In this post, we’re going to talk about one of the most critical hormones in the body: estrogen.
We’re all fairly familiar with estrogen as it pertains to female reproductive health—specifically, how it works with progesterone to encourage the development of secondary sex characteristics (including breasts, hips, buttocks, etc.). It also plays a critical role in the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and, ultimately, menopause.
But it’s important to take a closer look at this hormone to learn how and where it’s produced, how it affects the female body, what happens when estrogen levels are imbalanced, and what you can do to maintain healthy estrogen levels.
To begin, it’s important to understand that there are actually three types of estrogen:
E1, or estrone, which is the primary form of estrogen produced in the body post-menopause
E2, or estradiol, which is the primary (and most potent) form of estrogen produced by and present in your body during your “reproductive years”.
E3, or estriol, which is the form of estrogen produced predominantly during pregnancy.
All three of these estrogen types are produced largely in the ovaries, though some estrogen is secreted by the adrenal glances and adipose (fat) tissue around your body. During pregnancy, the placenta secretes a lot of estrogen (particularly E3).
Once released, estrogen moves through the bloodstream and binds to estrogen receptors around the body, triggering things like:
Puberty, causing the development of secondary sex characteristics.
Fertility, with estrogen levels peaking in the days just before ovulation. Estrogen thins out the cervical mucus to make it easier for the sperm to reach and fertilize the egg. It also plays a role in sexual intercourse, aiding in the lubrication of the vagina and allowing the vaginal walls to relax and expand.
Pregnancy, where it plays a role in the health of both the pregnant mother and the developing fetus.
Menopause, during which estrogen levels drop and ovulation ceases.
However, estrogen also plays a number of critical non-reproductive functions in both the male and female bodies. These functions include the regulation of blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, blood flow, collagen production, skin hydration, brain function, even bone and muscle mass.
As you can see, it clearly has a very important role in the body!
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There are a number of conditions that can cause imbalance in estrogen production (from anorexia nervosa to disordered eating to PCOS) as well as conditions that can be exacerbated by too-high or too-low estrogen production (including breast cancer, endometriosis, and uterine cancer, to name a few).
When estrogen levels are low on a regular basis, it’s typically a sign that menopause is approaching, or it could be linked to nutritional deficiencies or fertility issues. Symptoms of low estrogen include:
Tenderness in your breasts
Mood changes, depression, and/or irritability
Dyspareunia (pain during intercourse), which may be caused by vaginal dryness
Drowsiness and/or sleeping troubles
On the other hand, if your estrogen levels are consistently high (or too high), it could be the result of some condition affecting your ovaries (including PCOS, fibroids, polyps, ovarian tumors, etc.). It could also be an endocrine imbalance (too much estrogen produced and not enough progesterone), or the result of medications that contain/increase production of estrogen to an excess.
Symptoms of too-high estrogen include:
Weight gain, most noticeable around your hips and waist
Irregular and unpredictable periods
Light or heavy bleeding during menstruation
Decreased libido/sex drive
Worsening symptoms of PMS/PMDD
The good news is that your estrogen levels can be corrected using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) if your doctor believes the hormone imbalance is serious enough to require medical intervention. This is particularly common for those with low estrogen levels.
However, there are a number of things you can do to maintain healthy estrogen levels without the need for medications or treatments:
Sleep well. A solid 7-8 hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night can do wonders to maintain healthy endocrine function and ensure your body produces the right balance of hormones.
Exercise regularly. Exercise also regulates hormone production and helps to prevent the excess build-up of body fat that can release extra estrogen. You’ll find you also sleep better when you exercise daily.
Meditate and relax. Meditation and regular relaxation are crucial for managing stress, which can impair your hormone balance by causing excess production of adrenaline and cortisol. Too much adrenaline and cortisol can prevent your body from producing enough estrogen, leading to imbalances and potentially longer-term health consequences.
Eat right. Eat a plant-heavy diet that is rich in whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Get enough natural plant-based fats and fiber in your diet. Steer clear of trans fats, artificial ingredients, and sugar-rich foods as much as possible.
Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol is known to raise estrogen levels, and may even contribute to a higher risk of estrogen-related cancers over time.
A few simple practices to make a habit, but they can do wonders to help maintain a health estrogen balance in your body!
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