No discussion about menopause is complete without the words “women’s hormones”. But it struck me that until I started 50Sense, I had very little understanding about what they really do. So I’m doing a short series on the three major ones that control our menopause, starting with oestrogen.
What is oestrogen?
Oestrogen – or estrogen, if you’re in the US – is one of our sex hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers that tell our organs and tissues what they should be doing and, in some cases, when they should be doing it. When everything runs smoothly, it’s a finely tuned balance of microscopic doses being released to keep our bodies working. It only needs the slightest imbalance to knock us off kilter and lead to major disruption.
Female bodies makes three main types of oestrogen: oestradiol, the most common form; oestriol, the pregnancy oestrogen, and oestrone, which is the major form of oestrogen in post-menopausal women. Men make some, too.
Where is oestrogen produced?
Most of a woman’s oestrogen comes from her ovaries, which are small glands, around the size of a grape, that lie next to the uterus (aka your womb – so many different names! No wonder women get confused.)
It is also produced in our adrenal glands, which are located on top of each kidney, as well as in our fat tissues. Scientists have also found that oestrogen can be produced in the brain.
Unsurprisingly, how it works is not completely understood (hello, women’s health).
What does oestrogen do?
At puberty, a young girl’s ovaries start to increase the production of oestrogen. This causes the body to mature and start developing breasts, pubic hair and armpit hair. Plus wider hips. Thanks.
It also has a major role to play in our menstrual cycle. During the first half of your cycle, it controls the growth of the lining of your womb, ready for a fertilised egg to implant. It triggers ovulation, too.
Finally, during pregnancy, oestrogen supports the foetus until the placenta takes over, which means it is vital for the foetus to form correctly. It also stimulates the production of other pregnancy hormones as well as milk development in the woman’s breasts.
So it’s basically about baby-making?
Well, that’s what I thought. However, oestrogen is also vital for healthy bones as it works on the cells (osteoblasts, if you want to be technical) that produce healthy bone matter throughout our lives.
In addition, it plays a role in our heart health, blood clotting, cholesterol levels, helps control body temperature, supports our liver, keeps our skin and hair looking good and looks after our mucous membranes, keeping us moist where we need to be.
Plus it has an impact on our brain – low oestrogen levels are linked to low moods, while it also helps prevent memory loss.
What happens during menopause?
During menstruation, our oestrogen levels usually have a nice, smooth flow throughout our monthly cycle. It grows to a peak at the middle of your cycle and then, if no fertilised egg appears, begins to drop, falling to its lowest level when you have a period.
Then comes menopause.
Actually, then comes perimenopause, the years before menopause, which is the day you’ve gone 12 months without a period.
And during perimenopause, that nice flow and ebb goes on a crazy rollercoaster ride as it starts to decline. Levels can fluctuate wildly and become increasingly unpredictable, hitting highs one days to fall the next. That’s why blood tests can be so unreliable in “diagnosing” menopause as it all depends on where your hormones have decided to be that day.
Oestrogen doesn’t run out after menopause. We still have some; it’s just different.
How low oestrogen impacts us
Basically, all those benefits – heart health, regular periods, good moods etc – can start to fall away.
With three-quarters of women suffering hot flushes and night sweats during menopause, the impact on our body temperature is one of the most common symptoms from the drop in oestrogen levels.
You may also notice it in:
At its worst, low oestrogen during menopause can have a massive impact on your mental health. Having collapsed in a heap and work and told a colleague I couldn’t see a reason not to throw myself under a train, I think it is no coincidence that suicide rates for women are highest at peak perimenopause age.
Beyond menopause, the drop in oestrogen can impact our bone and heart health.
What can we do?
Your diet can play a huge part in helping supplement oestrogen. Soy, flax seeds, garlic, endamame and sesame seeds are all great sources of phytoestrogens (plant oestrogens). And drink plenty of water!
Oestrogen food supplements such as black cohosh can also help, but check with your GP to make sure they’re safe for you.
Taking oestrogen through HRT helps many women and has other benefits apart from menopause symptoms. (This is my take on the pros and cons of HRT.) Modern topical oestrogen through gel or patches is much safer than older forms.
Also, weight-bearing exercises together with cardio are great for supporting your bones and heart, as well as helping lift your mood.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Many women have no symptoms while for those of us who do, help is available – although it is not as good as it should be.
Also, our bodies adapt. My mam is 90 and has been living with low oestrogen levels for 40 years. And there are several benefits from not having periods anymore.
Remember, menopause does end for the majority of us, although it can take a while for the body to readjust to the “new normal”. Studies show the majority of women feel great after menopause – low oestrogen levels or not!
What do you think? Has a drop in oestrogen affected you? Leave me a comment below.
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