Teenage passion is often credited to raging hormones. Though small in quantity, hormones have a big impact on our bodies throughout our lifetimes. Transported by the bloodstream, hormones act as messengers in the body that start, stop, speed up or slow down the physical and chemical functions and processes across all body systems.
In females, the two main hormones influencing metabolism, mood, and behavior are estrogen and progesterone. Men’s bodies contain smaller amounts of estrogen, too.
Estrogen is key in transforming young girls into mature women during puberty. Some of the changes are obvious, including breast growth, the appearance of hair in the armpits and pubic area, and the onset of menstruation.
In addition to helping regulate a woman’s menses (monthly cycle of vaginal bleeding when an egg hasn’t been fertilized), estrogen plays a key role in giving birth. The hormone also helps control cholesterol, protects bone health in both sexes, and has an effect on not mood but the heart, skin, and other bodily tissues.
Estrogen interacts with calcium, vitamin D, and other minerals to keep bones strong. Low estrogen levels can lead to decreased bone density.
After puberty and before menopause (when menstrual periods stop for 12 consecutive months), a woman’s egg-producing ovaries are the principal source of estrogen. Small quantities of estrogen are released by the adrenal glands which lie above each kidney. Fat tissue is another source of small amounts of this important chemical.
There are three main types of estrogen made within our bodies:
- Estradiol (E2) is formed from developing ovarian follicles and the most common type in fertile women
- Estriol (E3) is made from the placenta and is the main estrogen during pregnancy
- Estrone (E1) is widespread throughout the body and is the only estrogen produced after menopause
Estrogen levels, measured from either a blood or urine test, change throughout a woman’s monthly fertility cycle, being highest at the mid-point and lowest while menstrual blood flows. After menopause (which usually occurs between 40 and 55 years of age) or surgical removal of the ovaries, estrogen levels decline.
There are known health problems linked to either high or low estrogen levels in women.
Signs that your estrogen levels are low include:
- Menstrual periods that occur less frequently or that stop completely
- Hot flashes (a sudden feeling of extreme warmth)
- Night sweats (waking up flushed and perspiring)
- Difficulty sleeping
- Vaginal dryness and thinning
- Breast tenderness
- Low sex drive
- Mood swings or depression
- Trouble concentrating
- Dry skin
- Headaches or worsened pre-existing migraines
- Increased urinary tract infections (UTIs) due to a thinning of the urethra
In females, a severe menstrual migraine headache may be triggered by falling estrogen levels. Left untreated, low estrogen can lead to infertility in women. In males, low estrogen levels may lead to unwanted abdominal fat and reduced sexual desire.
Young women may develop abnormally low levels of estrogen from:
- Too much exercise
- Eating disorders (such as anorexia or bulimia)
- Low-functioning pituitary gland
- Premature ovarian failure (from genetic defects, toxins or an autoimmune condition)
- Turner syndrome
- Chronic kidney disease
Having too much estrogen coursing through your veins can be unhealthy, too. Signs to heed include:
- Weight gain (mainly in the waist, hips, and thighs)
- Menstrual problems (such as light or heavy bleeding)
- Worsening of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Fibrocystic breasts (non-cancerous breast lumps)
- Fibroids (noncancerous tumors) in the uterus
- Loss of sexual appetite
In men, elevated estrogen levels can enlarge the breasts (called gynecomastia), inhibit erections, and infertility.
Women aged 25-50 with estrogen deficiencies are typically prescribed a high dose of estrogen by a doctor to lower the risk of bone loss, cardiovascular disease, and problems caused by other hormonal imbalances.
Estrogen doses vary based on how severe the medical condition is and whether the hormone is delivered orally (by mouth), topically (on the skin’s surface) or by vaginal injection.
Estrogen therapy may reduce the risk of bone fractures and limit the severity of menstrual symptoms (such as migraines, bloating, and cramps).
Because long-term estrogen treatments have been linked to a higher risk of cancer, they are usually reserved for women who have had a hysterectomy and are facing menopause. Otherwise, prolonged estrogen therapy is recommended only for one to two years.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can be used to amplify a person’s natural hormone levels. During menopause, estrogen and progesterone levels dip and HRT can assist in rebalancing those low levels.
A combination of hormones may be suitable for women with low levels. Progesterone and estrogen are often used in combination. However, this treatment may increase the likelihood of blood clots, stroke, and breast cancer. Beginning HRT in women older than 60 years is usually not recommended.
When stopping HRT, it is advised to reduce the hormonal dose gradually over 3-6 months to minimize the recurrence of estrogen-deficiency symptoms.
Since estrogen regulates how the body metabolizes glucose (blood sugar) and lipid (blood fat), low estrogen levels can produce unwanted weight gain. Overweight, in turn, is associated with the health risks caused by obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
While aging is the primary natural cause of abnormal estrogen levels, genetic defects, a family history of hormonal imbalances, and some illnesses can make estrogen levels fall.