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Saturday, 7 May 2011

On being a Hormonal Woman.

Recently I posted a short paragraph from a book which had got up my nose.  I hypothesised at the time that my reaction to this particular paragraph may have been linked to my hormones (largely due to the fact that I was 6 months pregnant).

Turns out a large number of you agreed - and quite a few of you thought I was probably being a tad over-sensitive etc.  And honestly, I'm fine with that.  I can take it.  ;) 

After all, I'm well used to it.  I've been living in something of a hormonal soup since my early teens.  Whereas at some point in the past I might have screamed (in chorus with millions of other women) 'I AM NOT HORMONAL!', I can, in this instance, accept that it's possible I got my knickers into more of a twist than normal because of those pesky hormones.  I honestly can take on board the opinions of people I respect without being offended.  So that's all ok then...

found here

Hormone:  'A hormone (from Greek ὁρμή "impetus") is a chemical released by a cell or a gland in one part of the body that sends out messages that affect cells in other parts of the organism. Only a small amount of hormone is required to alter cell metabolism.'

As women, we are governed far more by the ebbs and flows of our hormones than men - some are affected to a lesser degree (not me), and some to a much higher degree (definitely me!).  It usually starts around the arrival of your menstrual cycle - crucial for the establishment of new human life - but which also (inescapably) governs one's mood, skin condition, food preferences, patience, concentration, digestion, sex drive, self image, confidence etc.  Without going on it's already quite a list...

If/ when we get pregnant that whole system is knocked sideways.  The menstrual cycle comes screeching to an abrupt halt in the face of a hormonal juggernaut which leaves some women clinging to the toilet bowl on a daily basis and others consuming vast quantities of unusual foodstuffs (the nutritional value of which is often questionable!).  Even the most level-headed of women can be stunned to find themselves becoming a soggy pool of tears in the toilets at work over a situation which they would normally manage with ease.  Others must try to think of a way to explain why they just had to pick up the phone and subscribe monthly to an animal welfare charity.  (Those WSPA  ads are pretty heart-wrenching.  *A-hem...*)

How we respond to these hormonal ups and downs varies enormously from person to person.  Sudden hormonal changes and imbalances can affect our human feelings and behaviour to an incredible degree.  In the past, the hormonal condition PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome or 'Dalton's Disorder') has been used in court successfully to reduce charges of murder to manslaughter, on the grounds of diminished responsibility or temporary insanity.  PMS is thought to affect up to 75% of menstruating women to a greater or lesser degree.

The Creighton Model FertilityCare System (which deals with reproductive health and particularly women's health) is expert at pinpointing and helping to resolve hormonal problems.  One of the founders of this system Thomas W. Hilgers, MD says of PMS:
'On a number of occasionas I have heard physicians say, "If a woman presents with these symptoms, just give her some Valium.".  Now, the most recently advanced treatment is Prozac......  On a number of occasions, the author has observed the mistaken diagnosis of depressive psychosis or manic-depressive psychosis made by well regarded psychiatrists in women whose primary problem was PMS' 
That is serious stuff, don't you think?

And yet, even when talking to our friends, our fellow women, we find ourselves competely dismissive of each other's struggle through this hormonal quagmire.  We even belittle our own experiences *sniffing* 'I'm just hormonal'...

Even more significiantly (for me) we fail to recognise the beauty of hormonesHow they empower and enable us all to feel more deeply, to empathise, to become energised, to care.  

They also give us, as mothers, abilities which we otherwise might lack.  I would even go so far as to say that the hormones of motherhood allow us to develop in ourselves something of a sixth sense about our children - particularly in the early weeks and months.  They help (and sometimes force) us to move away from a cerebral view of the world towards a heart, and gut centered one.  They remind us that we are animals, and enable us to access our deepest instincts. 

How many times have you woken quietly up in the night for no apparent reason, and seconds afterwards your child has needed you?  It could be conditioning, it could be habit, or it could be something more fundamental.

A study done at the University of Wisconsin showed that mice with low levels of CRH hormone (a hormone known to be suppressed by lactation*) were more protective of their offspring than those with high levels of CRH.  One of the authors of the report, Stephen Gammie (Professor of Zoology) is reported to have said:
"There are stories of cats rescuing their kittens from burning buildings and birds swooping down at people when their chicks are on the ground."  
*abstract is here

Prof. Gammie also made the following (contraversial) statement about the implications of his study:
"If CRH needs to be low to see maternal protection of offspring, as our work suggests, then it explains why mums with high postpartum depression and high CRH not only may neglect, but also may abuse, their children."
In plain english, post-partum lactation may affect hormones in a way that protects against post-natal depression.  Other experts support this idea that lactation is protective against PND, and you can find lots more about this here.

It's purely anecdotal, but the return of my menstrual cycle 5.5 months after giving birth to my first daughter signalled the end of (what I can only describe as) my most emotionally stable period since hitting my teens.  I'd been put on anti-depressants as a teenager you see.  Sent for counselling.  I'd been told by doctors that I had anxiety/ depression even though I was fine during the first half of the month...  *I'm* one of those people Dr Hilgers was referring to when he talked about doctors prescribing Prozac instead of treating for PMS. 

However, despite the fact that I suffered from pre-natal depression during my first pregnancy (which got me labelled as 'high risk' for post-natal depression), endured a traumatic birth, was separated from my newborn, and struggled daily with my daughter's undiagnosed silent reflux, in the months following my daughter's birth I was happier and more content than I'd ever been.  Happier, more stable and quite frankly saner than I'd been at pretty much any point since puberty. 

When breastfeeding could hold off my periods no longer the hormonal highs and lows returned.  My husband and I had a 'light bulb' conversation when we realised that I had never had depression, I was 'just' hormonal!  Do I think breastfeeding 'saved' me from PND?  In my case it's a no-brainer, absolutely, yes.  For the record - I absolutely recognise that there are a thousand other reasons why a woman might suffer from this horrible condition - this assertion relates only to my personal circumstances.

Since I first posted this blog the feedback I have received suggests that I am not the only person who feels that breastfeeding benefitted their mental health. It makes me wonder just how many women - given the good breastfeeding support which seems so undervalued by our government and doctors - might be helped to avoid (costly) drug and medical treatment for depression in the months after birth?  Sadly I personally wonder whether this will ever be researched because there is no money to be made out of this entirely natural hormonal protection against low mood.

This time around my periods returned at only 4m pp - *cries*.  I am, however, fortunate  that I'm now under the care of a doctor able to recognise the difference between PMS and mental illness.   The prozac of old has been replaced by progesterone.  The difference for me was staggering - the hormone works really very quickly.  It's also TOTALLY SAFE FOR BREASTFEEDING as the drug most often used to treat PMS (cyclogest) is in the same form your body naturally produces - it's not the same synthetic progesterone used in the mini pill. 


Progesterone can also be used as a treatment for PPD/ PND.  One theory is that it's the steep drop in/ low progesterone levels after birth which is responsible for triggering the illness.  If you have suffered (or are currently suffering) from this condition, you can access support and information here.


Just another hormone....

But what else is going on with these crazy hormones?

Breastfeeding can be tricky to get going - but once you're up and running many people start to notice the positive effect that it has on their mood.  Oxytocin (which causes the milk to be 'let down' during a feed) is a 'feel-good' hormone.  It is often referred to as the 'cuddle' or 'love hormone'.  As well as it's central role in breastfeeding it also plays an important role in birth, in orgasm, in bonding, in empathy, and is so potent that these days it is being marketed as a nasal spray with the tagline 'liquid trust'. 
Breastfeeding also generates high levels of the hormone Prolactin.   Prolactin is known for producing feelings of calm, it helps 'chill you out', and is another of the hormones referred to as 'mothering hormones'. 
Prolactin:
"physiologically produces in the mother an intensification of her 'motherliness,' the pleasurable care of her child. Psychologically, this intensification serves further to consolidate the symbiotic bond between herself and her child" ~ Montagu 1971
Whilst a tiny minority of women who suffer from D-MER do not experience the hormones of breastfeeding in this same, positive way, most people who breastfeed do benefit from the hormonal payoff.  Mother Nature isn't stupid, she wants you to enjoy feeding your baby.

One of the commenters on the FB page was very kind after my 'hormonal outburst'.  She said she didn't think I was over-reacting, and in fact in her (also pregnant) state she made the point that it was 'GOOD to be upset, being upset leads to CHANGE!'. 

It all got me thinking.  I am emotional, certain things are important to me even though they might seem unimportant to someone else.  But I don't see anything wrong with that... 

What's wrong with being hormonal?  

Ok, so you don't want to get things so out of whack that you end up using PMS as a defence in court, but surely in our efforts to disguise, or 'iron out' our natural female hormonal inclinations we're at risk of losing a ton of good things too?   Those 'good things' include our ability as women and mothers to feel things more deeply, to empathise, to become energised, to care.

In March, Jalisa Granger put her body between her child and a collapsing building.  She saved her baby's life but tragically died in the process.  I'm guessing now, but I suspect her choice to give up her life so that her child would be safe was not a logical one, but one borne out of an animal instinct to protect her offspring.  She's not alone, there are many, many examples of this the world over. 

So the scientists say that 'mothering hormones' make the mother braver, more willing to defend and protect her child.  But Google a little bit and you'll find countless stories of women prepared to do totally crazy things for other people's children too! 
Mon Dieu - we women really ARE a bunch of nutters - and I suspect you hormonal 'breastfeeding mafia' are among the worst offenders!  Ok, so perhaps you're not lifting children out from underneath cars every day, but you do have a tendency to nag those poor formula companies about responsible advertising and - *OMG* - some of you are even passionate about donating your milk to sick and needy babies.

So, next time you witness yourself, or me, or someone else, behaving in a way you consider 'hormonal', be generous.  Be thankful that we are not all the same, enjoy the fluffy loveliness of the ups and be kind to yourself when you meet the downs.  You might not always be on the up-side of the hormonal rollercoaster (!) but remember that those irrational little chemical pranksters can be a powerful source for good in the world.

4 comments:

  1. seems like hormonal is the new hysteric *yawn*

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  2. What a wonderful piece! I have just got my cycles back at 11 months postpartum (lucky me for holding it off for so long bfing twins!) and already I feel more labile. I also thank the pregnancy, birth and breasfeeding(prob the hormones involved)for only having had one migraine in the last 20 months, where prepregnancy I was having one a week with medication for prophylaxis.
    I love the article, and it translated some things I knew with my head into the practical. Thank you.

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  3. While most women are saved from post partum depression because of their breastfeeding, I was not. My first child was exclusively breastfed and I actually suffered from post partum psychosis. Because of this I was put on medication that was not safe for breastfeeding and was forced to stop nursing. My 2nd child was exclusively breastfed for 11 months, but I was on Prozac throughout, and I am currently exclusively breastfeeding my 3rd child who is 7 months old. I am a HUGE breastfeeding advocate, but I feel it is important to note that the "benefits" are not the same for everyone. I do not experience the calming effects or the bonding effects that most do. And after time and experience I have come to find that many of us who breastfeed are snobs. I used to look at a mother feeding her baby formula like she was selfish and practically abusive, even after all the troubles I had. After all, I gave up my entire self identity to breastfeeding, along with giving up sleep, help with feedings, and obviously my boobs. But the truth is, sometimes I wish I had been a little more selfish. As moms we need breaks! If u can't get one everyone suffers! (My husband will attest to this!) And as mothers, we need to keep our sanity, and honestly sometimes breastfeeding only adds to this problem. I am not suggesting that breast isn't best, we all know it is, but I am suggesting that if a person chooses not to breastfeed or to wean early that they are not a monster! Every situation is different. As women we need to come together and support each other instead of constantly throwing each other under the bus.

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    Replies
    1. I hope this article didn't make you feel like I was throwing anyone 'under the bus'? I totally agree that we can never know another person's true story, and each situation is different. I frequently say it on my page. However, there is information here which women AREN'T getting when it comes to making their decisions. In your case it sounds like you made a totally informed decision and it was completely right for you. However, we get a lot of posts from women who think low mood and medication automatically means they should stop breastfeeding. As you know, it depends on the meds, and there are options for 'ordinary' antidepressants which can be taken whilst breastfeeding. The loss of breastfeeding to mums who want to breastfeed is often dismissed as unimportant. This post is in no way a judgement, rather it's asking for honesty in all things. Thanks for your comment.

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