Hormones coordinate the continuous biochemical activity that occurs in all of our cells in our body and brain. They are the chemicals that make things happen on a day-to-day basis within the systems of our body. As the body’s chemical messengers, they orchestrate our metabolic processes by stimulating changes in body cells. As hormone levels fluctuate throughout your lifetime, you may notice mood changes, body composition changes, your overall sensitivity changes, and your potential for various types of activity is different.
There are many different types of hormones in our body. Hormones, which originate in various glands throughout the body, are found in the blood, where they circulate to continually bathe our tissues. Receptors within our cells are sensitive to particular hormones that causes them to react. The more hormone present in the cell or the more highly sensitized the receptors, the more intense the reaction.
Estrogens are some of the most powerful hormones in the human body. Almost all tissues have receptors that make them responsive to estrogens. Estrogens help the urinary tract, breasts, skin, blood vessels, and uterus to stay toned and flexible.
Estrogen levels start to rise in girls before menarche, sometimes as early as age 8. The hypothalamus signals the pituitary to release hormones, which then signal the ovaries to produce more estrogen. Estrogen levels continue to rise in girls until they start menstruation, usually by age 11 or 12. It also starts the development of breasts and the growth of pubic hair and hair under the arms.
In their early 30s, most women begin to experience declining levels of estrogens and progesterone. With this decline, there is also a drop in fertility.
In their early 40s, most women begin the climacteric, which is a period of more rapidly declining hormone levels leading up to menopause. The symptoms during this period become quite obvious. The skin becomes dryer, the hair becomes more brittle, pubic and underarm hair becomes more sparse, there is a loss in libido, and you may experience mood swings.
Estrogen and progesterone are made by the ovaries of menstruating women. Progesterone is a precursor hormone that can be converted by the body into other steroid hormones. It prepares the lining of the uterus for the fertilized ovum and is necessary for the survival and development of the conceptus. Progesterone is produced in the placenta, which maintains pregnancy, and is secreted at a level of 300 to 400 mg a day during the third trimester. Progesterone is produced in smaller amounts by the adrenal glands and is an important component in the biosynthesis of adrenal cortical hormones.
Before ovulation, the levels of progesterone are about 2 to 3 mg per day. At ovulation and the development of the corpus luteum, the production of progesterone rapidly rises to an average of 22 mg per day, with peak production as high as 30 mg per day, a week or so after ovulation. If fertilization does not occur after 10 or 12 days, then the production of progesterone falls dramatically, triggering the shedding of the lining of the uterus, resulting in menstruation.
Ideally, in a woman’s menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone levels should rise from the time of ovulation until just before menstruation. If the levels of progesterone are inadequate, then only estrogen rises during this time, potentially causing many symptoms, such as low blood sugar levels, salt and fluid retention, blood clotting, fibroid and tumor development, increased cholesterol and triglyceride levels, allergic reactions, reduced oxygen levels in the cells, the retention of copper and loss of zinc. Low levels of progesterone may also cause interference with thyroid hormone function, which may lead to weight gain and feelings of exhaustion.
Progesterone’s functions may include:
- act as a precursor of other sex hormones (i.e., estrogens and testosterone)
- maintain secretory endometrium
- protect against breast fibrocysts
- act as a natural diuretic
- help use fat for energy
- act as a natural antidepressant
- help thyroid hormone action
- normalize blood clotting
- restore libido
- help normalize blood sugar
- normalize zinc and copper levels
- restore proper cell oxygen levels
- protect against endometrial cancer
- protect against breast cancer
- stimulate osteoblast-mediated bone building
- provide survival of the embryo and fetus throughout gestation
- promote cortisone synthesis as a precursor in the adrenal cortex
While most women think of testosterone as a male hormone, it may come as a surprise to you that it is also a female hormone. Women with functioning ovaries produce, on average, three-tenths of one milligram of testosterone per day (men produce 20 times as much). One of testosterone’s roles in women during pregnancy is in the development of the embryo. Testosterone signals the cells of the genetically male embryo to develop as a male.
Testosterone also plays an important role in a woman’s normal physiology. Women produce a small amount of testosterone, which is critical to the healthy functioning of most of the tissues in the body. It contributes to a sense of well-being, sexual libido, and vital energy. It is testosterone in a young woman that stimulates the growth of pubic hair and underarm hair. It also stimulates the skin to produce more oil, which contributes to teenage acne, but also gives shine to the hair and a healthy glow to the skin. There are testosterone receptors in the nipples of developed breasts and in the clitoris and vagina. These receptors make these areas sensitive to sexual stimulation.
Testosterone also contributes to keeping the cells of the body functioning efficiently, contributing to healthy bones and muscles and making the best use of nourishment for growth and maintenance.
Postmenopausal women commonly experience a decrease in the amount of testosterone in their body, which can result in symptoms of decreased sense of well-being, a loss of vital energy, and reduced sexual libido.
Thyroid problems are a very common, and often undiagnosed, health problem for women. In thyroid testing, when TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) is measured, it has been found not only to fail to accurately measure thyroid function, but it often misses many cases of thyroid system malfunction.
Recent research has also discovered different types of thyroid receptors. One type of receptor regulates pituitary stimulation of thyroid production and a different type is present in other areas of the body. It is thought that the pituitary receptors may not know that these other receptor areas are low in thyroid hormone, and so therefore do not signal for an increase.
Individuals with a malfunctioning thyroid system often have a slow metabolism, which leads to a low body temperature. The Barnes Basal Temperature Test is a very simple, effective, and low cost way to determine if you might have hypothyroidism. For menstruating women from day 2 to day 12 of their cycles, the basal temperature should normally read between 97.8º and 98.2º F when taken in the underarm position. Some doctors recommend starting thyroid treatment if the temperature is below 97.4º F.
It is believed by some specialists that a majority of women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) have thyroid abnormalities as indicated by TSH response. Thyroid system malfunction has been linked to PMS because of its effect on immune system function.
Low thyroid function is capable of affecting the onset of menstruation in puberty by either hastening the onset or delaying it. Thyroid hormone has been effective in benefiting some women who suffer from excessive flow, scant flow, painful cramps, irregular cycles, and some cases of infertility and miscarriage.
Other symptoms of low thyroid function may include frequent headaches, repeated respiratory infections, fatigue, depression, weakness, dry skin, lethargy, slow speech, decreased sweating, cold sensations, cold skin, thick tongue, coarseness of hair, impaired memory, constipation, edema of eyelids, pallor of skin and heart enlargement.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is the most abundant naturally occurring steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. It has been called “the mother of all hormones” because it watches over, supports, and regulates the functions of other steroids in their immune system activity. The body uses DHEA to produce the sex hormones: testosterone, estrogen, progesterone and corticosterone.