What is Estrogen?
Estrogen refers to a group of chemically similar compounds or hormones that play a pivotal role in the development of female sexual traits and characteristics, like reproductive process, breast enlargement, etc. These compounds include estradiol, estrone and estriol (for the sake of brevity, these are commonly referred to as “estrogen” in the rest of the article). Typically, referred to as female hormone, estrogen is also produced in small quantities among males. However, it is not known as to what role it plays among men.
Estrogen is mostly produced in the ovaries by developing egg follicles. Besides, it is also produced by the corpus luteum in the ovaries and also by the placenta. Very small amount of estrogen is also produced in the breasts, liver and adrenal glands.
Estrogen is one of the most vital hormones in females. In fact, this is what brings femininity to a woman. The important functions of estrogen among women are explained thus:
1. Development of Reproductive Tract: Estrogen is widely associated with female reproductive capabilities. Sufficient estrogen levels in the body are responsible for the development of reproductive organs as well as the ability to conceive. Puberty is the time when a female body witnesses excess development of estrogen by the body, which leads to the development of sexual characteristics among women. For instance, the development of breasts, distribution of fat in different body parts (thighs, hips and buttocks) as witnessed in a typical female adult, a widened pelvis, less facial hair, smoother skin, and most importantly, the maturation of her reproductive organs, like uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes.
2. Facilitates Conception: Another important function of estrogen is to help the woman conceive. Estrogen is primarily entrusted with the task to assist in the development of uterine wall in order to prepare the uterus for implantation of fertilized egg. During the menstrual cycle, the levels of estrogen rise tremendously, which leads to the process of ovulation. Moreover, estrogen also promotes fertilization of egg by helping the cervix in the production of mucus (thin, watery liquid), which transports the sperm to mature egg. Additionally, estrogen is also responsible for the development of glands that facilitate milk production.
3. Increases Bone Mineral Density: Estrogen protects the bone loss, as it increases the bone metabolism, which leads to reduction of bone cells’ turnover. Thus, women with healthy estrogen levels in their body usually have good bone mineral density. This is also the reason why post-menopausal women are prone to greater risk of developing osteoporosis, as there is a gradual reduction and ultimately, cessation of production of estrogen post menopause. Moreover, medications prescribed for osteoporosis also mimic estrogen in the body.
4. Assists in the Production of Certain Proteins: Estrogen is responsible for the increase in the production of certain proteins that cause the blood to clot. Certain other proteins are also produced using estrogen, which are responsible for the transportation of other hormones. This function is especially important for men, as they have very low levels of estrogen.
5. Promotes Healthy Heart: Estrogen is widely believed to increase High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) or the good cholesterol in the body. At the same time, it also plays a crucial role in reducing the Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) or the bad cholesterol in the body. This is the primary reason for lower cases of cardiovascular diseases among pre-menopausal women.
6. Vaginal Lubrication: Estrogen ensures that vagina is adequately lubricated so that at the time of sexual intercourse, there is no organ injury due to friction. Moreover, sexual stimulation activates the estrogen, which starts producing more lubricant for the vagina, which in turn, enhances her sex drive.
7. Optimizes Brain Functioning: Estrogen has a unique to play for the optimum functioning of brain. Not only estrogen ensures proper blood supply to the brain, it is also responsible for growth and repairing of nerves.
During the lifetime, the estrogen levels fluctuate in the body. They start increasing during puberty and remain at healthy levels till 40s and 50s, i.e., till the time a woman has not reached her menopausal stage, the estrogen levels usually remain normal. The peri-menopausal stage witnesses alarming drop in the estrogen levels, and once the woman has completed the menopause stage (generally, during her 50s), the estrogen production almost ceases.
Apart from menopause, there are other causes when there is a sharp fall in estrogen levels in women. These are:
- Hypogonadism, i.e., when the sex glands produce little or no hormones
- Hypopituitarism, i.e., deficiency in pituitary hormone production
- Pregnancy failure due to decreased estriol levels
- Poly-Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
- Anorexia Nervosa, or eating disorder, when the woman does not eat nutritious diet responsible for healthy production of estrogen
- Extreme exercises
- Side effect of certain drugs, like clomiphene
- Immediately after childbirth
- During breastfeeding
It’s not just low levels of estrogen that can create problems in woman’s health, high levels also can contribute to complications, and these can be caused due to following factors:
- During puberty
- Excessively overweight women
- Women suffering from hypertension
- Diabetic women
- During healthy pregnancy
- Individuals suffering from tumors in ovaries, testes or adrenal glands
- Side effect of some medications, like ampicillin
Symptoms of Low Estrogen Levels
Low estrogen levels in the body are characterized by the following symptoms. Not all women will suffer from all these symptoms. Moreover, the intensity of these symptoms may also vary in every individual:
- Vaginal dryness
- Hot flashes and night sweats
- Periods of anxiety attacks and panic disorders
- Loss of sexual drive
- Heavy swings in the mood
- Headaches and Migraine attacks
- Joint pains, especially low back pain
- Frequent vaginal infection
- Racy heart
- Weight gain
- Difficulty in concentration, etc.
Symptoms of High Estrogen Levels
High levels of estrogen in the body are characterized by the following symptoms, which may or may not be present in all women:
- Weight Gain
- Uterine fibroids
- Breast tenderness
- Decreased libido
- Leg cramps
- Irregular periods
- Nausea and vomiting
- Thyroid malfunction
- Gallbladder disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Breast/uterine cancer
- Fatigue, etc.
Estrogen Side Effects
If you are on any medication comprising of estrogen or on Hormonal Replacement Therapy (HRT), it may be possible that you encounter some of these side effects. However, it is advisable to consult your doctor if these side effects are too severe or do not go away on their own. Again, the severity of these side effects may vary according for every woman:
- Weight gain or loss
- Breast tenderness or feeling of pain or discomfort in the breast
- Gastrointestinal problems, like diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, gas, feeling of general stomach ailment, and loss of appetite
- Psychotic issues, like depression, nervousness, anxiety, dizziness, difficulty in concentration
- Vaginal problems, like discharge, swelling, itchiness, burning sensation, redness and irritation
- Abnormal sexual desire, generally on the lower side
- Leg cramps
- Burning sensation or tingling in the limbs
- Unwanted hair growth
- Dark spots on the face
- Difficulty in wearing contact lenses
- Sore throat, cough, cold, chills
- General fatigue and weakness
- Allergic reaction, like hives, blisters, rashes, etc.
- Joint pains
- Eye problems, like swelling or yellowness
- Difficulty in breathing, etc.
- Increased risk of ovarian cancer, gallbladder disease
- Negative effect on the timing of sexual development of children, who take large doses of estrogen
Symptoms of lower or higher estrogen levels and estrogen side effects may seem overlapping. Therefore, it is advisable to consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis and the corrective action, if required.