A Breakdown of Female Hormones
Written by: Mayzie Hopkins
We hear the word "hormones" floating around a lot in regards to emotions, but hormones are really much more than just a fluctuation of feelings. Hormones have a major impact on the body and influence everything our system is experiencing. It's crazy how much power these things have!
Learning and knowing about the hormones in your body is an essential way of taking care of yourself. As a woman, there’s an array of fundamental hormones responsible for keeping the body in tune and ready-to-roll. These hormones are estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, and testosterone.
By educating yourself about the hormones swimming around in your body, you'll be able to identify how your hormones are affecting you. For example, you'll start to notice when your estrogen is low or when your testosterone is surging. This information is empowering and will help you to understand your body on a whole other level. So, let's break it down!
What Are Hormones?
Hormones are chemical messages in the blood that have been secreted by glands, specifically endocrine glands, around the body for the organs and tissues to function correctly. Each gland produces a different message for a different organ, ranging from food metabolism to development and growth to cognitive function and mood.
For example, the pituitary gland releases hormones such as oxytocin that control some of the key parts of the female reproductive system, like stimulating muscles to contract in the uterus during childbirth and producing a psychological effect of trust and recognition, helping cement the initial bond between a mother and her baby. In men, this hormone plays a role in sperm production and movement in the testes.
Some other main glands are the pineal gland that releases melatonin (regulates sleep); the pancreas that releases insulin (regulates the absorption of glucose), and the thyroid gland that releases T3, T4, and calcitonin (regulates weight, temperature, energy levels, hair, skin, and more).
Hormones, if they are being secreted correctly, stabilize bodily functions. Yet just a small alteration, either with too much of a hormone being released or too little, can drastically affect and damage the way we feel. And that isn’t good. Hormone imbalances can cause anything from anxiety to depression to diabetes to insomnia. While any disruption to the body is unwanted, these changes can be severe and even life-threatening.
Female Estrogen, Progesterone, Testosterone, and Cortisol Hormones
The female body differs in many ways from the male body, notably in reproduction and hormones. Estrogen and progesterone and the two main hormones produced in the female body.
However, despite testosterone being viewed as a male hormone, those with female reproductive systems also have it! Another crucial hormone for both sexes is cortisol, which manages stress and acts as a built-in alarm system, and is currently, most likely, to be working on overdrive for everyone. Below we look into how estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and cortisol each affect the female body:
What is it?
This is the most popular and known hormone in the female body. But, although it is produced by both sexes, females require more, making this the main female hormone. Most estrogen is produced by the ovaries, with some deriving from adrenal glands and fat cells.
What does it do?
Estrogen’s main function is to regulate and develop the female reproductive system, but it is also linked to cognitive health, bone development, and other main bodily processes. It aids the growth of egg follicles, maintains the thickness of vaginal walls, balances the mucous membrane in the uterus, and develops breast tissue (during puberty).
Furthermore, people who have been assigned male at birth, and are transitioning are often prescribed this hormone for them to develop secondary female characteristics (breasts, less body hair). Some estrogen-based birth control pills stop ovulation and even make the mucus in the cervix thicker so that sperm aren’t able to pass through to the egg.
Imbalanced Levels of Estrogen
Age (such as going through puberty or menopause), pregnancy, medications, weight, and other factors can change the levels of estrogen in the body. And having too much of it can cause anxiety, irregular periods, memory problems, mood swings, weight gain, hair loss, trouble sleeping, and more unpleasant symptoms. Similarly, having low levels of estrogen can cause vaginal dryness, an increase in UTIs, and again, mood swings and fatigue.
What is it?
Part of a group of hormones called progestogens, progesterone is a steroid hormone produced during the second half of the menstrual cycle. Progesterone essentially prepares the body for pregnancy in various ways.
What does it do?
The hormone promotes the thickening of the mucus lining of the uterus. It also stops muscle contractions that would potentially make the body reject an embryo (fertilized egg).
If no pregnancy occurs, the uterine wall lining will break down and become menstruated, which is a lot of fun and usually lasts around 3-5 days. If an egg does become fertilized and accepted by the body, progesterone begins to prepare the uterus for the embryo by continuing to thicken the walls (so no other egg can enter), feed the embryo, and prepare the breasts for milk.
Imbalanced Levels of Progesterone
As progesterone is crucial for the embryo’s development, low levels of the hormone can increase the risk of bleeding and even miscarriages during pregnancy, irregular bleeding in the uterus, and infrequent or no periods.
Unlike other hormones, there aren’t any major health disadvantages if the body is over-producing progesterone, it is even used in many contraceptives to “trick” the female reproductive system into not ovulating and therefore avoiding menstruation. Yay!
What is it?
Testosterone, despite being associated as a male hormone, is produced by both sexes. Men do produce more of this hormone, but there are levels of low testosterone in women. That said, it is an androgen hormone, which is part of a group of hormones responsible for “male traits” and sex drive.
What does it do?
Testosterone is primarily known as a reproductive hormone for men, helping produce sperm and bone mass. It controls red blood cell production and even mood. Testosterone in women is produced in the same place as estrogen (ovaries, adrenal glands, and fat cells). This hormone sparks the beginning of puberty with pubic and underarm hair, regulates organs, and plays a role in sexual desire and satisfaction.
Imbalanced Levels of Testosterone
High levels of testosterone can lead to excess hair in unwanted places such as the face, acne, and balding on the scalp. In some cases, high levels of this hormone are linked to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition in which symptoms include obesity, diabetes, irregular periods, infertility, and excess hair.
Low levels of testosterone produce low libido, fatigue, and mood changes. Physically, it can create a loss of bone density and develop into osteoporosis.
What is it?
Cortisol is the stress hormone and controls moods, motivation, and fear. Produced by the kidneys and part of the adrenal glands, cortisol is controlled by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
What does it do?
This hormone produces the “fight-or-flight” feeling and is there to assess and protect the body from danger. It also affects energy levels, sleep patterns, digestion, blood pressure, and sugar levels. Cortisol acts when it needs to or senses a threat, allowing the body to either run or fight whatever is causing alarm. When doing this, the cortisol hormone can best prepare the body for danger, like putting a pause on the digestive system and increasing levels of energy and awareness.
Imbalanced Levels of Cortisol
While this is a crucial hormone and is built in for survival, imbalances in cortisol can seriously alter how someone feels and acts. Besides, modern life doesn’t necessarily have an equal risk factor of being eaten by a predator, which could indicate why the number of people suffering from anxiety is currently overwhelmingly high.
High cortisol levels, or too much stress, can cause anxiety, depression, heart disease, digestive issues (constipation, diarrhea, nausea), weight gain, sleeping problems, and lack of concentration. A condition named Addison is responsible for the lack of cortisol production, causing fatigue, muscle aches, low blood pressure, lack of appetite, weight loss, and digestive issues.