Women’s Hormonal Health: Estrogen and Progesterone Functions and Effects

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My last posts have covered one piece of the hormonal balance puzzle called estrogen dominance to explain what it is and what can cause it. As I have mentioned earlier, women’s hormonal balance is very layered and complex, because there are so many variables that can affect it.
Hormonal balance is not a one size fits all system, and what works for some women may not work for others. What is important is to understand the pieces of the puzzle, so that you can work with your doctor to make the best choices for you.
To review, the most common causes of estrogen dominance are xenoestrogen exposure, anovulatory cycles, stress, diet and weight, and hysterectomy. All of these components can increase estrogen and /or make it disproportionately higher to progesterone.
Estrogen becoming dominant over progesterone can trigger many signs of hormonal imbalance even years before menopause.

What are the common signs of estrogen dominance?

  • Weight gain
  • Fluid retention
  • Irritability
  • Irregular periods and menstrual flow
  • PMS
  • Breast tenderness
  • Low energy
  • Thyroid imbalance
  • Unstable blood sugar 
  • Insomnia
  • Migranes
  • Blood clots
  • Fibrocystic breasts
  • Uterine fibroids

The signs of estrogen dominance can be experienced in different combinations depending on what is causing estrogen to be dominant over progesterone.
Again, this varies from woman to woman.

Before going over the common signs of estrogen dominance, I am going to take a step back and talk about the functions and effects of  estrogen and progesterone.
It is important to now review and understand estrogen and progesterone’s functions in reproductive health, hormonal balance, and their effects before we can appreciate how they balance each other naturally. Also, this helps to understand how our body responds when progesterone is not present in sufficient levels to balance the effects of  excess estrogen.
ovulation and corpus luteum formation

Estrogen
Our bodies make three main types of estrogens: estrone, estradiol, and estriol. The word estrogen describes a class of hormones with similiar estrogenic functions, not just one hormone.

Our ovaries make about 100 to 200 micrograms per day of of estrone and estradiol and very little estriol in times of non-pregnancy.
The majority of estrogens are made from progesterone and androgens (male hormones) in the ovaries, and estradiol is the predominant estrogen made in the body from puberty to menopause.
Estrogens are also made in the adrenal glands, breast, liver and fat tissue.  
During pregnancy, the placenta takes over estrogen production, with estriol made in milligram levels and estone and estradiol in smaller levels.
Estrogen’s ability to stimulate cell growth particularly in hormone sensitive tissues like breast and uterus makes its excess dangerous because it can promote tissue overgrowth such as fibroids or lead to cancer. Estradiol is the most stimulating estrogen in cellular and tissue growth and estriol is the least.
Estrogen levels drop on average only 40 to 60 % at menopause. Estrogen levels drop to a level that will not produce a blood rich endometrium to prepare for pregnancy, because that function is no longer needed. Its levels become lower that neccesary for reproduction, but sufficient for normal body functions. After menopause, estrone is still made mainly in fat tissue.

Estrogen’s functions:

–  Responsible for the development and maintenance of female sex organs, secondary sex characteristics, and regulation of the menstrual cycles and pregnancy
–  Stimulates cell growth, and it controls the growth and functions of the uterus
–  Dominates first half of the menstrual cycle, and creates the endometrium which is the blood filled tissue that lines the uterus to prepare it for a possible developing embryo
–  Takes part in the signals to start maturation of egg containing follicle in the ovary
–  Increases vaginal  mucus and neutralizes cervical secretions to help in sperm survival
–  Towards the end of pregnancy, estrogen promotes the growth of milk ducts within the breasts and increases the effect of prolactin ( which is a major hormone responsible for lactation in the female)
–  Estrogen circulates in the bloodstream and binds to estrogen receptors on cells in targeted tissues affecting the breasts, uterus, brain, bone, liver, heart and other tissues
–  Roles in metabolic processes: slowing down bone loss, dilating blood vessels, sensitizing progesterone receptors, and impact on thyroid activity, insulin, and cholesterol levels

Progesterone
Progesterone is one of the main hormones made in the ovaries. Progesterone is made from pregnenolone which is a steroid made from cholesterol, and it is made in the ovaries and the adrenal gland, except in pregnancy where it is made by the placenta.
It is does not promote secondary sex characteristics meaning that its role in reproduction does not cause male or female traits.
Progesterone is made by the corpus luteum (yellow body) in the ovary. The corpus luteum is a temporary secreting structure in the ovary formed in the follicle after the egg is released. The corpus luteum secretes progesterone, and its levels rapidly increase after ovulation. Progesterone is the major female reproductive hormone present in the luteal phase (the last two weeks) of the menstrual cycle.
Its levels during the luteal phase average about 20 milligrams per day and peak at 30 milligrams after ovulation. During pregnancy it is made by the placenta and its levels rise up to 300- 400 mg per day. Progesterone levels begin to drop quickly before menopause often at a rate that is disproportionate to estrogen levels.

Progesterone’s functions:
– Progesterone is needed for the survival of the fertilized egg and the development of the embryo and fetus.
–  Raises body temperature and increases sex drive (along with a peak in testosterone) during ovulation –  Maintains secretions to the endometrium in preparation for the embryo 

–  In the ovaries, estrogen and testosterone are made from progesterone
–  Progesterone is also used to make other steroid hormones in the adrenal glands which regulate stress adaptation, blood pressure, sugar, and electrolyte balance 
–  Increases fat metabolism
–  Natural diuretic
–  Promotes new bone formation
–  Mood stabilizer, promotes calming effect
 Effects of  excess estrogen:  
  • Increased body fat and weight  
  • Salt and water retention
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Migranes
  • Interferes with thyroid function
  • Interferes with blood sugar control
  • Fibrocystic breasts
  • Uterine fibroids
  • Decrease in new bone formation
  • Increased risk of uterine cancer
  • Increased risk of blood clots
  • Loss of magnesium and zinc, increased copper levels 

Balancing effects of progesterone:

  • Helps to utilize fat to burn energy
  • Diuretic
  • Calming effect on central nervous system
  • Improves mood
  • Mild sedative
  • Aids to prevent cyclical migranes
  • Supports thyroid function
  • Helps stabilize blood sugar levels
  • Protection against breast fibrocysts
  • Helps to diminish small uterine fibroids
  • Protection from uterine cancer
  • Promotes new bone formation
  • Normalizes blood clotting
  • Normalizes magnesium, zinc and copper levels

As we can see after exploring the functions and effects of estrogen and progesterone, they complement  and balance each other naturally when their levels are in correct proportion to each other.
It is because progesterone levels start to drop much faster than estrogen during the years before menopause, that this balance can be offset, and estrogen becomes disproportionately higher.
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In my next post, I will go over the effects of estrogen dominance, and how to begin to balance excess estrogen and low progesterone levels.

Camille Medina, RPh
Natural Pharmacy C.l.i.n.i.c., llc

The information provided here is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Suggestions and ideas presented in this document are for information only and should not be interpreted as medical advice, or for diagnosing illness. Seek advice from a health care professional before administering any dietary supplements.

References:
www.themedicalbiochemistrypage.org/steroid-hormones.html  
Northrup, Christiane,M.D. Women’s Bodies Womens Wisdom. New York: Random House Publishing Group, revised edition 2006
Lee, John, M.D. , with Hopkins, Virginia. What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause. New York: Wellness Central, revised edition 2004
Martin, Raquel, with Gerstung, Judi, D.C. The Estrogen Alternative. Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2000.

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