On hormones

Female Sex Hormones

The ultimate end of human acts is eudaimonia, happiness in the sense of living well, which all men desire; all acts are but different means chosen to arrive at it. - Hannah Arendt

Hormones are unique chemical messengers in the body. They are made by specialized tissues called glands – examples include the thyroid, pituitary, and adrenal glands, as well as the ovaries and testes.

Although hormones are active in very small amounts, they regulate incredibly important aspects of human health, including mood, reproduction, metabolism, and development. 

Among the most important are the sex hormones. These particular chemical messengers are made in the ovaries in women, in the testes in men, and in the adrenal glands in both sexes. Although sex hormones regulate key components of development, puberty, and reproduction, they also impact many other health functions including:

  1. Bone health

  2. Mood/brain function

  3. Body weight and composition

  4. Sleep

  5. Skin and hair health

  6. Metabolism

  7. Cardiovascular health

An introduction to women’s hormones

Throughout evolutionary history, the female reproductive period was mostly over by the age of 30, long before menopause would ever manifest. This means that millions of women worldwide spend almost half of their life in a severe hormonal deficit -their sex hormones are almost zero.

First, it’s important to remember that your hormones are very sensitive and work in perfect synergy to allow your body to be as fertile as possible. The female hormone cycle is broken into 2 phases. The first phase is the Follicular Phase, which is characterized by a slow increase in Estrogen. Initially the pituitary gland releases follicle-stimulating hormone. The follicle-stimulating hormone allows follicles to mature. It is the follicle that releases more and more Estrogen throughout the first 14 days of a woman’s cycle.

At about day 14 when estrogen is at its peak one gets a spike in the release of luteinizing hormone from the pituitary gland. This spike in luteinizing hormone kicks off the 2nd phase called the Luteal Phase. Luteinizing hormone tells the mature follicle to release the ovum into the fallopian tube and begin to produce progesterone. This is why you have an increase in Progesterone throughout the luteal phase. If pregnancy does not occur all hormones will decrease back to normal levels and trigger menstruation. 

Just as females are in general much more complicated than males, the same holds true for their sex hormones. Whereas in males the administration of testosterone alone is often enough to achieve balance, for optimal balance, females need estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone.

Estradiol

Levels of estradiol have a large influence on energy levels. For most, spotting a female with high, youthful energy levels, animated facial expressions, a bouncy gate, etc. is something very attractive.

Furthermore, higher levels of estradiol make one more emotional. When it comes to getting others to like/follow/support someone, emotions are much more powerful than reason/logic. Thus, without ones brain being able to generate adequate/honest emotions (e.g. with low levels of estradiol), one will not appear very charismatic to others.

Across the human race, there are some physical traits almost all humans universally rate as attractive. For example, in females, those are facial symmetry, shoulder-to-hip ratio, quality of hair and skin, size and shape of breasts. For the most part, the attraction of these traits is innate and just rarely overridden by cultural conditioning.

We evolved to like these traits because they were evolutionary indicators for fertility and health. By almost all cultures across the world, these traits are generally associated with “beauty”. It turns out, many of these traits are under the direct control of the androgen receptor in males, and estrogen receptor in females, and thus their development is a function of sex hormone levels during childhood and adolescence.

For many of these traits, there is a “plastic window”, after which the cells are fully matured and no further change is possible (e.g. someone with low levels of testosterone will have a different bone structure, depth of voice, penis size, “male” brain areas).

However, some of these features remain plastic throughout life and an increase in the levels of sex hormones at any point can still accentuate them even in adulthood (e.g. muscle mass, fat distribution, skin and hair quality, breast size, and shape, etc.).

Progesterone

Progesterone is an extremely abundant hormone. In terms of the number of molecules produced, during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, it surpasses cortisol production by a factor of over 2 (20mg cortisol/d vs. 50mg progesterone/d). During late pregnancy, the female body produces over half a gram of progesterone per day.

Because of its calming effects, this contributes to the laid-back and perhaps even lazy attitude during this time. Furthermore, the sudden loss of progesterone is partially responsible for the increase in anxiety and irritability during PMS, postpartum depression, and menopause.

In many tissues, progesterone acts as a functional antagonist to estradiol (which itself is a functional antagonist to testosterone). For example, progesterone deficiency often leads to the development of breast and ovarian cysts (and increases the risk of these cancers) and causes heavy periods, because the pro-mitotic effects of estradiol are not adequately counteracted. Why for some effects (e.g. libido, energy levels, etc.) adequate levels of not just one but multiple -or even all -of the major hormones are needed.

Furthermore, progesterone also has powerful mental effects. Anxiety in females is often cycle-dependent, which is a hallmark of progesterone deficiency (or estradiol excess). Progesterone induces “calmness”, therey decreasing irritability and nervousness. It also contributes to better sleep.

Testosterone

Testosterone is the precursor hormone to estradiol, but testosterone also has many effects on its own. In males as well as in females, testosterone is the primary sex hormone. In fact, females have around 10 times more testosterone than estradiol. Unfortunately, testosterone is highly neglected in females whereas it is slightly overrated in males.

In both males and females, testosterone is essential to maintaining good energy levels, mood, motivation, cognition, zest for life, self-confidence, drive, a carefree attitude, and creativity. Furthermore, testosterone is highly beneficial to the bones, muscles, metabolic health, endothelial health, and health of the central nervous system.

Simplifying the Complexity of Female Sex Hormones

As one tries to explain, simplify, and deconstruct female sex hormones along with the associated metabolic imbalances that may make many women feel helpless one is struck by the amount of information available. If you struggle with any of the symptoms listed below you may want to consider sex hormones as the culprit.  A slight imbalance can lead to a less bountiful and joyous life. 

Though it seems relatively straight forward, hormones are actually incredibly complex. Now that you have a basic understanding of the female sex hormone pathway, lets talk about a handful of things that can go awry. The great thing is that with nutrition, lifestyle, and exercise modifications these issues can often times fix themselves. 

Symptoms of an imbalance in female sex hormones include:

  • Hot flashes

  • Night sweats

  • Vaginal dryness

  • Incontinence

  • Foggy brain

  • Depression

  • Bone loss

  • Poor sleep

  • Headaches

  • Fatigue

  • Weight gain

  • Decreased Libido

  • Acne

  • Mood swings

  • Increase facial hair

  • Tender breasts

  • Water retention

  • Rapid aging

  • Poor muscle recovery

  • Infertility

  • Breast cancer

  • Cardiovascular concerns

Common deviations

As stated previously each pathway works in synergy, because of this, an issue in one area can create an issue in another area of the hormone system. If your hormones are even slightly off it can significantly influence all of the symptoms referenced above. One common issue is that FSH isn’t being produced at the beginning of the cycle. The main reason for this is poor hormone metabolism at the end of the cycle. If you do not appropriately metabolize hormones through the liver and digestive system there will be too many left over to signal the pituitary to release FSH.

Also, stress can disrupt the function of the pituitary gland via the hypo-pituitary-adrenal axis and suppress the release of FSH. Mitigating stress and eating a balance diet will help balance this pathway, thus allowing your hormones to become balanced. 

Other common issues are not having the Luteinizing hormone surge near day 14. If Estrogen does not get to the necessary levels your body never signals the pituitary to release the LH to transition from the follicular phase to the luteal phase. Without the luteal surge Progesterone is never released and ovulation does not occur. As stated previously stress can suppress the function of the pituitary gland and thus influence the release of luteinizing hormone. Following a testing protocol to establish your current levels, adding in supplementation, and adjusting your lifestyle can curb this cascade of imbalances. 

The way forward

As stated previously women’s sex hormones are incredibly complicated, yet by establishing current levels and making minor adjustments to your daily habits can have a profound impact on your overall health and sex hormone balance. When it comes to hormone levels, the level of each hormone varies depending on age, gender, diet, weight, and environment.

Because well-balanced levels of sex hormones regulate so many important aspects of well-being, there are times when you should check your levels to understand how they are affecting you. Rather than assuming you may have a potential issue it’s important to assess and track your values.

Many organizations now offer access to quality testing services like saliva testing for your most essential hormones including Estradiol, Progesterone, Testosterone, DHEA and Cortisol. Once one knows ones current levels decisions can be made to alleviate imbalances through adequate rest, exercise programming, nutrition, and supplementation. Balancing of ones hormones may be one of the most important things one does to lead a life of health, wealth, and happiness.