Hormones are the body’s powerful chemical messengers. They work by controlling and regulating the processes that keep the body functioning.
You have probably heard of some of these hormones, such as insulin (which controls blood sugar), oxytocin (which regulates emotions and plays a role in breastfeeding), melatonin (which regulates sleep), renin (which helps to control blood pressure) and estrogen and progesterone (which regulate women’s reproduction).
Your body produces several different hormones which are secreted by special glands (endocrine glands) and travel through the bloodstream to tissues and organs.
Just a small amount of a hormone can cause big changes in the body, and too much or too little of a hormone can have serious health effects.
Reproduction is controlled by hormones
The main reproductive hormones in women are estrogen and progesterone. These hormones control menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause, and constantly fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle.
They can also affect your mood. Some women are more sensitive to these hormonal fluctuations than others, and your sensitivity will affect your experience of premenstrual and/or menopausal symptoms.
Estrogen plays an important role throughout your life
Estrogen is a hormone that plays many roles in your body. You may not be aware that both female and males create estrogen, but females create more of it.
In females, estrogen is produced by the ovaries, adrenal glands, and fat tissues. It plays an essential role in developing and maintaining the reproductive system, including menstruation, and female characteristics, such as breasts.
Estrogen controls the physical changes that occur in girls during puberty, during your reproductive years and at menopause. It controls the lining of the uterus during menstruation and pregnancy, and its levels fluctuate during the menstrual cycle, rising at the time of ovulation and dropping during your period.
As well as controlling the reproductive system, estrogen has a number of other functions, including keeping your cholesterol levels in check, helping protect your bones, heart, and skin, regulating your metabolism and body weight, and moderating your mood.
As you age, the role of estrogen changes. Your levels of estrogen drop significantly at menopause, or if you have had your ovaries surgically removed.
When estrogen levels are out of balance
Low levels of estrogen can wreak havoc on your body and your mood. Physical symptoms of low estrogen can include hot flashes, night sweats, a decrease in bone density, dry skin, vulvar itching and vaginal dryness.
Other symptoms of low estrogen include sleep disturbances, a diminished sex drive, depression and fatigue. The drop in estrogen before a period can also cause headaches in menstruating women.
Abnormally high levels of estrogen can also lead to problems for women, including weight gain, heavy periods, non-cancerous breast lumps, fibroids, and mood changes. Excess estrogen can increase your risk of breast cancer, uterine cancer, and depression.
Like estrogen, progesterone regulates reproduction
Progesterone is a steroid and a reproductive hormone. It is produced in the ovaries and the adrenal glands, and in the placenta during pregnancy. This hormone plays a key role in your menstrual cycle, in pregnancy, and in your libido.
Like estrogen, progesterone fluctuates during your reproductive cycle. During your reproductive years, it helps to prepare your body for conception every month, by triggering your uterine lining to thicken to accept a fertilised egg.
If conception doesn’t occur, your progesterone levels drop, and menstruation begins. If pregnancy does occur, your progesterone levels will rise. Synthetic progesterone – known as progestin – is a key ingredient in the contraceptive pill and works to prevents pregnancy by inhibiting ovulation.
It is rare for women to have elevated levels of progesterone outside pregnancy. A high level of progesterone is not dangerous in itself, but it can be a sign of a disorder such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia.
When progesterone levels are out of balance
Low progesterone can trigger elevated levels of estrogen, which, as discussed previously, causes its own problems.
The signs of low progesterone include irregular or missed periods, abnormal bleeding, spotting and cramping during pregnancy, and recurrent miscarriages.
Thyroid and testosterone hormones are also important for women
In addition to your reproductive hormones, your thyroid hormones are also vital in keeping your body functioning well.
If your thyroid is underactive (known as hypothyroidism), your levels of thyroid hormone will be too low.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, mood swings, weight gain and sensitivity to cold. If your thyroid is overactive (hyperthyroidism), you may experience weight loss, anxiety, insomnia, rapid heart rate and vision problems.
Thyroid function is assessed by a blood test, and thyroid disorders may be treated with medications and/or surgery.
Though estrogen and progesterone are the main female reproductive hormones, women also produce testosterone, though at much lower levels than men. If you have abnormally low levels of testosterone, you may experience fatigue, a reduced sex drive, weight gain and vaginal dryness.
Low testosterone is also measured by a blood test (as well as checking other symptoms) but at this time, there are no conclusive guidelines for exactly what “low” testosterone levels are in women. In saying that, your physician may prescribe medication treatments for low testosterone, also known as “testosterone therapy” if appropriate for you.
Hormone changes at menopause
In menopause, levels of both estrogen and progesterone drop.
If these decreased hormone levels cause you distressing symptoms, you may wish to consider Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). HRT can be administered as a pill, a patch, a gel, or a suppository, and can lower your risk of developing diabetes, osteoporosis, bowel cancer and heart disease.
However, there are health risks associated with HRT, so you and your physician will need to weigh up the risks and benefits of HRT for you.
Maintaining a hormone balance for overall health
Like a finely tuned orchestra, your hormones work simultaneously to keep your body’s processes functioning correctly. Having hormones working correctly is fundamental to health and wellbeing.
When they are balanced, we don’t notice them, but when they are too high or too low, we can experience a range of problems.
If you are concerned about your hormone levels, speak to your doctor. There are many treatment options available to get your endocrine system working well again to improve your health and wellbeing.