As we work our way through this strange, confusing and even overwhelming time, mentions of “immunity” are here, there and everywhere. We’re realising just how important our health is, and want to know all we can and do all we can, to protect ourselves, our families, our friends and our communities.
Good health is holistic. Our bodies are made up of many different systems that affect each other, and work together to create optimal health.
This blog is not about testing your hormones or supercharging your immune system, but rather explaining the fascinating link between immune function and the menstrual cycle, and making sure you’re armed with the best understanding around this topic.
Before we begin, here’s what we mean by ‘immune system’
Think of your immune system as a collection of microscopic bodyguards that work together to protect you from unhealthy invaders—like harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi.
The different arms of your immune system are constantly working to distinguish these ‘bad guys’ from your own healthy body tissue.
You don’t want your immune system to be under-active (letting bad guys in) or overactive (attacking healthy cells, as is the case with autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease or type 1 diabetes).
The hormone-immune connection
Immune function has a close relationship with oestrogen, which means that if you have a menstrual cycle, you also have an immune system cycle (pretty cool right?).
Oestrogen interacts with immune cells, up-regulating their function and encouraging them to do their jobs well. This means that as oestrogen rises and falls throughout the month, your body's natural ability to fight off the bad guys does too.
Why does this happen, you ask?
All in the name of reproduction—immune function varies to support you, and the potential new life you’d be creating should you fall pregnant (whether that’s on your agenda or not).
In the follicular phase (roughly the first 14 days of your cycle), oestrogen and immune function are at their highest.
This is when your body wants to protect you from all foreign invaders and keep you as healthy as possible should you be about to fall pregnant.
Around the time of ovulation, (roughly day 14 of your cycle) oestrogen levels drop, and progesterone rises.
This hormonal shift suppresses the immune system slightly—a perfectly normal process which prevents immune cells from attacking a newly fertilised egg. This is one of nature’s amazing moves to keep us going as a human race.
Towards the end of one cycle and at the very beginning of the next, both oestrogen (and progesterone) fall away to their lowest levels. Because of this, immune function is also reduced, and you are most susceptible to falling sick, or experiencing a worsening of any underlying or existing health conditions at this time.
Furthermore, in this study researchers also found that scientists studying diseases observed different symptoms depending on where their female participants were in the menstrual cycle. Interesting, right?
So really, the menstrual cycle itself is a cycle of immunity—firing up when it can to keep you as healthy as possible, then backing off at the right time to allow any potential sperm & fertilised egg a free pass.
Cycling through these different hormonal phases is a normal, natural and very healthy process of the female body.
What can you do to support yourself?
While you can’t control which phase of your cycle you’re in, and therefore immune function at any given time, you can take advantage of this wonderful information by incorporating a little extra self care, and immune support when you know you need it most.
The later luteal and early menstrual phases, when you are most susceptible to foreign invaders, are also the times when you may notice that you naturally have slightly lower energy levels and may feel more introverted.
Consider this a gentle nudge from your body to chill out, take more time for yourself, get some more sleep and make sure you’re getting plenty of nutrients in—from wholefoods and quality supplements if you can.
If anything else, we hope you take from this a new-found appreciation for how wildly smart our bodies are. We say it over and over again, but for good reason—the female body is incredible! Science is still learning how much so every day.
The most important thing you can do now, and all of the time is to simply listen to that lovely body of yours and trust it. Go harder when it feels good, and rest when it asks you to. It knows what’s up.
For more information about supporting your immune system in the midst of COVID-19, check out this helpful blog by our sister company, BePure.