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The Science of Menopause

Our Female Hormones

Health & Menopause

Hormones are chemical messengers produced in our bodies to regulate the activity of tissues and organs. They regulate the body’s growth, metabolism, sexual development, and function.

Our female hormones and the glands that secrete them are part of an incredibly sensitive glandular system known as the endocrine system.

The endocrine system controls organs like the:

  • brain
  • kidneys
  • stomach
  • liver
  • uterus
  • skin

The hypothalamus controls the pituitary gland by sending messages to it. It is situated immediately above the pituitary gland in the brain.

The pituitary gland is often called the ‘master gland” because it controls several other glands in our body, including the thyroid, adrenals, and ovaries. It also controls men’s testes.

At the start of our menstrual cycle, the pituitary gland sends out the Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) to tell the ovaries to start the cycle.

Our ovaries and brain speak to one another about reproductive readiness. Still, we also have receptor cells all over our bodies to pick up hormones and tell various body parts how to support a possible future pregnancy.

In the image above, you can see how the brain produces hormonal activity via the hypothalamus, which instructs the pituitary gland. You will learn more about this amazing part of the brain in our resource material about Emotions & Cognition within this section.

Our hormones grow breasts and milk glands but cleverly ensure that we do not lactate until we give birth. Instead, they densify bones by increasing mineral deposits and ensuring that our bone cells regenerate to be strong and widen our hips to bear children. They help increase our fat deposits in certain body areas to feed the child and us, shaping our bodies.

Ultimately, female hormones influence growth all over the body, affecting our blood flow, brain cells, and hair. It also maintains collagen in our cells and influences the strength and suppleness of our muscles and ligaments.

What is Estrogen? 

Estrogen is a steroid hormone that actually appears in four different forms in our body at different stages of reproductive readiness or pregnancy.

Its most prevalent and powerful form is estradiol, which is converted from the weaker estrogen called estrone when we are between puberty and menopause. This occurs in our ovaries and influences various bodily processes. Other organs, glands, and tissues such as the liver, adrenals, bone, skin, and adipose fat produce a little estrone, too. 

When our reproductive years pass, our ovaries stop working, and our body can no longer convert the weaker estrone into stronger estradiol. Consequently, our estrogen levels decline as we have to rely on the production of weaker estrogens, which means that our bodily systems suffer!  

Explore the Menstrual Cycle section to learn more about the effects of lack of estrogen and other sex hormones, plus the symptoms and causes of menopause.

The Role of Estrogen

Like many chemical messengers, estrogen can enter all our cells. But only some cells have the correct receptors within them to ‘switch on’ the message and allow the cell to react. Our genes determine how each cell responds to each different chemical messenger, and in turn, how that cell functions. 

Here are some examples of what estrogen does to our systems: 

  • Promotes breast tissue growth and lactation, uterine growth, and production of the womb lining 
  • Regulates our menstrual cycle
  • Thickens and lubricates the vaginal wall 
  • Accelerates metabolism 
  • Influences how and where fat is stored
  • Grows and maintains skin, bone, and tissues throughout the body, including cellular repair in the brain
  • Keeps blood cells healthy and promotes high levels of ‘good’ blood fats while reducing levels of ‘bad’ blood fats
  • Assists balance of fluid and salts
  • Works in tandem with testosterone to increase sex drive
  • Connects with other chemicals that enable brain cells to function efficiently

You can see how estrogen plays a major role in how we function. Similarly, having less of it can cause a host of challenging issues, such as:

  • Disruption of our menstrual cycles
  • Drying and thinning of the skin
  • Weakened bones
  • Negative effects on the blood and cardiovascular system 
  • Slow metabolism and changing fat stores
  • Causes the brain to go slightly askew  

We might end up forgetful, moody, tired, sore, achy… not a pleasant prospect!

What is Progesterone? 

Often referred to as the pregnancy hormone, progesterone affects our cervical and vaginal mucous to encourage sperm, relax the uterine muscles from cramping, and block estrogen from growing the womb lining so our egg might get fertilized, implant, and grow into a baby.

Progesterone is produced by the corpus luteum, the empty follicle where the egg develops. However, this only happens for a limited time as the corpus luteum eventually deteriorates.

The body needs new chemicals, such as human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) produced by the placenta, to send the brain a ‘pregnant’ signal so that it keeps producing hormones to support a pregnancy.

If an egg is not fertilized, the production of progesterone stops. Our womb sheds its lining, and the pituitary gland then begins our cycle again. 

What is Testosterone? 

It may surprise you to know that testosterone is, in fact, an important female hormone. It is produced in the ovaries and the adrenal glands. 

We actually have 3-4 times as much testosterone in our bodies as estrogen (100-400 mcg per day).

Levels naturally decline throughout our life span, peaking at age 18-24 and then halving by age 65-75.

Testosterone is:

  • An active component towards maintaining energy levels and mood, bone physiology, muscle mass, cognitive function, and normal metabolic regulation 
  • Instrumental in dopamine production, affecting sexual desire and orgasm

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