers around women mapping out their menstrual cycle and planning their lives according to when they function most optimally based on the phase of their cycle. 

But Dr. Jen said that this is an idea that people often use to sell coaching services, and that it isn’t supported by evidence. She pointed out that historically women have never stopped functioning during their periods or at certain points in their cycle. If they had, we likely wouldn’t have survived. 

Dr. Jen said that while it’s true that there are hormonal fluctuations, and that at different times in the cycle we might feel better or not better, there isn’t anything to support the idea that we should plan our lives, workouts, or work projects around our cycles. 

Instead, we should pay attention to how we feel on any given day and give ourselves permission to be flexible if possible when needed. 

The idea of our menstrual phase dictating our abilities is rooted in patriarchal concepts.

Dr. Jen also pointed out that the idea of our menstrual phase dictating our abilities is rooted in patriarchal concepts. The idea that the menstrual cycle makes us fragile, or that women are less competent at different times, or too hormonal to work or function, tie back into a hysteria mindset that stigmatizes women. 

Dr. Jen said that ultimately you have to live the way you want—and if you find that avoiding certain activities at specific points in your cycle is beneficial, that’s fine. But she believes that becoming obsessive or rigid about tracking our cycle might not put us in the best mental state or improve our quality of life. Other intense tracking, such as sleep tracking, have been shown to increase anxiety. 

From a scientific standpoint, Dr. Jen also pointed out that specific hormone levels haven’t been shown to make people feel specific ways. It’s not just about hormone levels, it’s about how they fluctuate, your individual genetics, and everything that makes you a whole person. 

Why Science Matters for Hormone Health and Wellness

Another danger of falling into the idea that our menstrual cycle dictates our lives, our productivity, and our emotions, is that we might start to normalize more extreme symptoms, dismissing them as just being part of our cycle. 

This could cause us to overlook disruptive conditions like PMDD or avoid talking to a provider about our struggles. 

Incorrect information causes us to overlook disruptive conditions like PMDD.

Dr. Jen said that incorrect information has a lot of impact. There are some medical conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or depression that can fluctuate with the menstrual cycle. Other conditions, such as PMS, PMDD, or menstrual migraines do fall in line with your cycle as well. 

If you have actual difficulty functioning or severe depressive symptoms at only certain times of your cycle, you need to see a provider. 

And if you do suspect something more serious is going on, then cycle tracking could become beneficial. Dr. Jen recommends keeping a calendar for two months, writing down symptoms, then later looking through and determining where those symptoms fell in your cycle. That’s different than pre-determining that you shouldn’t work or won’t be able to function. 

Signs and Symptoms of PMS and PMDD

It’s important to understand conditions such as PMS and PMDD so we can determine whether our baseline is normal or an indicator of something more. 

Dr. Jen said that PMS, or premenstrual syndrome, is characterized by physical and emotional symptoms that only occur in the luteal phase—after ovulation. These symptoms include mood swings, feeling anxious or unlike yourself, fatigue or difficulty sleeping, breast tenderness, difficulty concentrating, feeling overwhelmed, headaches, and bloating or gastrointestinal issues. 

These symptoms are usually on the mild side and typically don’t have an impact on your quality of life—and PMS is very common. If you experience these symptoms outside of the luteal phase, it’s unlikely to be PMS, and you should talk to a doctor about other causes. 

PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, has similar symptoms to PMS, but they are more severe. It’s common for PMDD to come with more mental health symptoms, such as stronger depression or anxiety, panic attacks, or even thoughts of suicide. 

We shouldn’t be either self-diagnosing or dismissing our symptoms as typical.

If you are concerned about PMDD, it’s time to see a doctor. We shouldn’t be either self-diagnosing or dismissing our symptoms as typical. If we are seeing an impact on our lives, it’s important to reach out. 

Dr. Jen pointed out that there are many factors that play into potential symptoms, and these conditions could also overlap with other issues. It’s important to see a doctor who specializes in your area of concern if possible. 

The Relationship Between the Mental Load and Wellness

Dr. Jen also believes it’s important to not overlook the role of the mental load in our wellness. Sometimes the answer to symptoms such as fatigue, overwhelm, difficulty concentrating, or depressive mood might be hormonal. But other times, it could be that we’re expected to carry too much—especially if we have a partner who isn’t pulling their weight. 

We’re often carrying a mental and emotional load that requires a lot of mental space, energy, and constant labor. We might have the capacity to carry more at certain times, but at other times we might struggle. 

The dynamics of the mental load and the pressures on moms have an impact on our mental health—and these things could be the reason for overwhelm or fatigue, or even a factor in depression or mood disorders. 

Dr. Jen pointed out that as a society we often believe that moms should be carrying it all, and that it’s easier to say that they are incompetent or that there is something wrong if they struggle than to realize that perhaps they are carrying far too much. 

When we are the ones carrying the mental load and assuming responsibility for so many tasks in the home, it’s no wonder when we feel exhausted or overwhelmed. It’s important to have a level of awareness in how the household labor and social expectations play into what we’re experiencing. 

Our mental health is complex and there are often so many factors involved, from division of labor to relationship conflict to hormonal fluctuations to depression and anxiety. We need to be able to see the big picture if we want to protect our mental heatlh. 

Birth Control, Hormones, and our Health

Misinformation about our cycles, hormones, and health and wellness doesn’t just pop up around symptoms and conditions—it also comes into play with treatment. 

For example, there are often myths circulated about birth control warning women about disrupting their cycles and impacting their health. 

But Dr. Jen pointed out that birth control functions in a similar way that pregnancy does to stop our cycle. In both pregnancy and on birth control, we develop eggs—they just don’t go anywhere, and we don’t have the same big hormonal fluctuations that we might otherwise have. 

If birth control was dangerous then pregnancy would be too. Dr. Jen said that the research shows that birth control is safe and effective for most women. She shared that studies which link birth control to depression are being looked at more closely—and there are indicators that perhaps a hormonal cause is at play rather than the birth control itself causing depression. 

Dr. Jen also pointed out that the birth control pill is one of the best studied treatments for PMS and PMDD. These conditions are triggered by hormone fluctuations. If we can remove that change, we can reduce symptoms. 

Contraception is no different from any other medication—you need to weigh out side effects and your quality of life. 

Dr. Jen said that contraception is no different from any other medication—you need to weigh out potential side effects and your quality of life. If it improves your life, great—and it not, then you probably shouldn’t take it. 

Anti-birth control ideas often stem from the idea that we should be in tune with our “natural cycle.” But Dr. Jen believes that the fascination with “natural” often leads us away from safe, evidence-backed treatment—and can also make us vulnerable to treatments that aren’t proven at all.

The Problem With Alternative Hormone Treatments

One of those unproven treatments is hormone pellet therapy—another growing trend that Dr. Jen is concerned about. She said that pellets are not recommended by any expert, and that they are associated with a higher risk of complications and no benefit. 

Dr. Jen said that if we need hormone treatments, the only viable route is to get a pharmaceutical prescription form a doctor. Other hormone treatments are not well-studied, and we can’t know the amount of hormones going into our system. 

She also pointed out that makers of hormone pellets also purchase raw hormones from the same route as pharmaceutical companies—and that they are essentially selling us the same product in an unstudied and unverified method. 

Dr. Jen also said that we often need to seek specialists for certain medical concerns. While general practitioners are great, they aren’t given the time and space to study advanced medical research on individual topics. 

Ultimately, we need to put our trust in experts and specialists who are well-versed and practice with evidence-based methods. This applies to mental health as well as physical—not everyone understands different specialties in the same way, which is why it’s important to see someone who specializes in what you need. 

If you are struggling with mental health concerns, working with a mom therapist can help! Book a FREE 15 minute virtual consultation with one of our therapists today.

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Tags:

Hormones, PMDD

Stage:

Postpartum, Motherhood

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OUR GUEST

Dr. Jen Gunter
bestselling author, obstetrician, and gynecologist

Dr. Jen Gunter is an internationally bestselling author, obstetrician, and gynecologist with more than three decades of experience as a vulvar and vaginal diseases expert. Considered “the world's most famous—and outspoken—gynecologist,” (The Guardian), her New York Times and USA Today bestselling books, The Vagina Bible and The Menopause Manifesto, have been translated into 25 languages. She is the host of Jensplaining, a CBC/Amazon Prime video series that highlights the impact of medical misinformation on women, and the recipient of the 2020 NAMS Media Award from The North American Menopause Society. Her 2020 TED Talk, “Why Can’t We Talk About Periods?” received more than two million views in its first six months, leading to the launch of her popular podcast on the TED Audio Collective, “Body Stuff with Dr. Jen Gunter.” Originally from Winnipeg, Canada, she lives with her sons in San Francisco, CA.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
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