Hormones – what’s happening in my body?

I often hear women sharing their experience of feeling “out of control” during pregnancy and the early postpartum period. Of course there are many contributing factors to the ups and downs experienced during this time, but hormones have a lot to do with it. They function like your body’s chemical communication system, traveling through your blood to different parts of the body. Even though we can’t see the hormonal system working, these chemicals can have a big impact, so let’s take a look at what’s actually happening in your body right now. Below are the names and brief descriptions of the main hormones being activated during pregnancy and during the time following birth.  

Perinatal Hormones:

Estrogen: One of the most commonly thought of amongst the perinatal hormone family, estrogen can play a major role during both pregnancy, specifically the first trimester, and the postpartum period. Estrogen can interact with other chemicals in the brain, known as neurotransmitters (e.g. serotonin and norepinephrine) and can both boost your mood, but also lead to a sudden drop into negative feelings. When your estrogen production levels increase, as in pregnancy, the resulting mood swings and emotional shifts can feel dramatic and disorienting. Likewise, when new moms experience a significant decrease in estrogen after giving birth they tend to feel the emotional impact. It’s important to note that what actually causes the mood shifts is the change in estrogen levels, not the specific amount of estrogen your body is producing. 

Progesterone: Think of this one as the “relaxing hormone”, meaning it relaxes different parts of the body including the muscles in your gastrointestinal tract (sometimes causing the unpleasant sensation of reflux) and your blood vessels, which can lower your blood pressure. This in turn can leave you feeling light-headed or dizzy. Progesterone can cause both feelings of relaxation and drowsiness, as well as irritability and moodiness. How’s that for making you feel out of balance?

Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG): You’re probably most familiar with this hormone from any experience with positive pregnancy tests, which indicate elevated levels of HCG. Some experts believe early pregnancy symptoms of nausea and “morning sickness”, may be connected to HCG levels.   

Oxytocin: Most commonly known as the “love chemical”, oxytocin is activated by intimacy. When you experience elevated levels of oxytocin, you may feel more connected to your partner and baby. This hormone causes your uterus to shrink down after birth and is also  released from the brain during breastfeeding. Oxytocin is thought to be linked to the “nesting” instinct, commonly experienced in later stages of pregnancy. It can also lead to drowsiness and even feeling increased tenderness.

Corticosteroids: Your doctor may have informed you that you’re considered “immunocompromised” during pregnancy. The reason is related to Corticosteroids. This stress hormone actually suppresses your immune system. Your baby carries DNA from both you and from the sperm that fertilized the egg and without a weakened immune system, your body would likely fight the foreign DNA in an attempt to protect you. Corticosteroids activate your sympathetic nervous system (think “fight, flight, freeze” responses) and can also leave you feeling irritable, defensive, and anxious.

Insulin: Secreted by the pancreas, insulin turns food into energy to fuel your body. It plays an important role in pregnancy by helping the placenta absorb energy to nourish your developing baby. Changes in insulin levels can lead to low blood sugar and you may experience increased hunger, fatigue, or simply feel “out of it”. It’s helpful to eat small meals throughout the day to help your body stay regulated and balanced. 

So, why does all of this matter?

When we feel like we’re not in control of our emotions, we can easily shift to a place of self blame. Perhaps these thoughts feel familiar – 

“I should be able to handle this.”

“Why can’t I just deal with this challenge? It’s not a big deal.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

Understanding the impact of hormones on your emotional and physical health can allow you to have more self compassion and understanding during those difficult moments. Pregnancy and the postpartum period come with their own unique challenges and the fluctuations in hormone levels only add to the complexity of this time. During moments of sadness, anger, or overwhelm, remember all the work your body is doing and give yourself permission to feel the way you feel. These difficulties, big or small, don’t last forever!