Estrogen is one of the female hormones that help regulate a woman’s passage through menstruation, fertility and menopause. Estrogen is one of the most powerful hormones in the human body. Estrogen levels in the body can affect a wide range of tissues and organs, from the brain to the liver and to the bones themselves.
Estrogen therapy is a popular choice for prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. Although supplemental calcium, diet, and exercise are also beneficial, they don’t seem to be as effective as estrogen. The most important benefit of estrogen replacement therapy is the reported reduction in coronary artery disease- the leading cause of death in post-menopausal women. Apparently, the high pre menopausal levels of estrogen tend to protect women from heart disease, partly by keeping levels of HDL cholesterol high and LDL cholesterol low.
Without estrogen replacement therapy, w woman’s risk of heart attack becomes equal to a man’s within fifteen years after menopause. Simply being postmenopausal puts a woman at a higher risk for heart disease, and having just one additional risk factor-smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes or family history of heart disease- puts her at an even higher risk, with estrogen, however, the blood vessels dilate slightly, cholesterol balance is maintained, and the risk of heart disease vastly decreases.
Although we are used to thinking of menarche (the onset of menstruation and fertility) and menopause (the cessation) as the single points in life’s journey, they are actually more like peaks and valleys. They start to rise well before menarche, as early as age eight in some girls. The hypothalamus is the prime mover in this process, signaling the pituitary to release hormones. The pituitary in turn signals the ovaries to produce more estrogen.
For three or four years, estrogen levels continue to rise, and by age eleven or twelve, they are sufficiently high (along with other key hormones) to begin the menstruation process. Estrogen also sets off the development of breasts and the growth of hair under the arms and the public region. The body often responds to this new hormonal activity with confusion- oily hair, acne, budding sexual interest, mood swings, and sometimes, painful menstrual cramps.
Proponents of estrogen cite both scientific studies and the experiences of numerous women to show that this female hormone can ease or eliminate menopausal woes. Estrogen supplements, which are available as skin patches, topical creams and long lasting injections, appear to relieve hot flashes, night sweats and other discomforts, as well as vaginal dryness and atrophy. Some women find that this hormone helps keep their skin thicker, moister, and more youthful looking.
Collagen, which is stimulated by estrogen, is the main product in the dermis. A loss of collagen results in increased wrinkling, bruising and thinning of the skin. Admisntering estrogen not only prevents collagen loss but also increases collgen synthesis, which can relive symptoms of diminished urinary control sometimes experienced by menopausal women. Estrogen moistens the vaginal mucus membranes, which increases lubrication, and also helps maintain flexibility of the connective tissues.
Estrogen and progesterone supplements have also been proven to reduce the bone loss associated with osteoporosis. Women’s bones slowly begin to lose minerals and become less dense even before menopause. After menopause, however, the pace accelerates rapidly for five to ten years. Estrogen inhibits bone re-absorption and progesterone stimulates bone formation. Unless a woman is taking these hormones, she has about one-in-four chances of developing serious osteoporosis.
Some 85 percent of all women experience hot flashes, either during pre-menopause or in menopause itself. The physiology of the hot flash is still not understood, but it appears to start in the hypothalamus, the body’s thermostat, in response to a drop in estrogen. During a flash, the woman experiences a severe feeling of heat, especially in the head and neck, often in the entire upper half of the body. Sometimes the face is blotched and ruddy as a result of the dilation of blood vessels on the surface of the skin. In some cases, flashes are accompanied by disruptions in sleep patterns and night sweats.
Flashes usually last for only a few minutes, but may continue for up to an hour. The body may attempt to cool down by beading with perspiration. Hot weather, hot food or drink, stress, and other sources of heat can trigger flashes without warning.
Many women who seek estrogen treatment for their hot flashes do find relief. Yet in all cases, whether treated or not, they will eventually stop as soon as the body adjusts to postmenopausal levels of estrogen.