A woman’s ovaries produce the sex hormones; the three estrogen hormones, estrone, estradiol and estriol, progesterone and a small amount of testosterone. When the ovaries begin to function at puberty, she develops the secondary sex characteristics and her menstrual life begins. Puberty normally occurs between the ages of 10 and 15, although it may occur slightly earlier or later in life. Menopause, commonly known as “the change” in life, generally occurs between the ages of 45 to 55.
When a woman is experiencing a normal menstrual cycle, her ovaries gradually begin to produce increasing amounts of the three human estrogen hormones on the first day of her cycle. The first day of a menstrual cycle is counted as the initial day of menstruation or bleeding. The estrogen hormones stimulate the growth of the tissue in the inner lining of the uterus (the endometrium) during the first two weeks of her menstrual cycle. This is termed the proliferative stage because the estrogen hormones are stimulating growth of the endometrial lining.
Midway through her menstrual cycle, usually around day 14, one of her two ovaries will produce an egg. This process is called ovulation. The egg will live only for a day or so. After ovulation, the area on the ovary from which the egg is derived will start producing progesterone and a small amount of testosterone. Progesterone matures the tissue of the inner lining of the uterus preparing it for a potential pregnancy. Progesterone literally means “promoting gestation,” that is, promoting pregnancy. If the egg fails to be fertilized and no pregnancy occurs, then the production of progesterone dramatically falls at the end of the 28 day menstrual cycle and the endometrial lining is sloughed off, leading to a menstrual period. This cycle repeats itself over and over again during a woman’s menstrual life, which extends from the time her periods begins at puberty, until her periods cease at menopause. Progesterone and testosterone, both of which peak at ovulation, stimulate a woman’s libido. The body temperature will rise at this time. Like all mammals, when they ovulate, a woman is in “heat.” This time in a woman’s menstrual cycle is termed estrus. During estrus, women produce phermones which attract men to help them reproduce the species.
Female hormonal balance between the estrogen hormones and progesterone is essential in order for women to obtain and maintain health and wellness. The three human estrogen hormones have numerous effects on the body, which require the balance of progesterone to prevent the hyper effects of estrogen dominance. This lack of balance may lead to a host of health problems. Good health occurs when the hormones in the body are produced in adequate amounts and are in balance. Think of this as hormonal harmony, as if the hormones are a symphony orchestra. If one section of the orchestra, say the brass section, is too loud, then this will drown out the other sections of the orchestra and ruin the beautiful music.
The three human estrogen hormones have the following effects in the body:
- Stimulates growth of the lining of the womb or uterus
- Causes breast tissue to develop and grow
- Promotes fat storage and weight gain
- Promotes fluid retention
- Causes thickening of the blood
- Decreases bone loss, but does not stimulate new bone growth
- Increases emotional sensitivity
- Activates progesterone receptors
- Inhibits sex drive
- Stimulates the production of thyroid binding globulin by the liver, inhibiting the action of the thyroid hormones
Progesterone has the following effects which counterbalance the estrogen hormones:
- Matures the uterine lining preventing excess buildup of tissue
- Inhibits breast tissue overgrowth, preventing fibrocystic breast disease
- Has a diuretic effect which mobilizes fluid, decreasing swelling
- Enhances the action of thyroid hormones, which will increase metabolism
- Increases sex drive
- Protects against breast cancer and uterine cancer
- Thins the blood, preventing blood clots
- Supports the function of adrenal glands
- Elevates mood
- Promotes pregnancy
A woman’s ovaries function best between a few years after puberty until around age 30. As a woman ages, so do her ovaries. By the time she reaches the age of 35, she is halfway through her menstrual life and her ovarian function begins to falter. The progesterone hormone production falls most dramatically over the last half of her menstrual life, between the ages of 35 and 55. This decline in progesterone occurs for two reasons. First, the ovaries are aging and functioning less effectively than they did earlier in life. Second, as a woman ages she begins to have menstrual cycles during which her ovaries do not ovulate, that is, they do not give off an egg. This is called an anovulatory cycle. When a woman does not ovulate during a menstrual cycle, her ovaries will produce no progesterone. These are the cause of what is termed “progesterone deficiency.” In this instance, the hormones that have the greatest influence on a woman’s body are the remaining estrogen hormones. When this occurs a woman will experience estrogen dominance, meaning her female hormones are imbalanced in favor of the estrogen hormones. Many women have experienced estrogen dominance since puberty. In most women, this condition develops as they move through their menstrual lives.
The estrogen hormones and progesterone decline as a woman ages. Progesterone declines much more rapidly than do the estrogen hormones. As a woman approaches and enters menopause, she may begin to experience the symptoms of declining estrogen hormones manifested by hot flashes and vaginal dryness. By this time, progesterone is no longer being produced by the ovaries. Even as she has symptoms of declining estrogen, a woman still has relative estrogen dominance because there is no progesterone to balance the lower levels of estrogen. When a woman enters menopause, her ovaries no longer function. Yet, she still makes estrogen hormones, primarily estrone, in her fat cells that is approximately half of what she made before menopause.
Depending on the amount of the progesterone deficiency, estrogen dominance may manifest itself with one, some, or all of the following imbalance symptoms:
- Premenstrual breast tenderness
- Premenstrual mood swings, irritability, depression
- Premenstrual headaches, including migraines
- Fibrocystic breast disease
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Heavier periods with clotting
- Menstrual cramping
- Uterine fibroids
- Loss of sexual libido
- Bone loss, osteopenia and osteoporosis
- Increasing or new allergy symptoms
- Urinary frequency
- Involuntary loss of urine
- Increase in body fat
- Decreased mental sharpeness
- Polycystic ovarian disease
- Elevated cholesterol
- Uterine cancer
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Insomnia and restless sleep
- Autoimmune disorders
- Recurrent respiratory infections
- Recurrent bladder infections
- Dry eyes
- Sagging skin and wrinkles
- Gall bladder disease or symptoms
- Elevated blood pressure
- Breast Cancer
Many of these symptoms and conditions commonly occur in women of all ages. They may be common, but they are not normal. These symptoms are an indication of declining ovarian function, which leads to an inevitable deterioration in health as women age. In order for women to obtain and maintain health and wellness as they age, it is essential that they preserve female hormonal balance as soon as the presence of its symptoms occur.
Not just the uterus, but every cell in a woman’s body has receptors for and is influenced by estrogen hormones. All of the cells are also affected by progesterone and testosterone. Most importantly, these sex hormones affect the brain, stimulating the production of neurotransmitters, neurochemicals and neurohormones, which enable a woman to think clearly and have elevated moods. When these hormones decline, become imbalanced or are no longer produced, brain function deteriorates, manifested by a decrease in mental sharpness, inability to focus, and poor short-term memory. These symptoms are commonly referred to as “brain fog.” Often times, women are misdiagnosed with PMS, anxiety or depression syndromes. This is why it is so important to provide women with progesterone supplementation when indicated for premenstrual symptoms and progesterone replacement after menopause.
Although estrogen and progesterone are the two dominant female hormones, it is important to remember that women also produce small amounts of the hormone testosterone. For women, the production of testosterone peaks at ovulation in order to stimulate a woman’s libido.
Testosterone has the following effects on the body:
- Relieves panic or anxiety attacks
- Provides a sense of well being
- Decreases body fat and cholesterol
- Increases and enhances libido
- Increases muscle tone (bladder, heart and skeletal muscles)
- Increases bone mass
- Enhances cognitive thinking and math abilities
- Converts inactive thyroid hormone (T4) to active thyroid hormone (T3)