THE ROLE OF WOMEN’S HORMONES:
Welcome to HORMONES 101.
This is an introductory discussion of women’s hormones and how their changing levels can signal the onset of menopause.
Let’s begin. There are three major hormones involved in the normal menstrual cycle: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Yes, women have testosterone.
Each of these hormones has a unique role in the advancement of menopause and understanding their functions can help you comprehend your changing body.
Estrogen is produced by the ovarian follicle and is responsible for the development and maintenance of the female reproductive organs. It also aids in the development of female secondary sexual characteristics.
Estrogen has an important role during the monthly menstrual cycle of a woman.
At the culmination of a menstrual period, estrogen secretion increases and makes the endometrium thick and more vascular than normal. This is important in preparing the uterus for possible pregnancy.
If pregnancy does not occur, it is important in shedding the endometrial lining: thus resulting in menstruation (or “period”).
Playing a starring role in pregnancy, estrogen combines with progesterone and steadily increases until ovulation. If conception is successful, the estrogen and progesterone levels remain high. However, if fertilization does not occur, the estrogen and progesterone levels decrease and menstrual bleeding occurs.
Estrogen also influences bone health. It inhibits breakdown of bone mass and supports bone formation. This is one of the reasons why postmenopausal women are susceptible to osteoporosis since the absence of estrogen can result in brittle bones.
The estrogen hormone also helps in maintaining cardiovascular health. What a helpful hormone! It boosts high density lipoprotein levels (HDL). HDLs are considered the “good cholesterol”.
The prime supporting actor is Progesterone. This hormone is secreted by the corpus luteum and helps regulate uterine changes during the menstrual cycle. It is usually secreted after the egg has been released.
In addition, progesterone manages the endometrium for preparation of possible implantation. If pregnancy occurs, progesterone together with estrogen helps breast milk production. In the event that pregnancy does not occur, progesterone secretion will drop.
When menopausal women take Estrogen, it may cause hyperplasia of the uterine lining (overgrowth of the cells lining the endometrium). To counteract this, progestin is given so that the lining is shed.
Progestin is an artificial progesterone hormone and is commonly used in contraceptive pills.
It has the same action of the natural progesterone hormone so it is used to mimic the effects of progesterone release into the body. It is considered better than progesterone because of its higher rate of effectiveness when administered orally, topically and intravenously.
Lastly, testosterone makes a guest appearance as one of the androgen hormones.
Androgens are secreted by the ovaries in small amounts for the early development of the follicle. It also increases female libido, also known as a woman’s sexual drive.
When menopause approaches, the production of testosterone drops. This is one of the reasons why menopausal women may begin losing interest in sex. It is a way to tell the woman that biologically she will soon be incapable of reproduction.
But don’t worry, if necessary, a woman can improve her libido by taking testosterone medications.
In summary, the take home message is:
This group of hormones primes the female body for pregnancy and as stated, if pregnancy does not occur, then the levels of these chemicals will vary.
Luckily, due to regular cyclical fluctuations, bodily changes (secondary to hormonal levels fluctuating) can be sensed by women and predict the onset of menopause.
Keeping track of your body’s function and knowing your hormone facts will lead to a better informed transfer to menopause. Class dismissed!
Edited by Dr. Barb and Rachel Horwitz.