Oestrogen is one of my most favourite hormones and yet I have read so often about the dangers of oestrogen and ‘oestrogen dominance’. This doesn’t mean that progesterone and testosterone aren’t amazing too (I will talk about these in future blogs) or that too much or the wrong form of oestrogen can’t cause havoc in our bodies. Its just that we don’t read much about how amazing oestrogen is when it is balanced.
Oestrogen is the main ‘female’ hormone and is responsible for our female characteristics and curves and also for our reproductive and sexual health.
As part of its reproductive role it is responsible for:
- Stimulating the growth of our follicles (pre-eggs) and is produced prior to ovulation. Without a decent amount of oestrogen, ovulation won’t occur.
- It ensures our vaginal wall is healthy and lubricated – this lubrication is important to maintain our pH, prevent infection (candida and bacterial) and fertility (once a month the ‘lubricant’ changes to a fertile lubricant for a few days). When oestrogen drops we become at greater risk of infertility, painful sex and vaginal infections.
- It ensures a healthy membrane in our uterus
- It forms breast tissue and stops the flow of breast milk when weaning.
In reality, oestrogen doesn’t really exist; it’s an umbrella term for several types of ‘oestrogen. The 3 main types of oestrogen are:
- Oestrone – this is a weaker form of estrogen that is common after menopause and can be changed into the other types if needed (made in our fat cells and adrenal glands).
- Oestradiol – this is the most common type and is found in both men and women. This is the type that is tested when you get a blood test from the GP. This is mainly made in our ovaries during our reproductive years.
- Oestriol – this is the type of estrogen that is found in pregnancy and is responsible for maintaining the health of the uterus to support the embryo/foetus. This is made by the placenta.
When we hit menopause we don’t stop producing oestrogen. It is too important for our survival, it is just that our ovaries stop producing the oestrogen that is required for our reproductive functions and so the levels do decline. We have receptors (like doors) on almost all of our tissues and oestrogen is made in our fat tissue, our brain, our adrenals (where our stress hormones are made) and several other tissues.
Oestrogen is incredibly important for our brain (thinking and mood), our bones, our heart and skin…the list is endless.
Oestrogen & our brain
Oestrogen has been shown to protect the nerves, influence how they communicate, maybe stimulate their growth and be involved in our thinking, learning and memory. There is some suggestion that it may have an influence on how the brain is structured. It is also important for our mood. Serotonin is known as the ‘happy chemical’ or neurotransmitter (this just means brain messenger). When oestrogen is high so is serotonin, when it is low so is serotonin and that’s because oestrogen is involved in its production (1, 2).
Oestrogen and our metabolism
Studies have shown that oestrogen helps to maintain our balance of energy and fat, prevents insulin resistance, improves the function of the pancreas and reduces inflammation so has a role in preventing diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity (3).
Oestrogen and heart health
Oestrogen protects against heart disease by keeping our blood vessels healthy and elastic and decreasing inflammation. It also controls fat accumulation and cholesterol levels thus preventing blockages (atherosclerosis). This is why menopausal women are at a higher risk of heart disease when oestrogen levels start to decline (4).
Oestrogen and Bone Health
Oestrogen is involved in the growth of new bone cells and protects against its loss. I will do a future blog on this and why menopause puts us at greater risk of osteoporosis and what we can do about it.
Oestrogen and skin health
Oestrogen has a role in the way our skin functions including our skin cells, hair follicles and sebaceous glands. It increases blood circulation to the skin and improves wound healing. It reduces wrinkles, thinning and sagging and improves hydration. Topical oestrogen is being studied as an answer to ageing skin (watch this become the new collagen) (5, 6, 7).
It has many other roles, many of which are still being discovered. Only recently scientists have concluded that oestrogen has a protective effect on Covid-19 (men are at higher risk of contracting it and dying from it than women).
This is a hormone to be cherished not scared of.
One of the terms I dislike is ‘oestrogen dominance’. It was originally coined some years back by a Dr. John Lee who discovered that because progesterone declines substantially the yukky symptoms of menopause are caused by unopposed oestrogen. Oestrogen and Progesterone are buddies and they work in a ratio together and oestrogen’s effects are balanced out by progesterone but it is actually more complicated than that.
Menopausal symptoms can be because of:
- Normal amounts of oestrogen but declining progesterone
- Low amounts of oestrogen and declining progesterone
- High amounts of oestrogen and declining progesterone because of stress, inflammation, environmental toxins, poor liver detoxification…
- Low amounts of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone because of stress….
You get the picture. Taking a supplement to detoxify oestrogen may be a terrible idea and cause even more problems. Maybe taking a herb or supplement to raise progesterone is misguided.
The point is you need to test the hormones to find out what is going on in order to decide on an intervention. You may just need to bring in some stress management techniques, or give up the booze, cigarettes and junk food, or exercise more or exercise less but don’t assume that your symptoms are from ‘oestrogen dominance’.
Low oestrogen can cause symptoms such as weight gain, low libido, mood swings…
High oestrogen can cause symptoms such as weight gain, low libido, mood swings…
You get my point? Our symptoms are unique to us and are not always obvious as to the specific hormone imbalance. Sometimes we are so focused on oestrogen and progesterone we don’t think about other hormones such as thyroid, insulin or cortisol or even chemicals that mimic oestrogen.
Be thankful that we have oestrogen. Yes it can be linked to cancer but so is alcohol and bacon and I love those things too. It is our friend when we treat our body with care and respect – sleep well, eat well, move well & manage our stress.
In my next blog I will talk about oestrogen’s role in bone health in more detail and what we can do to protect ourselves from declining oestrogen when we hit perimenopause.