Going Hormonal: Facts, Myths, and Musings

She went hormonal on me all of a sudden. Crazy b!tch must be on her period, she’s wacko.

These derogatory remarks are usually aimed at menstruating women who speak their minds above a demur whisper. And yet everyone is hormonal, every hour of every day. We know they fluctuate, but how much does the average person know about how hormones really work?

What’s more, has science revealed enough to justify the blame we assign to sex hormones for gender-specific behaviors?

And ultimately, can medical research help us understand their role in developing multiple sclerosis?

We possess a hundred different hormones manufactured by various human organs, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.

The impact of a woman’s menstrual cycle on her physical and emotional comfort, her family and professional life, and the broader perception of her mental balance has been the subject of much speculation, prejudice, political manipulation—and no less significantly, a convenient excuse for a firmly-embedded patriarchy to justify denying fertile women leadership roles in traditionally male-dominated institutions. However, if we take a closer look at some studies that measured estrogen and progesterone levels in women who reported monthly symptoms such as “mild to moderate depressionanxiety, mood swings, melancholia, sensitivity, full-blown anger and self-hatred, the study subjects’ hormone levels registered as normal.”

This is a curious outcome for symptoms we routinely describe as raging hormones. “Hormone fluctuations” comes closer to the mark as estrogen stays within a narrow field while progesterone is the one that drops suddenly and dramatically, most notably during perimenopause, when the most common manifestations of ‘wild fluctuations’ are hot flashes and mood changes. Some researchers believe those mood changes have to do with hormone metabolites in the brain, or that some women just metabolize hormones differently. No one knows for sure."

If the variety and severity of PMS symptoms is affected by how the body processes hormones, then that could explain why lifestyle changes such as sodium and caffeine reduction and increased exercise can ameliorate symptoms. There is another piece of the puzzle about processing hormones that further illuminates its impact: The study revealed that stress played a big role in the severity of PMS symptoms, much more so than hormone levels.

So here we have two areas of focus: Stress and hormone fluctuation/processing. This should also resonate with those of you who struggle with hormone imbalances other than the sex hormones, notably hyper- and hypo-thyroidism.  And since everyone is hormonal 24/7, let’s examine another modern cultural myth: Menopause only happens to women.

Great caution is exercised wherever articles explore the notion that it ain’t just happening to the gals. Researchers are quite hesitant to make that leap on behalf of men over the age of 40. They’ve gone so far as to come up with a name for it—andropause, meaning low testosterone—but have you ever seen or heard this term before? There are plenty of TV commercials flashing the euphemism: “Low T” on the screen while hawking either Cialis/Viagra or “natural” supplements. The mechanism of these substances dilates all the blood vessels—including those in the private parts, to the great good fortune of the user. But erectile dysfunction is only one possible symptom of a man’s change of life. Like women, men can experience depression, anxiety, low libido, fatigue, and weakness. So why doesn’t the medical establishment call this condition andropause, or directly liken it to the female change? Let’s look at the following WebMD article excerpt:

“The medical community is debating whether or not men really do go through a well-defined menopause. Doctors say that men receiving hormone therapy with testosterone have reported relief of some of the symptoms associated with so-called male menopause... Men do experience a decline in the production of the male hormone testosterone with aging, but this also occurs with conditions such as diabetes... The testes, unlike the ovaries, do not run out of the substance it needs to make testosterone. A healthy man may be able to make sperm well into his 80s or later. ”

Despite a reluctance to equate men’s mid-life changes with that of women—the narrative was quick to point out that an autoimmune disease can cause low testosterone-- menopause and andropause seem to have more in common than not. For example, low estrogen can be brought on by chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and can be the result of conditions such as anorexia, genetic diseases, thyroid problems and inadequate body fat. Moreover, a postmenopausal woman’s body does not stop manufacturing estrogen all together. The ovaries and adrenal glands continue to produce androstenedione, a hormone that is converted into estrogen. While it is true that this amount of estrogen isn’t adequate to maintain a woman’s fertility like men can despite the drop in their testosterone, the evidence seems robust in showing many effects commonly shared in sex hormone depletion.

There are several health benefit outcomes to the perception that men and women are traveling buddies on that road to “going hormonal.” Stress and how the body processes hormone fluctuations play a major role in quality of life for both men and women. Removing cultural biases that keep men’s problems in the realm of sexual function only and women’s hormone issues in the realm of snaggle-toothed witchiness, might motivate our patriarchal institutions to more vigorously research the hormonal component of genetic diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Researchers probably already use the concepts of stress and hormone processing to formulate a number of study hypotheses. We already know firsthand the role stress plays in activating MS and in the recurrence of both actual exacerbations and pseudoexacerbations. Let’s hope the stress/hormone connection can be further illuminated in our very brief lifetimes.

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