Estrogen plays a critical role in the way that women grow and develop. While you may have heard the term before, there is probably plenty you don’t know about this powerful and vital hormone. Today, we will take a deep dive into what it is and why it is so critical to so many aspects of life as a woman.
What is it? Is Estrogen a Hormone?
Yes, it is a hormone. Hormones are chemicals inside the body that send messages to the body’s tissues. These signals tell the tissue how it is supposed to behave. The female body begins producing estrogen during puberty, and it plays a critical role in the development of a woman’s body and the menstrual cycle.
This hormone travels through the bloodstream, where it can interact with cells inside many of the different tissues inside the body. It’s important to note that there are also different types of estrogen.
- E1 – Estrone – A relatively weak form of the hormone. However, the body can convert this hormone into a more powerful form. In women who have undergone menopause already, this is the only form of estrogen that still exists in the body.
- E2 – Estradiol – In contrast, this is the strongest form of estrogen. Estradoil is a steroid produced by the ovaries and it’s believed to be a key contributor in the development of certain conditions, including endometrial cancer.
- E3 – Estriol – This form of estrogen is the weakest, and it’s a byproduct of the body using estradiol. Women who are pregnant produce significant amounts of this hormone, otherwise production of estriol are very small. Unlike other estrogens, estriol cannot be converted inside the body to a more useful form.
What Does Estrogen Do?
The effects of this hormone are widespread and they help to define the differences between women and men. Estrogen plays a vital role in the development of secondary sexual characteristics like the growth of breasts, hair under the arms and in the pubic region, the regulation of the menstrual cycle and the reproductive system. This hormone even affects the shape of a woman’s body.
Parts of the Body Affected by Estrogen
Virtually every part of the female body is affected by this hormone. Most notable are the reproductive effects of estrogen.
Estrogen helps a woman’s vagina develop and reach its adult size. It also works to thicken the vaginal wall and makes the vagina more acidic so it can fight off bacteria and infection. It also plays a vital role in the development and function of the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, and mammary glands.
Beyond its effects on the reproductive system, it also helps to define the characteristics which physically separate women from men.
Estrogen production shortens bones while broadening the pelvic area and making the shoulders narrower. This hormone also increases the amount of fat stored around the hips and thighs, which leads to the shapely nature of a woman’s body.
Estrogen also makes body hair finer and less noticeable while making hair on the head more permanent. The production of this hormone also makes the female voice box smaller and the vocal cords shorter, which leads to the higher pitched voice of females compared to males.
In addition to these effects, estrogen also helps to regulate body temperature, increases the release of the body’s “feel good” chemicals and improves the thickness and quality of the skin. What is more important, it also helps to make bones stronger and healthier and regulates cholesterol production to protect the heart and liver.
As you can see, this hormone is vital to females and the development of their bodies.
Effects of Low Estrogen
Considering the laundry list of positive effects that estrogen has on the body, one can imagine that a lack of estrogen can wreck havoc on the female body. Fortunately, it is an easy issue to diagnose, and if you are suffering from reduced production of this hormone, your physician can prescribe many different estrogen treatment options designed to regulate the amount of the hormone that’s present in the body.
If your body is not producing enough of this hormone, there are several estrogen deficiency side effects:
- Infrequent menstruation
- Hot flashes
- Mood swings
- Very light or very heavy periods
- Issues sleeping
- Decreased sexual desire
- Weight gain
- Malignant lumps in the breasts and uterus
- Dry skin
Factors That Affect Hormonal Production
Estrogen production can vary greatly, which makes it difficult to pinpoint an ideal level of the hormone in the body. For example, the amount of estrogen two different women produce can be very different, yet both levels of production may be normal. In fact, the amount produced by the same woman can vary greatly from day to day.
Many factors can decrease the amount of the hormone that the body produces.
- An underactive pituitary gland
- Failed pregnancy
- Ovarian failure
- Certain medications
There are also certain factors that can lead to a spike in estrogen production including:
- Healthy pregnancy
- Ovarian and adrenal tumors
- Drugs like steroids, or those containing estrogen
Can You Take Estrogen Supplements?
The short answer is yes. However, it is necessary that you consult with your doctor before taking steps to increase the amount of estrogen you are producing. Despite the fact that estrogen is the most vital hormone in the female body, there can certainly be too much of a good thing. Too much estrogen has been linked to certain cancers and other health risks.
There are several prescription medications available which can increase the production of this hormone. In addition to these options, there may be certain foods which can affect the production of this hormone inside the body.
Foods like nuts, fruit, seeds and grains, some vegetables, soy and even wine may be able to increase the amount of estrogen in the body. There are also natural supplements such as black cohosh which may also be able to increase production.
Again, given the link between estrogen and certain types of cancers and other conditions, you must consult with your physician to determine if treatment is wise.
Interestingly enough, the same hormone that plays a critical role in a woman’s ability to become pregnant is also used to prevent a woman from becoming pregnant. Estrogen is used alongside the hormone progesterone in low doses to prevent pregnancies.
While many birth control methods are available, birth control pills containing these hormones are the most popular and most effective.
The Role of Estrogen in Menopause
As women get older, they go through a series of changes that are collectively known as menopause. These changes are caused by the body decreasing production of major hormones.
Every woman goes through these changes, which usually begin in the late 30’s. The body begins to produce less estrogen and progesterone. These two hormones work together to regulate the menstrual cycle.
As your body produces less of these hormones, your periods will become more erratic. They could be longer, shorter, lighter or heavier. Eventually, each woman reaches a point where the body no longer produces eggs, and menstruation stops entirely. When this happens is different for every woman, but most stop producing eggs by age 51.
There are also some other factors that can cause a woman to undergo menopause at an earlier age. Undergoing a hysterectomy, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or primary ovarian insufficiency can all result in premature menopause.
Beyond the reproductive implications, menopause is also characterized by some negative side effects which many women will experience. Fortunately, there are some therapy options available which can help ease or eliminate these symptoms.
Hormone Replacement Therapy
For over half a century, doctors have been prescribing hormone replacement medications to help ease the symptoms of menopause. In these drugs, estrogen works to reduce or eliminate the side effects of menopause. Since it can also cause the uterine lining to grow, which increases the risk of endometrial cancer, progestin is also used to reduce this risk.
Women who have had a hysterectomy and are no longer at risk for uterine cancer are often prescribed an estrogen-only therapy since they aren’t at risk for developing this form of cancer.
The FDA recommends using hormone therapy at the lowest therapeutic dose possible to limit the potential for other side effects, which can be serious.
Before beginning hormone therapy for any reason, you must consult with your physician to ensure that this is the best course of action for you. Also, since this therapy raises your risk of certain cancers and illnesses, you need to be sure to see your physician at least yearly for a check-up.
Estrogen is perhaps the most important hormone produced by the human body. This critical hormone helps to regulate the reproductive system, the menstrual cycle, and several other processes which are unique to women.
Understanding how this hormone affects your body throughout your life is important. If you are unsure if your estrogen levels are optimal, or are experiencing side effects typical of estrogen-related issues, you should consult with your obstetrician/gynecologist to discuss the different options and risks that are available to you.