The focus on female hormones often centers around reproduction and fertility, and how the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone impact reproductive health.
While important, there are other hormones that play a crucial role in women’s health and hormonal imbalance can impact all aspects of a woman’s health, not just fertility.
We take a look at the role of female hormones in the body, the causes and symptoms of female hormone imbalance, and how lifestyle and diet can impact hormone health.
What’s the role of female hormones?
Hormones are internal chemical messengers which play a crucial role in our bodies by acting on our DNA to direct the various cells in our body to produce specific proteins.
Hormones are produced by endocrine glands which are distributed throughout the body and include the control hypothalamus and pituitary glands together with the endocrine glands producing response hormones including thyroid and parathyroid glands, gonads (ovaries or testes), and adrenal glands, to name a few. Hormones produced by these endocrine glands travel in the bloodstream to their target cells in tissues and organs disturbed throughout the body.
Furthermore, hormones interact which each other, forming a complex network. For example, the production of all hormones is regulated through a series of feedback loops. In many cases, this feedback loop is via the major control center for hormone regulation: the hypothalamus-pituitary axis in the brain. There are also interactions between the response hormones themselves such as cortisol (stress response hormone) and thyroid hormones.
How do hormones change as we age?
From the age a woman reaches puberty to around her mid-30s hormone levels are stable and fluctuate naturally each month in line with the menstrual cycle. Periods will be regular in women with a healthy hormone balance unless a woman is on some form of contraceptive pill.
As a woman enters her early to mid-40s her ovaries will start to become less responsive, resulting in the start of the perimenopause where estrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate more, and periods become less regular.
Estrogen and progesterone levels gradually decline during perimenopause and FSH and LH levels increase. These changes cause a hormone imbalance resulting in menopause symptoms such as irregular periods, mood changes, hot flushes, and loss of libido.
The transition from menopause to post-menopause occurs after a woman has not had a period for at least 12 months. Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone drop to very low levels. Declining estrogen levels can lead to longer term health issues such as cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
What causes a female hormone imbalance?
A regular menstrual cycle is a good sign of a healthy, balanced endocrine system. Any changes in a woman’s period outside of pregnancy, menopause or the use of contraception should be investigated as it could be a sign of hormone imbalance.
A hormone imbalance may be caused by endocrine gland dysfunction or other factors such as lifestyle – poor diet, stress, lack of sleep or over exercising.
As hormones play a key role in regulating different processes in the body, an imbalance can cause a variety of symptoms. It can also be a sign of an underlying health condition, particularly in women who are not experiencing a lack of ovarian response due to the menopause.
It’s also important to understand your normal hormone levels and how they change over time, so you can catch any issues early on.
Where you run the risk of a hormonal imbalance is not having the right level of nutrition to support the energy your body is expelling through exercise and day-to-day living, combined with low recovery periods or lack of rest. Here, even non-athletes can suffer from what’s called RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport). This can lead to your body shutting down non-essential functions in order to preserve energy for vital functions such as keeping your heart beating and lungs functioning. In women, this can result in her periods becoming irregular or stopping altogether.
Female hormones influence all aspects of women’s health, not just reproduction and fertility, so it’s important to understand how your hormones play a role in overall health. By understanding the role of hormones within the body you can make the right lifestyle choices to support a healthy endocrine system.