Women’s Health and Hormones—The Delicate Balance
Hormones are special chemicals created within the body by the endocrine system. These are necessary to control various functions and processes including growth, metabolism, and reproduction. Female hormones also regulate sexual desire, menstruation and reproduction.
In females, the two major hormones are estrogen and progesterone. These are produced in the ovaries, the same organs that release eggs during ovulation. The levels of both of these hormones drop dramatically at the time of menopause when a woman stops ovulating. The decrease in estrogen causes most of the symptoms associated with menopause.
ESTROGEN—Fluctuates Throughout Life
During the “follicular phase” of the menstrual cycle, (when an egg is ready for release from the ovary) a woman’s estrogen level rises. This occurs during the first two weeks of the cycle when the uterine lining builds up in preparation for pregnancy. When estrogen and progesterone levels drop, this triggers the body to release the uterine lining in the form of a menstrual period each month.
Girls begin to produce estrogen when they reach puberty, thus beginning the process of the menstrual cycle.
During menopause estrogen levels decrease. The ovaries no longer produce enough to thicken the uterine lining and create menstrual periods.
Estrogen—The Primary Female Hormone
- Builds Uterine Lining
- Stimulates Breast Tissue
- Thickens Vagina Wall
- Affects Many Other Organs
- Builds Bones
- Protective Effects on Cardiovascular System
PROGESTERONE—Necessary for Pregnancy
In the second half of a woman’s menstrual cycle, after the egg has been released from the ovary, progesterone levels will continue to rise if a woman becomes pregnant. This helps continue to keep the uterine lining thick so the fetus can develop properly in a nourished environment. Progesterone levels will fall if fertilization does not occur, signaling the body to shed the uterine lining during menstruation.
While Progesterone is necessary for reproduction, it sometimes creates uncomfortable symptoms for women in the two weeks leading up to their menstrual period. These can include, bloating, irritability, fatigue, breast tenderness, headaches, cravings for carbohydrates and sugar, sleeplessness, and acne. A combination of physical symptoms and changes in mood can occur and are referred to as premenstrual syndrome, or PMS.
PROGESTERONE—MADE DURING 2nd HALF OF MENSTRUAL CYCLE
- PREPARES UTERINE LINING FOR EGG TO IMPLANT
- OTHER EFFECTS ON TISSUES THAT ARE SENSITIVE TO ESTROGEN
- STIMULATES SEXUAL DESIRE
- GENERATES ENERGY
- DEVELOPS MUSCLE MASS
TESTOSTERONE—Women Need it Too
Although testosterone is generally thought of as a male hormone, it is also produced in small amounts in women. While normal levels create sexual desire, elevated amounts may cause male physical characteristics such as facial hair growth.
Conditions linked with elevated testosterone levels can also include:
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Ovarian tumor
- Tumor on the adrenal gland
- Congenital adrenocortical hyperplasia
Menopause Symptoms—Causes and Concerns
Through various female hormones, (by way of the pituitary gland and the ovaries), the body is continuously communicating to raise and lower specific levels throughout puberty, the reproduction cycle, (during the child bearing years) and ultimately menopause. Factors such as stress, body weight, medications, and time of day and month, can drive these hormone fluctuations as well.
During perimenopause, (the period leading up to menopause) the ovaries slow the production of hormones including progesterone and estrogen. This leads to the body’s termination of the release of eggs from the ovaries each month. It is the lower estrogen levels that bring about many of the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause including:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Sleep disturbances
- Loss of muscle tone
- Difficulty focusing/concentrating
- Loss of hair
- Vaginal dryness
- Inconsistent menstrual cycle
- Lighter/heavier, shorter/longer periods
Perimenopause begins to occur after the age of 30 while menopause generally occurs on average about age 51 or 52. Eventually menopause symptoms lessen and generally disappear altogether for most women. Menopause is complete when a woman no longer has a period for 12 months.
Women may seek hormone replacement therapy because of uncomfortable menopausal symptoms. They may also have health concerns related to menopause as well which include:
- Heart disease
- Weight gain
- Urinary incontinence
Hormonal Therapy—Systemic vs. Low Dose Vaginal Products
There are two types of hormone replacement therapy that most benefit women, systemic hormone therapy or low-dose vaginal preparations of estrogen.
Systemic hormone therapy—This comes in the form of “systemic estrogen” in a pill, skin patch, spray, gel, or cream and is most effective for treatment of symptoms such as, hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, burning, itching, and discomfort during intercourse. While this type of treatment can help with osteoporosis, most physicians prescribe other treatment for this condition.
Low-dose vaginal products—Vaginal preparations of estrogen come in tablet, cream, or ring form and can treat vaginal symptoms effectively, as well as some urinary problems. This helps to reduce dryness in the vaginal area, along with irritation and pain. Muscle tone of the vagina and urethra can be addressed, as well as irritation to the urinary tract, and the tendency for urinary tract infection.
Vaginal treatments are effective, while minimizing absorption of estrogen into the body. These types of preparations do not help with night sweats and hot flashes, or help protect against osteoporosis, however.
Bioidentical Hormones—A New Approach To Hormone Treatment
A recent approach to hormone replacement therapy has been to introduce “bioidentical” hormones. These are identical in molecular structure to those hormones we naturally manufacture in our bodies. They are not naturally found in this form in nature however, but are created, or synthesized, from a chemical that is extracted from yams and soy.
Bioidentical estrogens are comprised of: 17 beta-estradiol, estrone, and estriol. (Estradiol is the form of estrogen that is depleted at the time of menopause.) Bioidentical progesterone is simply finely ground progesterone, micronized in the laboratory for the best absorption in the body.
Natural Remedies for Menopause—Without Side Effects
Some women choose to manage some of the uncomfortable symptoms associated with menopause through nutrition, herbal supplements, exercise, meditation and yoga. Natural practices can help address, (or lessen the severity of) stress, depression, insomnia, hot flashes, and weight gain, without the side effects of prescription medications or hormone treatments.
- Low in carbohydrates and refined sugars
- Foods containing B vitamin folate
- A balance of good fats, complex carbohydrates and protein
- Three meals and two snacks per day to keep blood sugar stable
Supplement with Herbs
A variety of plants and herbs adapt to the body’s needs since they share some molecular features with the (body’s own) hormones. They allow them to support hormone production and even mimic what they can do according to unique bodily needs.
The following herbs and plants may reduce menopausal symptoms:
- Black cohosh
- Wild yam
Because fat actually helps create the hormone estrogen, exercise to reduce fat can upset the ratio of hormones that cause menopausal symptoms. Walking, biking, swimming, running, yoga, and dance can help women feel better overall with mood, energy, and sleep disturbances as well.
Stress can be a major factor in hormonal imbalances involving neurotransmitters affecting mood and mental function. Thyroid function, digestive function, and blood sugar imbalances are also affected greatly by stress. Hot flashes and low libido have been linked to stress as well.
Ways to reduce stress and induce good feelings include:
- Qi Gong
- Deep Breathing