A desire for simplicity is a part of human nature. Maybe that’s why the majority of our medical community has oversimplified the landscape of hormone change and treatment during menopause.
For far too many people, menopause is synonymous with a decline in estrogen. The problem with this belief isn’t that it’s wrong. Estrogen levels do decrease during menopause, and those decreased estrogen levels are one of the key features of menopausal hormone change.
The problem with viewing menopause and estrogen loss as the same thing, is that it neglects the other important parts of what is going on in the body.
“But estrogen is not the only hormone that sees dramatic decline with menopause. During the fertile years, estrogen works in concert with another hormone called progesterone to maintain the menstrual cycle.”
Our anatomy and physiology are complex. We’re still learning new things about our bodies, even after all of the study that’s been done.
The nature of our hormones is particularly complex. Hormones are our body’s messenger molecules. They tell the various cells how to behave, and when it’s time to grow, or change. Hormones tell our bodies what to produce, and how much of it. Dozens of hormone varieties work in concert to accomplish all of this.
So why have we focused so heavily on estrogen when it comes to the treatment of menopause?
The first reason is that estrogen is so intimately tied with feminine traits. Estrogen plays an important role in hair placement and thickness, breast tissue generation, skin health, general body-fat prevalence and distribution, and much more. These traits are of particular concern to women as they age and enter menopause.
The second reason that we tend to focus on estrogen when treating menopause is the fact that the decline in estrogen levels correlate so directly with the onset and completion of menopause. Decreased estrogen is, in fact, a defining feature of menopause on the biological level.
But estrogen is not the only hormone that sees dramatic decline with menopause. During the fertile years, estrogen works in concert with another hormone called progesterone to maintain the menstrual cycle.
Levels of BOTH of these important hormones decline dramatically during menopause.
Many people are unfamiliar with progesterone. Even those who have some familiarity with progesterone, are likely to associate it with the artificial “progestins” in birth control medications. Very few truly understand the importance of natural progesterone in a woman’s body.
As research into the menopausal hormone landscape progresses, progesterone has proven to be much more important than suspected. The following are some of the important roles that it plays:
Progesterone is one of the two hormones produced by the ovaries. Production of progesterone by the ovaries begins just before ovulation, and increases rapidly following ovulation.
Progesterone is the major reproductive hormone during the final two weeks of the reproductive cycle.
The primary role of progesterone in the process of reproduction is preparing the uterus for an embyro. Progesterone causes the uterus to form a lining that will allow a fertilized egg to implant, and will also provide sustenance for the embryo during the early stages of development.
Progesterone causes increased libido, that corresponds with the periods of greatest fertility.
Outside of its importance as a reproductive hormone, progesterone also plays the following wide-ranging functions in our bodies: Protects against breast fibrocysts, helps use fat for energy, natural diuretic, serves as a natural antidepressant, calms anxiety, prevents cyclical migraines, promotes normal sleep patterns, facilitates thyroid hormone function, helps normalize blood sugar levels, normalizes blood clotting, normalizes zinc and copper levels, prevents endometrial cancer, helps prevent breast cancer, decreases risk of prostate cancer, stimulates new bone formation, improves vascular tone, prevents autoimmune diseases, increases sensitivity of estrogen receptors, and prevents coronary artery spasm.
How could we overlook a hormone this important?
One of the most likely answers to that question has to do with the nature of progesterone presence in the female body during the reproductive years. Because progesterone is so closely tied to the monthly menstrual cycle, there are periods in every month where progesterone levels fall to almost nothing.
A graph of progesterone levels over time would look like a series of rising peaks and falls. Oh look… there’s one right above this paragraph. Progesterone remain at the bottom of the graph until just before ovulation, when levels would rise once again.
The fluctuation means that during a healthy fertile menstrual cycle, there are regular intervals with almost no progesterone. Because women in their reproductive years don’t suffer from menopausal symptoms during the lulls in progesterone production, it has stood to reason that the decline of progesterone during menopause is not a major concern.
Progesterone level fluctuation has served to distract from the interesting fact that, while estrogen levels fall below half of fertile numbers during menopause, progesterone actually falls off almost entirely.
The lack of focus on progesterone is unfortunate. Research has suggested that progesterone is highly important for menopausal and post-menopausal health. In fact, some research has suggested that progesterone could be every bit as important as estrogen when devising a supplementation strategy.
Both traditional research and the voluminous treatment experiences of doctors like John R. Lee, author of the best-selling “What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause”, demonstrate that progesterone is actually a highly effective treatment focus for many of the symptoms frequently suffered during menopause.
Because of the direct impact of progesterone in the body, progesterone has proven to be a great answer for many women. Areas of impact include menopause-related migraines, sleep disturbances, inability to effectively manage weight, and a loss of sexual desire.
The most important aspect of treatment with progesterone, however, may be the effect that it has on estrogen. Progesterone both balances out estrogen levels, and activates the body to respond to estrogen more sensitively. The result is that the body is able to use the estrogen that it does have more effectively, and safely.
Progesterone’s impact on estrogen effectiveness makes it an important answer for the struggles of menopause. Any complete regimen of hormone treatment and replacement during menopause must consider progesterone as a key component.