Our ovaries produce "sex hormones," including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Tied to our menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone are produced in a cyclic fashion. In the first two weeks of the cycle, an egg ripens until approximately day 13, when ovulation occurs and it's released for fertilization. Estrogen levels increase throughout this time and reach their peak when we ovulate. Progesterone is only produced in high levels after ovulation, as it's made by the empty egg sac left behind after the egg is released. Estrogen causes cell proliferation, and progesterone tempers it. So, if you don't ovulate, this balance is thrown off, causing problems as minor as sore breasts and as major as increased risk of neurological problems and cancer.
You're born with your lifetime supply of eggs, so although you start out with about 2 million, by your mid-to late 30s you only have 5,000 to 10,000 left. Every month when you ovulate, you reduce a bit more of this supply. This decrease starts to lower the levels of all of your ovarian hormones as early as your 30s. Is it just a coincidence that the mean age for diagnosis of MS is 32-just as many women experience their first significant drop in hormone levels?
Many women have inherited genetically lower levels of ovarian hormones to start with and tend to lose estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone earlier than women with naturally higher levels, which may explain why some women get MS symptoms earlier than others. All women have genetically programmed levels of hormones, and breast size offers a good clue to individual levels. High estrogen levels cause more stimulation to breast tissue, which is rich in estrogen receptors, and the result is larger breasts. Clinical studies have shown that women with large breasts and narrow waists have much higher levels of progesterone and estrogen than do other women. The voluptuous women in the study had 26% higher overall estrogen levels, and were 37% higher at ovulation.
Progesterone and estrogen ebb and flow during the normal menstrual cycle. The chart below makes it easy to visualize the problem that cycles without ovulation can cause. The production of progesterone requires ovulation, so when you don't ovulate, the healthy, buoyant peaks of estrogen at ovulation and of progesterone in the second half of your cycle don't occur. This lack of ovulation can affect nerve health profoundly, as both estrogen and progesterone are critical in nerve health and remyelination. Most women can attest to the importance of progesterone, as they experience sleeping and mood problems, headaches, brain fog, cognitive difficulty, and sore breasts when they don't ovulate.
All of our sex hormones are important in myelination and overall nerve health. Many studies have shown that they can affect the course of multiple sclerosis, but for some reason mainstream researchers don't seem to have connected the dots yet. Sex hormones in both men and women have a huge effect on MS. The same hormones have different consequences for men and women, although the basic functions of the individual hormones are much the same for everyone.
Read The Perimenopause & Menopause Workbook (New Harbinger Publications) for more information on this critical hormone connection.