Do you have irritating symptoms around your monthly menstrual cycle? Often, we are told this is just a part of being a woman, but according to Western science and Ayurvedic wisdom, there is both a logical reason for the imbalance and a way to address it, so you can enjoy the healthy natural rhythms of being a woman.
The female hormonal system, while biochemically complex, can be quite simple to understand on a general level. Ovaries secrete three hormones: estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Ruling pituitary hormones send orders to the ovaries to increase or decrease these hormones.
Contrary to what one might assume, most hormonal imbalances do not occur as a result of poor pituitary function. Rather, the most common cause of female hormonal imbalances has to do with the impact of stress on ovarian hormones. A toxic, highly processed food diet along with environment pollutants that can act as hormonal disruptors are factors as well.
In article, I will address the stress component of unruly menstrual cycles. Stress can be emotional, mental, physical, or biochemical, as a result of toxic environment. Any of these can contribute to reproductive imbalance.
The body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol, is produced by the adrenal glands. Excess stress is linked to adrenal deficit, which results in either overzealous production or depletion of cortisol.
Too much or too little stress-fighting cortisol can cause hormonal imbalance. Like the three little bears, all of these hormones have to be . . . not too much . . . not too little . . . but just right.
Ayurveda + Menstruation
Ayurvedically speaking, stress causes downward-moving energy, apana vata, to redirect upward to help the central nervous system (CNS) and brain centers cope with stress. Over time, downward-moving apana vata (reproductive strength) is borrowed and depleted by the CNS, leaving the reproductive system depleted of apana and full of unpleasant symptoms.
With chronic stress, adrenals get tired, unable to keep up with the needed amount of stress-fighting cortisol. In a desperate attempt to deliver life-saving stress hormones, such as cortisol, adrenals will begin to borrow from elsewhere.
Upward-moving energy or life force, prana vata, which transports vital energy from the heart to the head and back, is redirected downward to support depleted adrenal and reproductive systems. Over time, upward-moving prana becomes depleted, and fatigue, brain fog, lack of sex drive, and moodiness can set in.
During menstruation, demand for apana vata increases. With chronic stress, apana vata depleted, and prana vata also depleted, a host of premenstrual symptoms can result, commonly referred to as PMS.
To make matters worse, excess stress will drive adrenals to go shopping for hormones to make more stress-fighting cortisol. Two of the three ovarian hormones, progesterone and testosterone, become depleted when cortisol levels are high.9,10
Progesterone’s relationship with cortisol is even more intimate, as in times of stress, progesterone will convert into cortisol to help boost stress-fighting potential, often leaving the body with depleted progesterone for reproductive balance.12 These two hormones are commonly depleted in times of chronic or long-term stress.
This is the most common cause of female reproductive hormonal imbalances and PMS.
Consequences of Borrowed Progesterone
Depletion of progesterone to be converted into cortisol disturbs the delicate balance between estrogen and progesterone. As progesterone levels fall as a result of adrenal stress, the body perceives estrogen as too dominant.
Symptoms of Estrogen Dominance, Low Progesterone1
- Swelling + breast tenderness
- Decreased sex drive
- Irregular periods
- Mild headaches
- Mood swings
- Benign fibrocystic developments in the breast
- Weight gain
- Cold hands or feet
- Feeling tired or lacking energy
- Acute difficulty with memory
- Acute trouble sleeping
Hormone Replacement Therapy?
This is the primary reason why progesterone replacement has become the holy grail of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for the past 30 years. Replacing progesterone will help the reproductive system get back on track, but it does not address underlying adrenal deficit.
>>> Learn about how to support healthy progesterone levels with Chaste Tree Berry (Vitex agnus).
Consequences of Low Testosterone from Stress
The second ovarian hormone negatively affected by high stress and cortisol is testosterone. In women, depletion in testosterone is most commonly linked to lack of libido.2
There is evidence that this issue is more common than once thought, and may be linked to a variety of symptoms such as:3
- Mild fatigue
- Weight gain or trouble losing weight
- Brain fog
- Low sex drive
Address the Root Cause
According to Ayurveda, there are two classic reproductive tonics that support libido, adrenal stress, and hormonal balance in women: ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and shatavari (Asparagus racemosus).
Shatavari: Woman with 1,000 Husbands
Shatavari, otherwise known as wild asparagus, has been shown to be an effective reproductive tonic for women. Studies show it boosts sex drive in both men and women, while combating vaginal dryness and balancing menstrual concerns, such as heavy bleeding or discharge.4
In one study, shatavari was shown to enhance physical stamina and endurance, as well as increase weight of fatigued adrenal glands after exercise stress, suggesting its adaptogenic support for adrenal health. Taking stress off adrenals allows shatavari to play its role as a reproductive tonic.8
This herb balances production of adrenal cortisol, making it a natural adaptogen.4 Shatavari contains steroid saponins, such as sarsaponin, protodioscin, and diosgenin, estrogenic components extracted from asparagus roots. These compounds act as precursors of progesterone.
In one study, shatavari boosted production of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), follicular-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), estrogen, and progesterone.7
Shatavari has been seen as only estrogenic, but clearly, it acts as Ayurveda predicts: a powerful overall reproductive tonic.
Ashwagandha: Libido Boost
Ashwagandha is one on Ayurveda’s classic reproductive tonics. Like shatavari, ashwagandha has been shown to boost cortisol, support healthy adrenals, and balance female hormonal activity.5
In one study, 50 women were given ashwagandha for eight weeks with a sexual health questionnaire to evaluate changes. On all levels of arousal, lubrication, orgasm, and satisfaction, the supplemented group outperformed the placebo group.5
While ashwagandha is well-established as a male and female reproductive tonic, it is most well-known as an adrenal adaptogen, allowing the body to endure high levels of stress without cortisol depletion.6 In this way, ashwagandha has been shown to help block the adrenal tendency of borrowing female hormones from the ovaries to boost cortisol.
Ashwagandha supports the ability to handle stress, boost cortisol levels when needed, and supports a healthy balance of female reproductive hormones.6
Let us know how it goes!