Menstrual Cycle Hormones

Whenever someone asks me about levels of menstrual cycle-related hormones during their cycle and the answer isn’t obvious I go to the figure below from Wikimedia (this article). What I love about it is that it shows the average (bold blue line) and then the biological variability around that average (dark blue shaded area)… and then also how much this can vary between cycles and between women.The figure is based on a study performed in 2006 that measured hormone levels in 20 ‘normally cycling women’ not on birth control pills. The data were reanalyzed in 2014 and these figures created.

One example of when I might refer to these figures is if someone tells me that they’ve just had blood drawn, they don’t know what cycle day they’re on (e.g. have not yet had their first post-HA or first postpartum period), and LH was measured at 17 and estradiol at 215 pg/mL. I can check these figures and see that that most likely corresponds to just before ovulation. If LH is 17 and e2 is 85 pg/mL that might mean that ovulation has just occurred. If LH is 17 and estradiol is 30 pg/mL then I might suggest inducing a bleed and testing a hormone panel to determine if PCOS might be in play.

I think what is unique and particularly helpful in these figures is the inclusion of variability so one has an idea of the typical range for these hormones. Let me know if you have any questions!

Nico

 

 

Do you really ovulate “late”?

Some women, as they recover from hypothalamic amenorrhea, will be worried that they are ovulating “late” in their cycle, maybe Cycle Day 21, 22… but then they get their period around the normal time, maybe CD 28-30.

In some cases, and this was true for me, the issue is the short luteal phase (remember, that’s the time between ovulation and when your period arrives) leading to a seemingly long follicular phase (time between period and ovulation).

When I tracked my ovulations and periods carefully I noticed that my ovulations were routinely 28-30 days apart, as expected. So it wasn’t that the ovulation was messed up, it was more that my period wasn’t aligning with the ovulation as in a normal cycle. A similar phenomenon was observed in a research study where women with short luteal phases were observed to have longer follicular phases (this was not the main focus of the study, but my observation from data reported in Table 2).

My theory is that to some degree, our period and then subsequent ovulation are actually hormonally separate events. The period comes because of a drop in progesterone, that is unrelated to the decrease in estrogen that primes the small increase in FSH to start the new follicle growing. So in a woman with a short luteal phase, the drop in progesterone occurs early, leading to an early period – but that does NOT drive the start of follicular growth, which waits for a few days and then begins, on its regular 28 day cycle.

I know this is confusing, so check out these diagrams. Here’s a normal cycle…the small increase in FSH at the beginning leads to growth of the egg-containing follicle. In the middle of the cycle, around CD12-13, LH spikes leading to ovulation around CD14. After ovulation, the follicular structure collapses into the “corpus luteum” which starts secreting progesterone by around CD16. When progesterone levels fall approximately 12 days later, the period starts, FSH increases, and the whole cycle begins again – with ovulation around CD14 and period around CD28.

Here’s my view of what is happening when one has a short luteal phase. Let’s imagine that the first period in this diagram was induced by Provera and then Clomid is used to start the follicular growth. So the follicular phase proceeds just as above – a small increase in FSH leads to growth of the egg-containing follicle, LH spikes around CD12-13, and ovulation happens on CD14. This is where things aren’t working quite right – the corpus luteum forms, but isn’t making enough progesterone. So the increase in progesterone is lower, and for a shorter amount of time. This leads to an early period – in this diagram, about a week early, for a 6 to 7 day luteal phase.

This leads to what I’m terming the “apparent cycle day” in the figure – menses have started, so ostensibly it’s CD1 again. However. The OTHER hormones involved in the cycle are not at CD1 levels yet. They are still at CD22, 23, 24 levels. The estrogen needs to drop further to instigate the increase in FSH to start the follicular growth… and THOSE hormones are not affected by the lack of proesterone. They continue along their merry way as if it’s CD 22-28, not caring that you’re bleeding already and *think* it’s CD1. So then you get to CD14 and think that ovulation should be happening… but it doesn’t. So you get frustrated (trust me, I know!!) But in reality, your other hormones are on their normal 28-30 day cycle, when when you get to where CD14 would have been if your period had come on time at CD28, that’s when you ovulate. Does that make sense? If not, feel free to drop a question in the comments!

To further illustrate this, here’s a table with my cycle data (this was after my second son was born in September 2008… my first postpartum ovulation was 7/29/2009 while I was still breastfeeding morning and night. I got my period just five days later on 8/3/09, for a four day luteal phase. This cycle isn’t a great example as the cycle is long as is common in initial postpartum or recovery cycles. However the next one (cycle #2) is a perfect example. After only a six-day luteal phase, I got my peiod on 9/15/09 – had it been a normal length LP (e.g., CD14 ovulation, CD28 period start), my period would have come on 9/21/09 instead. I then ovulated on 10/6/09, which based on when my period actually started was apparently CD22… but had my period come when it “should have”… the ovulation would have been CD15.

One anomalous cycle happens on cycle 10 – I had gotten pregnant the cycle before, but unfortunately had a miscarriage that was resolved after two D&Cs. After that I started to use progesterone suppositories to support my luteal phase, which leads to close to normal LPs and pretty close to CD14 ovulation. I did NOT use progesterone on cycles 15 or 16… leading to shorter luteal phase and apparent later ovulation!

You can see from this data set that there’s a fair bit of variability between cycles – compare the days between ovulation and you see that mostly they’re around ~28-30 days, but there are a few that are shorter, and a few that ar longer. I know that some women are like clockwork, but that is certainly not true for me!!

I hope this helps explain why a short luteal phase and longer apparently follicular phase are associated – again, feel free to ask any questions you may have – or please share if this has been your experience as well – or not!

xox Nico

P.S. Check out Chapter 19 in No Period. Now What? for a LOT more information on luteal phases, why they might be short, and what you can do about it!!

Femara or Clomid for Ovulation Induction?

Summary: If you are not ovulating naturally even after working on recovery, and want to use medication to induce ovulation for pregnancy, Femara (letrozole) is preferable to Clomid (clomiphene)*.

letrozol3d

 

 

Letrozole, By MindZiper – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15991603

 

In No Period. Now What? (NPNW), our book on hypothalamic amenorrhea recovery, Chapter 21 covers the oral medications that can be used to encourage ovulation. We discuss how soy isoflavones, Femara, Clomid, and tamoxifen reduce estrogen levels to encourage an increase in follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) that in turn leads to growth and maturation of eggs. These medications can be used when pregnancy is desired, but also to “jump-start” menstrual cycles*. It is really important to note that these meds are unlikely to work without progress having made toward recovery in the form of increased eating, reduced exercise, and reduced psychological stress – all of which you can read about in earlier sections in our book.

clomifene_ball-and-stick

 

 

Clomiphene, by MarinaVladivostok (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

We also cover research comparing pregnancy rates, likelihood of a multiple-gestation pregnancy, uterine lining thickness, and other metrics between Femara (letrozole) and Clomid (clomiphene citrate) to help women decide which choice is optimal for them. (Tamoxifen is an alternate that is rarely used, so there is not a large body of research to reference, although in many ways it is preferable to Clomid based on fewer effects on the uterine lining.) We also discuss dosing recommendations, what to do if the first cycle doesn’t work, and much more. 🙂

Our conclusion in NPNW is that if one is trying to get pregnant, Continue reading

What to do if you’re a competitive athlete with a missing period?

Our hypothalamic amenorrhea / female athlete triad recovery book No Period. Now What? describes the causes of HA, many of the short- and long-term effects, and offers a Recovery Plan that has worked for hundreds of women. We also offer support throughout in the form of our own experiences, anecdotes from other women in similar situations, and advice we have gleaned over our years working with women to restore menstrual cycles.

There are two major components to recovery, both of which are covered in great detail in our book, but simply put, they are to eat more and cut out high intensity exercise.

Easy, right? Except, really, not at all. It is incredibly difficult for most of us to relinquish the food myths that we have been taught over the years, to let go of the rules that we have placed on ourselves, and particularly, to gain weight. For many it’s even more difficult to stop our cardiovascular exercise, whether it be running, biking, classes, or being a ‘gym rat.’ That’s why we spend more than a hundred pages on the rationale for the recommendations, ideas to implement them, and support for all the mental work that needs to happen.

While it’s hard enough for a recreational athlete to cut out high intensity exercise, for a competitive athlete this might truly be impossible. If you’re in high school and hoping for a college scholarship, or already in college being provided funds to attend, or a professional athlete – you might not be able to just quit for a few months. There is so much riding on your ability to perform.

relay Pole_vaulter Division’s_own_earns_Camp_Pendleton_Female_Athlete_of_the_Year,_runner_up_in_Marine_Corps_award_140313-M-PC317-003 Women 60 m final during Doha 2010 World Indoor Championships, by Erik van Leeuwen

(Photo credits, L to R: Erik van Leeuwen, Atitaya Kongkaew, Sgt. Timothy Lenzo (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1189561), Erik van Leeuwen http://www.erki.nl/pics/main.php?g2_itemId=33469, all via Wikimedia Commons)

And yet.

Continue reading

Update on Birth Control Pills / Oral Contraceptive Pills and Bone Density

I started working on No Period. Now What? August 6 2012. The first year or so I worked on putting together the survey, getting it out to respondents. The second year consisted of research and writing, the third was editing, and the last six months doing book design and copy editing. That means the research we refer to was mostly published in 2014 or earlier. Additional information has become available since then and I plan to check in on different topics to ensure that our recommendations remain valid.

We put together an information sheet on birth control pills, periods, and what to expect; enter your email address to download the guide.

BirthControlPillsandHypothalamicAmeorrhea

Name:
Email:

One question I wanted to reexamine as I put together the info sheet was whether there is additional evidence on the effects of birth control pills/oral contraceptive pills (OCP) on bone density. When I was researching for the book, the consensus I found was that OCP seemed to prevent further bone loss in a woman with hypothalamic amenorrhea, but increases in bone density and strength were unlikely. The best way to increase bone density was through weight gain and period restoration.

There are quite a few articles that have been published in the last two years, generally agreeing with my conclusions. As these are recent papers the full texts tend not to be freely available but I feel comfortable using the abstracts for this overview as it was simply to confirm the recommendations and research from the book. If there are any other articles you think we should be aware of or you’d like us to review, please let us know!

I investigated five recent articles, listed below (as well as reading through other abstracts). The first was one of the larger studies I’ve seen, looking at bone density in 826 normally cycling teenagers. Those not using birth control pills had an average 2.5% increase in bone density over the course of a year, versus a 1.45% increase in those on the pill. This illustrates that this formulation of the pill was actually interfering with normal bone growth. A similar but small study found an increase of 2.0% in bone density in teenagers on birth control pills versus 12.2% in non-users.

Agreeing with our assertions in No Period. Now What? a study in 91 women in the armed forces found that the pill essentially had no impact on bone density; weight loss decreased density, whereas weight gain, normal menstrual cycles, and a normal Eating Disorder Inventory score were associated with increased bone density.

A couple of the studies were reviews, similarly agreeing with our conclusions. The major finding by Lebow et al. was that the majority of studies found no benefit of estrogen therapies on bone density. Finally, Bergstrom et al. go even further, arguing that given the limited benefit, those suffering from missing periods should NOT be prescribed birth control as it provides a false sense of security about the state of one’s bones, and may discourage from attempting to recover normal cycles through eating, exercise, and stress changes.

Were you ever prescribed birth control pills to “protect your bones”?

Nico

Gersten J, et al. Impact of Extended 30 mcg EE With Continuous Low-Dose EE and Cyclic 20 mcg EE Oral Contraception on Adolescent Bone Density: A Randomized Trial. J Pediatr Adolesc Gynecol. 2016 Jun 7. pii: S1083-3188(16)30058-4. doi: 10.1016/j.jpag.2016.05.012

Biason TP, et al. Low-dose combined oral contraceptive use is associated with lower bone mineral content variation in adolescents over a 1-year period. BMC Endocr Disord. 2015 Apr 3;15:15. doi: 10.1186/s12902-015-0012-7.

Nieves JW, et al. Eating disorders, menstrual dysfunction, weight change and DMPA use predict bone density change in college-aged women. Bone. 2016 Mar;84:113-9. doi: 10.1016/j.bone.2015.12.054. Epub 2015 Dec 30.

Bergstrom I, et al. Women with anorexia nervosa should not be treated with estrogen or birth control pills in a bone-sparing effect. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2013 Aug;92(8):877-80. doi: 10.1111/aogs.12178. Epub 2013 Jun 15.

Lebow J, and Sim L. The influence of estrogen therapies on bone mineral density in premenopausal women with anorexia nervosa and amenorrhea. Vitam Horm. 2013;92:243-57. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-410473-0.00009-X.