Hormone expert and nutritionist Kay Ali tells Stylist’s Jessica Rapana why we should think of our hormones like “superpowers”, and how we can use them to our advantage.
This wasn’t always the case though, she assures me. In her teens, her periods were sporadic and crippling. Then, at 15, she was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). “That was a huge moment for me,” she recalls. “I just thought: My gosh what is going on with my body? Can I have a baby? There wasn’t much of a dialogue around PCOS then. I felt very alone.”
Sixteen years later, Ali has carved out a career of making women like her feel less alone, as a hormone expert and nutritionist, and as a hormone guru. She’s good at it, too. So good that people call her the “hormone whisperer”. So good that, when we meet, at the launch event for Callaly’s new organic tampliner, there is a room full of women hanging off her every word, as she explains to them what is actually going on with their bodies, and how their menstrual cycles are impacting them.
“Now, I’ve got some news for you,” she tells them. “If you experience menstruation, you’re a superhero. In fact you’re so badass, that you are actually four superheroes every single month.”
It may sound like a cringe-worthy analogy, but, as Ali explains, there’s far more to it than that. “We literally transform,” she says. In fact, researchers have found the female brain grows and shrinks in sync with the rise and fall of our sex hormones. Meaning that baby-making is only a fraction (“albeit, an amazing one”) of what our reproductive systems actually do.
Ali adds: “The fact that we can create life, grow a baby and birth life into this world is proof in itself that we have our superpowers but it is a fraction, none the less.”
Of course, we all know that each phase of our cycle triggers different biochemical changes within our bodies. And yet, many of us remain in the dark over exactly how these changes impact us. While most of us have tracking our cycles down to a fine art, Ali says, understanding each phase and how it impacts us is just as important.
In other words: understanding the “superpowers” of each phase.
For example, during menstruation, our sex hormones drop to their lowest levels. “I like to think of us as Batwoman,” Ali explains. “We’re a lot more withdrawn. We like to lurk in the shadows (or under our duvet) for as long as possible that we can get away with.” Plus, like Batwoman, our brain is very active and very calculated as oestrogen starts to slowly rise from about day four, she says.
Then, our oestrogen levels peak around day 14 or day 15, taking us “out of our Batwoman phase and pulling us into a much more feline way of being, and we start to transform into Catwoman”. Ali explains that increasing oestrogen levels tend to leave us feeling faster and hotter (literally – oestrogen helps relax our blood vessels), so we become mentally sharper.
She adds: “Our inner minx is also released as well. We feel a lot sexier, we feel a lot more beautiful and that’s because oestrogen plays such an important role in our skin, keeping it really nice and plump.” It also means more serotonin, making us feel “a lot more confident and a lot more upbeat”.
“I like to think of this as our Wonder Woman phase,” Ali says of the next phase, ovulation, which is when our oestrogen levels peak. “We are at the peak of who we are. We also experience a peak in testosterone, as well. What we see in clincial research is that when estrogen and testosterone are peaked our libido shoots up, so we’re like the ultimate sex symbol and vixen.”
Then, if there is no fertilisation during ovulation, these levels drop off, causing what most of us recognise as PMS, but what Ali calls the “She-Hulk” phase. We also build bone tissue during this phase, meaning “if you feel heavier after ovulation, that’s pretty normal – a bit like She-Hulk.” Plus, when our oestrogen drops, our serotonin is likely to take a nosedive as well. “This is when we start to see some of the less admirable sides of She-Hulk, where we might feel a little more temperamental or irritable, or we might feel a bit more emotional.”
This is also the phase when our appetite tends to change, she points out, adding: “We’re all aware of this. We’re like, give me the sugar, give me the chocolate, the cake, the carbs, the pasta, whatever it is.” One of the reasons for this is our brain wants to pick up our serotonin levels, and the quickest way to do that is to trigger sugar cravings.
Her advice? “I always say, if you’re craving carbs have the carbs, sod the diet. You’re the She-Hulk, remember?”
Afterwards, I ask Ali her how she managed to turn around her own hormonal health, from that hormonally-imbalanced teenager to the hormone whisperer? Superpowers?
“Tracking my cycle,” she says. That, and understanding her body has made all the difference, she insists. “As women we tend to push ourselves and be really hard on ourselves. Just having some kind of idea of my cycle, I’ve learned to really be patient with myself and go – do you know what? I’m going to take it easy.”
And, she whispers: “With that, I was able to give myself a little bit of love, and a little bit of patience.”
Images: Supplied by Callaly
Image design: Noor & Zee