If you ask the average person on the street what estrogen is, you’d probably hear about a chemical that was responsible for feminine qualities. You might even hear the word “hormone”.
But that would be about the extent of most people’s knowledge.
That’s a bit of a shame, especially for menopausal and post-menopausal women. Menopause is marked by the fluctuation and decrease of the sex hormones, and supplementing estrogen has been the go-to remedy for the unpleasant symptoms that so often accompany this stage.
So if you’re supplementing with estrogen or thinking about it, doesn’t it make sense to know exactly what you’re putting in your body? We think so.
What’s a hormone?
Learning about estrogen is great, but it won’t mean anything if you don’t understand what hormones are in the first place. But don’t be intimidated if you’re unfamiliar. The concept is simple.
Hormones are chemicals that your body creates to send messages to its cells. The organs and tissues responsible for creating and releasing hormones are all part of the “endocrine system.”
Hormones interact with cells, and the cells obey the instructions that they carry. There aren’t literal messages, of course, but the type of hormone dictates the cell’s reaction. It’s helpful to think about hormones as the public address system at a high school. The message may be that it’s time for lunch, or that you should go to the principal’s office (never), but either way, the same device delivers the message. In our bodies, that device is our hormones.
All for one, and one for all
There are actually three estrogens: Estriol, estradiol, and estrone.
Estriol dominates the estrogen picture, constituting about 90% of what’s present in the body. Estradiol and estrone make up the remaining 10%. By comparison, estriol is much more mild than either of it’s less prevalent counterparts.
Role in adolescence
One of the most important purposes of estrogen is the development of female attributes during puberty.
When the time is right, a chemical sequence is initiated and puberty begins. For girls, estrogen (which has been largely absent until now) floods the body. The result of this strong hormonal message is the development of feminine physical attributes. This includes general growth increases, breast development, and changes to hip structure, as well as the onset of the menstrual cycle.
A surplus of this hormone can also cause you to have, like, the biggest fight ever with your BFF Jenny. But that’s hardly scientific.
Effect on the menstrual cycle
Both estrogen and progesterone work together to orchestrate the phases of the menstrual cycle. Levels rise and fall depending on what needs to occur next in order to facilitate pregnancy.
The interplay between the two hormones is complex, but the results are the release of eggs, thickening of the uterine lining, and the shedding of that lining when the viability of impregnation during the cycle has ended.
Effects on emotions
Estrogen can actually have a significant impact on emotional health. When a girl enters puberty and is flooded with the stuff, things can get… let’s just say, intense.
But levels during the years of adolescence are abnormally high to facilitate development. When ranges are closer to normal (or lowered as they are during menopause and post-menopause) estrogen actually works to improve mood and emotional stability. This pull quote from a Chinese study in 2011 says it best, or at least the most scientifically:
“[Estrogen] can affect the generation and efficiency of neurotransmitters in the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal lobes, which are important brain areas related to emotion and cognition.”
The lesser known impacts of estrogen
Bone Health – The cells of our bones (like the other tissues of our body) regenerate regularly. Old cells die, and new ones come in to take their place. But as we age, our bodies have trouble keeping up. After about 35, we start to lose more bone than we create. The problem is especially pronounced in women with lowered estrogen following menopause, because bone-making cells called osteoblasts need estrogen to work efficiently.
Body Fat – Estrogen and levels of body fat are directly related. This is why women typically have higher body fat percentages than men. Estrogen causes more fat to be stored, but fat also acts as a storage vehicle for estrogen. This complicated relationship actually causes many women to retain fat when estrogen levels drop during menopause. The body is holding onto its fat reserves in it’s efforts to bring levels up to where they once were.
Sexual Health – Estrogen isn’t just responsible for feminine attributes, it’s also pivotal in maintaining sexual health. This crucial hormone is a key to both sexual desire and physical readiness. Estrogen improves vaginal elasticity and lubrication.
Why supplement estrogen during menopause?
There are a lot of great reasons to supplement during menopause and beyond. Restoring levels can increase bone health and longevity, improve emotional health, and even make it easier for your body to let go of the fat that it’s clinging to. Women also supplement in order to improve or restore diminished sex lives.
Some of the most common reasons women supplement estrogen, are the uncomfortable effects of their bodies trying to correct the balance. Hot flashes and night sweats occur as the nervous system struggles to get the hormone production that is no longer possible.
Estrogen isn’t a miracle cure, and balanced healthy levels really are the key. But correcting a deficiency has the potential to make a world of difference, maybe in ways that you didn’t even expect.
Chen C P, Cheng D Z, Luo Yue-Jia. Estrogens Impacts on Emotion: Psychological, Neuroscience and Endocrine Studies. SCI CHINA Life Sci, 2011, 41(11).