Estrogen is a hormone which plays different roles within the body. It helps in females to develop and maintain both the reproductive system and female features, such as breasts and pubic hair.
However, most people know this for its role in female sexual and reproductive health alongside progesterone.
The ovaries, adrenal glands, and fat tissues produce estrogen. Both female and male bodies have this hormone but more of it is created by females.
In this post, we take a closer look at estrogen including how it functions, what happens when the rates fluctuate, and medical uses.
Types of estrogen
There are different types of estrogen:
Following menopause this type of estrogen is present in the body. It is a weaker form of estrogen and one that the body can convert to other forms of estrogen, as necessary.
Both males and females produce estradiol, and during their reproductive years this is the most common type of estrogen in females.
Too much estradiol can cause acne, sex drive loss, osteoporosis and depression. Very high levels can increase the risk of uterine and breast cancer. Low levels can however lead to weight gain and cardiovascular disease.
Estriol levels rise during pregnancy, as it helps grow the uterus and prepares the body for delivery. Estriol levels peak just before birth.
Estrogen allows functioning of the following organs:
Ovaries: Estrogen helps to improve egg follicle growth.
Vagina: Estrogen maintain vaginal wall thickness and facilitates lubrication in the vagina.
Uterus: Estrogen enhances and maintains the mucous membrane that lines the uterus. It also regulates the flow of uterine mucus secretions and their thickness.
Breasts: The body makes use of estrogen in breast tissue formation. Even this hormone helps to avoid milk flow after weaning.
Levels of estrogen
The levels of estrogen differ according to individuals. These often fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle and over the lifetime of a person. Occasionally, this fluctuation may cause results including changes in mood before menstruation or hot menopause flashes.
Factors that can affect estrogen levels include:
- pregnancy, the end of pregnancy, and breastfeeding
- older age
- overweight and obesity
- extreme dieting or anorexia nervosa
- strenuous exercise or training
- the use of certain medications, including steroids, ampicillin, estrogen-containing drugs, phenothiazines, and tetracyclines
- some congenital conditions, such as Turner’s syndrome
- high blood pressure
- primary ovarian insufficiency
- an underactive pituitary gland
- polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- tumors of the ovaries or adrenal glands
An imbalance of estrogen leads to:
- irregular or no menstruation
- light or heavy bleeding during menstruation
- more severe premenstrual or menopausal symptoms
- hot flashes, night sweats, or both
- noncancerous lumps in the breast and uterus
- mood changes and sleeping problems
- weight gain, mainly in the hips, thighs, and waist
- low sexual desire
- vaginal dryness and vaginal atrophy
- mood swings
- feelings of depression and anxiety
- dry skin
Some of these effects are common during menopause.
Some hereditary and other conditions can lead to high levels of estrogen in males, which can result in:
- erectile dysfunction
- larger breasts, known as gynecomastia
Males with low estrogen levels may have excess belly fat and low libido.
Estrogen sources and uses
If a person has low estrogen levels, a doctor may prescribe medication or supplements.
Estrogen products include:
- synthetic estrogen
- bioidentical estrogen
- Premarin, which contains estrogens from the urine of pregnant mares
As part of hormone therapy, which people typically refer to as hormone replacement therapy, estrogen therapy may help relieve symptoms of the menopause.
The treatment may consist solely of estrogen (estrogen replacement therapy, or ERT), or a combination of estrogen and progestin, a synthetic form of progesterone, may be involved.
Hormone therapy is available as a pill, nasal spray, patch, skin gel, vaginal cream, injection, or ring.
It can help manage:
- hot flashes
- vaginal dryness
- painful intercourse
- mood changes
- sleep disorders
- decreased sexual desire
It can also help to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, which rises as menopause comes in.
Side effects include:
- breast soreness
- leg cramps
- vaginal bleeding
- fluid retention, leading to swelling
Some forms of hormone therapy can also raise the risk of stroke, blood clots, and cancer of the uterus and breast. A doctor may advise an individual about whether estrogen therapy suits them.
As well as menopause, estrogen therapy will also help to resolve:
- primary ovarian insufficiency
- other ovarian issues
- some types of acne
- some cases of prostate cancer
- delayed puberty, for example, in Turner’s syndrome
High levels of estrogen can increase the risk of certain forms of breast cancer and their progression. Some hormone therapies block the action of estrogen as a way to delay or stop the development of cancer.
It is not hormonal therapy for everybody. Hormone use may contradict a family history of breast cancer or thyroid issues. People who are uncertain can talk to a physician.
Transitioning to female
A doctor may prescribe estrogen to a person assigned male at birth who wishes to transition to female as part of the therapy. The individual may need anti-androgenic therapy, too.
Estrogen can help a person develop secondary female sexual characteristics, such as breasts, and reduce the formation of male hair patterns.
The estrogen therapy should be part of a broader approach to treatment. A healthcare professional may advise the best course of treatment for the patient.
Birth control pills either contain synthetic estrogen and only progestin or progestin.
By preventing ovulation, certain types prevent pregnancy, and do so by ensuring that the hormone levels do not fluctuate during the month.
They also make the mucus thick in the cervix, so that no sperm can reach the egg.
Many benefits include reducing premenstrual symptoms and reducing the frequency of acne related to the hormone.
Pills for birth control can increase the risk for:
- heart attack
- blood clots
- pulmonary embolism
- nausea and vomiting
- irregular bleeding
- weight changes
- breast tenderness and swelling
Oral birth control poses a greater risk for women who smoke or who are over 35 years of age. Long-term use can also result in increased risk of breast cancer.
Food sources of estrogen
Some foods contain phytoestrogens, which are plant-based substances that resemble estrogen.
Some studies indicate that these can affect estrogen levels in the body. There’s little proof to support this, however.
Foods containing phytoestrogens may include:
- cruciferous vegetables
- soy and some foods containing soy protein
- seeds and grains
Many people claim that foods containing phytoestrogens can help manage hot flashes and other menopause effects but there is no scientific evidence for this.
Additionally, consuming whole soy foods, for example, is unlikely to have the same effect as using soy extracts as an addition.
Some herbs and supplements have phytoestrogens that function in a similar way to estrogen. Those can help to control estrogen and treat menopausal symptoms.
Nevertheless, it is unclear exactly how these compounds affect the body’s androgen-related behavior and there is insufficient evidence to confirm that they are safe and effective, especially in the long term. Researchers have requested further research.
Additionally, no herbal and non-medicinal supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration ( FDA). As a consequence, you can’t say precisely what a product contains.
People should check with a doctor before taking any medication or supplements.