Many of us know that menopause means the end of the menstrual cycle, and is caused by decreasing hormone levels. What you may not know is how that unfolds, and what hormones are involved.
So let’s take a look.
Spoiler alert: There’s more to it than just estrogen. Progesterone levels also decline during menopause. Even testosterone can play a role in some of the common menopause experience. In fact, the patterns might end up surprising you.
Our ovaries are amazing multi-taskers. While only the size of grapes, they simultaneously produce hormones, and hold all of the eggs we will ever have (approximately 2 million at birth). About 11,000 of these eggs die off every month prior to puberty. Following the onset of puberty, women continue to lose about 1,000 eggs each month.
Menopause begins when the supply of eggs dwindles, and conception is no longer possible. Over the course of years, our ovaries shut down the systems that support reproduction, by reducing hormone output.
From 35-50 estrogen levels drop about 35%. They continue to decrease over the next few years, eventually leveling off to a greatly reduced, but consistent rate.
The loss of estrogen is significant. Estrogen is important in more than just the maintenance of reproductive capacity, and declining levels can impact women in a variety of ways. Hot flashes, night sweats, brain fog are all potential difficulties associated with estrogen declines.
Estrogen is uniquely crucial in the preservation of bone density, and sexual function. Lowered estrogen can cause the loss of vaginal lubrication and elasticity, often making sexual activity uncomfortable or even painful. Bone density losses are more subtle, but, over time, can be more serious, leading to issues like osteoporosis.
During that same 35-50 age range, the average woman will lose about 75% of her progesterone to menopausal decline (A much more drastic decline than the 35% estrogen loss). Levels continue to decline slightly from there.
Progesterone losses can cause many of the common symptoms of menopause, like hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and brain fog. Progesterone also acts as a natural libido enhancer, so deficits of this hormone can be largely responsible for a loss of sexual desire.
Because Progesterone declines much more rapidly than estrogen from 35-50, much of the unpleasantness of menopause is actually a result of the shifting ratios of estrogen to progesterone. Drastically lowered progesterone can create a condition called Estrogen Dominance, even if estrogen itself is deficient.
Many people are surprised to learn that the ovaries also produce testosterone. While the process of menopause doesn’t correlate to a particular decline in this hormone for women, levels do drop steadily throughout a woman’s life. By the time a woman reaches the age of menopause, testosterone levels have decreased substantially from their peak. While this isn’t as troubling for women as it may be for men, the loss of testosterone does still present some difficulties. Namely, maintaining muscle, and sexual desire. Between declining testosterone and progesterone, libido can naturally decrease sharply with menopause.
It’s important to note that every woman experiences menopause differently. A wide range of ages, durations, and symptoms exist. These hormone declines are averages among women, so if your menopause experience is different, that isn’t necessarily cause for concern. But we find it can be helpful to develop an idea of what change is actually occurring on the hormonal level. Knowledge is power, after all.
If you would like to learn more about hormones themselves, and how they work in your body, make sure to read our article: Hormones 101