Oestrogen has a bit of a reputation for being somewhat of a scary hormone. As women I think we’ve all heard of the term ‘oestrogen dominance’ and the roll it can play in anything from weight gain to breast cancer. However, when in balance oestrogen is a beautiful (and necessary) hormone that is the absolute essence of femininity.
Lets start with a basic biology lesson. Oestrogen is actually an umbrella term for three types of oestrogens – oestradiol, oestrone and oestriol – which all work together throughout the body having a cumulative effect. Of the three oestrogens, oestradiol has the most overt biological effects. Oestrogens are steroid hormones and are synthesised via cholesterol (yep – cholesterol is a good guy, without it we can’t make hormones). Put VERY simply, cholesterol is converted to pregnenolone, which is converted to progesterone, which is converted to testosterone, which is converted to oestradiol. The conversion of one hormone to the next occurs via specific enzymes. Steroid hormones are not stored in the body; rather they are made, broken down and excreted as required. Oestrogens act on oestrogen receptors that sit on specific tissues, namely the reproductive organs, bone, breast, brain and heart. Levels of circulating oestrogens vary across our lifetime with a considerable rise during puberty (hence the development of breasts, pubic hair, and the female body shape). Levels reach maximum levels during our 20’s and 30’s, start to decline during our 40’s and are at the lowest in menopausal and post-menopausal women.
One of the most obvious effects of oestrogen is on our menstrual cycle. During the first half of the menstrual cycle the developing follicles secrete oestradiol. This (along with LH and FSH) stimulates ovulation. You may have heard of the first half of your cycle (the follicular phase and ovulation) described as the spring and summer phases. This is because oestradiol makes us feel pretty darn good right about now. At this phase of the cycle our body is gearing up to make a baby – so oestrogen increases our mood, energy, libido and vaginal lubrication. It makes our hair shiny and skin glow and we appear even more attractive to the opposite sex! You may find that you’re more productive and social during this point of your cycle.
Oestrogen plays an essential role in cardiovascular health. Oestrogen prevents the death of endothelial cells (these form the interior of blood vessels) and the rapid increase of smooth muscle cells – both of which are implicated in the development of cardiovascular disease. It is also hypothesised that oestrogen also plays a role in vasodilation and protects against vascular injury.
Oestrogen also plays a very important role in skeletal health, whereby it stimulates the growth of the cells that synthesise bone. As such, it ensures strong and healthy bones and protects against osteopenia and osteoporosis.
Oestrogen itself is not inherently bad. As you have gathered from the above it’s a pretty special hormone! However, when in excess or deficient oestrogen can wreak havoc.
Oestrogen in excess
Excessive levels of oestrogen are not caused by an over production of oestrogen – rather by increased exposure to oestrogens. This can occur via exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, through diet, obesity (whereby fat tissue increases the amount of estrone, stimulating oestrogen sensitive tissue), or poor oestrogen clearance and hampered detoxification among other things. Oestrogen dominance is a popular term that can mean either excess oestrogen or normal oestrogen compared to deficient progesterone.
Excess oestrogens can cause symptoms of PMS, sore and tender breasts and heavy periods. And oestrogen that is not counterbalanced by appropriate levels of progesterone may play a role in such disorders as endometriosis, fibroids and oestrogen-dependant cancers
Low levels of oestrogen or oestrogen deficiency can be the result of low body weight, excessive exercise, eating disorders, smoking, and dietary influences. Symptoms of low oestrogen levels can include low libido, difficulties sleeping, hot flashes, night sweats, light periods, and vaginal dryness.
The not so ugly
As I mentioned above, oestrogen is the ultimate hormone of femininity. It encourages female fat distribution giving us our beautiful womanly shape, allows for shiny hair and glowing skin, improves mood, and sets the stage to allow us to bring new life into the world. When in balance, it is a truly wonderful hormone.
Stay tuned for tips on balancing excessive or deficient levels of oestrogen.
If anything within this post resonated with you or if you feel things might be a little out of balance, or if you have any questions please get in touch. I’d love to work with you!