Female Hormones 101
Reprint from Dr. Mercola: www.mercola.com
While a great
number of women in our culture develop some kind of sexual reproductive
organ dysfunction, most are misled about true sexual and reproductive
health and what options exist to achieve it. People tend to think of
women's "hormone problems" as starting in midlife with the onset
of menopause. In fact, a
dysfunctional pattern can begin during adolescent years or even
before birth. The severity of hormonal problems may increase with age, but
it is not aging per se that is the root of declining health. It is most
often the cumulative physiological effects of stress that cause disruption
of the natural rhythms and balancing mechanisms of women's hormones (see
Quick Definition), thereby eventually compromising overall health as well
as sexual and reproductive health.
Definition - Sex and stress hormones are chemical messengers formed in
endocrine organs and certain body tissues and then carried in the blood to
other areas of the body. Depending on how specific their effects, hormones
can alter either the functional activity or the structure of one or more
organs. Synthetic hormones are different from naturally occurring
hormones; they are structurally altered (so as to be patentable).
(conventional) medical thinking fails to look for or treat the root causes
of women's hormonal imbalances. For example, more young women today are
experiencing infertility because they are not ovulating, yet they are
being given fertility drugs like Clomid without comprehensive hormonal
evaluations. Though these women often succeed in conceiving, they
generally end up paying a price for short-sighted symptom management. The
future health consequence is that other symptoms will appear and hormonal
imbalance will progress.
women are led to believe that it is normal to experience distressing
menopausal symptoms. They anticipate having to accept the conventional
treatment choice of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with synthetic
hormones. Women are encouraged to do this in spite of the fact that estrogen
supplementation places them at risk for breast cancer and other serious
health problems. HRT and fertility drugs--as well as birth control
pills and other hormonal therapies--were all designed to treat only
specific symptoms with no regard
for the effects they have on the entire body. Because of this
non-holistic approach, we are seeing an increase in the incidence of not
only breast cancer and sexual
reproductive organ dysfunctions but also uterine and ovarian cancer.
with conventional HRT is that it generally employs the wrong forms of
estrogen and progesterone. Synthetic estrogens or the estrogens that are
excreted in pregnant mare urine are often used. And of the three estrogen
hormones (estradiol, estriol and estrone) found in women's bodies, most
conventional pharmaceutical products use only estradiol. Many HRT
formulas also contain synthetic progestin (as opposed to natural
progesterone), which is included to help balance the effects of synthetic
estrogen. Yet an artificial hormone cannot function in concert with
another artificial hormone to create balance in the body. Worse, these HRT
formulas ignore the increasingly common wisdom that it is progesterone
deficiency --not estrogen deficiency--that leads to early or difficult
menopause and many other health problems affecting women.
A lot of women
are discovering that conventional HRT does not give them the overall
health and well-being they had hoped for, and they are seeking out
healthier alternatives. What everyone will hopefully soon realize is that menopausal
and sexual reproductive problems are actually symptoms of overall hormonal
imbalances. Women need to get a complete picture of their hormonal
status and find appropriate therapeutic steps to maintaining balance.
millions of women continue to experience dysfunctions such as PMS,
depression, decreased libido, fibrocystic breasts, food and sugar
cravings, uterine fibroids, irregular or excessive uterine bleeding and
endometriosis. Those whose dysfunctions are extremely painful or
debilitating are told that their "health is more important than their
reproductive organs" and that "a hysterectomy would be the best
thing." Unbelievably, an estimated trillion-plus dollars was spent
during the twentieth century to remove women's reproductive organs. Hysterectomy
now out-numbers almost all types of surgery performed in the U.S.
organs play an important role in more than reproduction. Many studies show
that each aspect of the female sexual anatomy serves an integral part in
the health and well-being of the entire body. Each function is part of the
whole, part of a system, or symphony, of interrelated parts and timing.
What needs to
be understood is that, for example, if
a woman's thyroid or adrenal glands are depleted or functioning
inadequately--a fairly common occurrence in our stressful
culture--she will likely experience problems with her sexual reproductive
organs. The connection between these organs and the thyroid, the adrenals
and other endocrine glands is that they are all governed by endocrine
hormones. This is an important interrelationship, which is why what
disrupts one gland can disrupt another, causing a kind of domino
effect or vicious cycle. The immune system and the thymus are
involved, too, because immune response is inhibited by abnormal hormone
system is responsible for homeostasis, the body's ability to maintain
stable internal conditions, including body temperature, regardless of
changing external conditions. Balance is crucial to all life processes.
The body functions within very specific margins, and being forced to
function outside of those margins can cause a whole series of negative
events, even death. The endocrine system also controls the processes of
reproduction, metabolism, growth and development.
Endocrine System and the Female Cycle
system regulates the body's major continuous and prolonged processes,
including reproduction; growth and development; cellular metabolism and
energy; blood balance of nutrients, electrolytes and water; and the
mobilization of body defenses against stressors (things that cause wear
and tear on the body's physical and mental resources). It is made up of
eight different glands located strategically throughout the body:
- ovaries (in
men, the testes)
which is also part of the nervous system
major organs, the system includes pockets of hormone-producing cells in
tissues in the small intestine, heart, kidneys and stomach. The endocrine
system develops and begins producing hormones by the end of the second
trimester of fetal development.
In the order of
endocrine command, the
hypothalamus is the body's CEO, orchestrating the events of the
rest of the endocrine system. The hypothalamus controls autonomic reflexes
(such as the activity of the heart and smooth muscles), and it houses the
body's "thermostat" and biological clock, which maintains the
body's rhythm of 24-hour sleep-wake cycles. The somewhat mysterious pineal
gland also has a role in biological timekeeping, being an organ sensitive
to retinal response to light. The pineal
gland, believed to coordinate fertility hormones, produces melatonin, the
hormone known for its sleep-triggering ability.
hypothalamus also initiates part of the adrenal stress response, causing
the pituitary to secrete the hormone that travels to the adrenal glands to
stimulate secretion of cortisol,
DHEA and aldosterone. The hypothalamus also initiates the female
cycle by producing gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which signals
the pituitary to secrete follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH
stimulates the ovaries to secrete estrogen, the sex hormone that
stimulates development of breast, uterine and ovarian tissue (and in
synthetic HRT forms is associated with excessive cell growth that leads to
reaches a certain level, it signals the hypothalamus to trigger the
pituitary to secrete luteinizing hormone (LH). Estrogen levels then fall,
while the level of LH rises and peaks (around day 14 of a 28-day cycle),
stimulating ovulation, the release of an egg from its ovarian follicle.
After ovulation, the follicle (now called the corpus luteum) is filled
with cholesterol, which is converted first to pregnenolone and then to
progesterone. This newly-made progesterone is used in part for the
building up of the uterine lining. If after about 13 to 15 days the egg is
not fertilized, the uterine lining is sloughed off (in menstruation) when
both estrogen and progesterone levels drop.
estrogen and progesterone are necessary in the female cycle, and their
balance is key for full health. Many women in our culture have an
imbalance of these hormones, especially, insufficient
levels of progesterone to counter excessive estrogen -- an imbalance
further exacerbated by chronic stress. Progesterone is a hormone
important to a number of body functions. During times of stress or
conditions of chronic adrenal hyper-stimulation, progesterone
is capable of being converted into the stress hormone cortisol.
When one goes
through chronic or severe long-term stress, the hypothalamus at first
triggers an overproduction of the adrenal hormones (especially cortisol
and DHEA). This eventually leads to adrenal insufficiency, a state in
which the exhausted adrenals cannot respond adequately.
The thyroid gland is also adversely affected by chronic stress. This
gland's roles include regulating calcium metabolism and glycolysis, the
breakdown of glucose for body energy fuel. Under normal conditions, the
fight-or-flight response causes the thyroid to increase glucose breakdown.
In conditions of chronic stress, however, the thyroid is continually
overstimulated and eventually becomes depleted. Thyroid function is also
disrupted by excessive estrogen, but this can be prevented by adequate
(overactive thyroid functioning) and especially hypothyroidism (low
functioning) have become more common. The classic symptoms of
hypothyroidism include sluggishness,
early morning fatigue, cold extremities, lowered basal temperature and
menstrual problems, including scanty periods.
other hormonal gland dysfunctions can cause some of the above symptoms and
more, including cravings for
sweets, weight gain, allergies, heart palpitations, insomnia, depression,
fatigue, poor memory, foggy thinking, headaches, nervousness, inability to
concentrate, recurrent infections and glucose intolerance.
damaging adrenal dysfunction is excessive cortisol production, which
causes, among other serious problems, increased
calcium mobilization from the bones, leading to osteoporosis, or loss of
bone density. In a person with a healthy stress response, excessive
levels of cortisol are automatically buffered. Constant stress destroys
this feedback loop.
imbalances compromise not only physical health but also psychological
health, manifesting as problems ranging from depression to panic disorder.
One way the body tries to compensate for imbalances created and
exacerbated by the demands of stress is to overproduce key hormones.
Another way it tries to compensate is by converting sex hormones to stress
hormones, thus further diminishing reproductive functions and the
enjoyment of sexual health.
It is helpful
to learn about these hormonal interdependencies because they allow one to
see the bigger picture, that the problems commonly associated with menses
or menopause are actually indicators of greater endocrine imbalance. For
many women, the next step in understanding the bigger picture might be to
look at digestive health--such as the possibility of malabsorption
syndrome or food allergies--and at nutritional supplementation strategies
that help restore or maintain hormonal balance.
One of the
biggest reasons why hormonal imbalances are misunderstood is because
"modern" medicine disregards the way the human body deals with
its environment. Consider that the body's responses basically have not
changed for 50,000 years. We still respond to our environment with the
most primal of mechanisms: the "fight-or-flight" mechanism, the
release of adrenaline and other stress hormones. The stress response,
initiated in the hypothalamus and pituitary, and regulated by the adrenal
glands, is responsible for redirecting energy and resources away from the
reproductive organs when we are under severe or chronic stress, directing
it instead to the muscles and organs that are necessary for survival. This
redirection is allowed to take place because, on the body's list of
priorities, survival comes first and reproduction comes last.
reproductive system is the only body system whose functions are
biologically expendable. With this in mind, we see how the ability to
reproduce becomes a privilege in the body, not a right. Fertility, or the
ability to ovulate, is therefore a good indicator of the overall health of
The fight-or-flight response can be a detriment as well as a lifesaving
response. In a modern environment, many things -- ranging from allergic
reactions to being cut off while driving--can evoke this mechanism.
Throughout daily life, there are many hidden as well as overt sources of
stress. Most of the time, our response to stress ends without a literal
"fight" or some form of physical activity, as our ancestors
would have engaged in. One of the problems with this is that adrenaline,
unlike most hormones, has no enzyme "switch" to turn it off.
Once released it must be used or it remains active. As a result, we remain
in a state of hyper-stimulation, with abnormal levels of adrenaline and
cortisol, the primary fight-or-flight hormones. Other hormone levels, such
as the pancreatic hormone glucagon, also become dysregulated.
If hyper-stimulation persists, we have difficulty inducing a relaxation
response, and we do not return to a normal state.
Over a period
of time, if chronic stress continues, the body adapts to adrenal
hyper-stimulation, continuing in a perpetual fight-or-flight mode. This
is called maladaptation, a process in which endocrine system organs
begin to break down. This process eventually reaches the point where the
adrenals become exhausted and cortisol levels drop. One
example of what can result from adrenal exhaustion is fibromyalgia,
a condition that can arise when the protective benefits of normal cortisol
levels are lost.
are usually first in the order of endocrine function breakdown, followed
by the insulin-producing portion of the pancreas, thyroid, ovaries,
parathyroid, pineal, pituitary and finally, the link to the autonomic
nervous system, the hypothalamus. The thymus gland, which produces immune
defense cells, is also affected in the endocrine breakdown process. Each
of these glands controls specific functions, and as each breaks down new
symptoms appear. Symptoms are subtle at first. Then over the years, as the
body goes further into deficit, the symptoms will increase and worsen.
The more stress
endured, the worse the hormonal problems become. When the endocrine system
is severely dysregulated, the hypothalamus is affected. If the production
of corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) becomes severely affected, the
psychological symptoms can become debilitating. Because CRH controls fear
through stimulating adrenal secretion, an abnormal level of CRH can make
it difficult to perform routine chores or leave the house. The fear
response in turn worsens hormonal problems by further stressing the
adrenals, which respond by converting more sex hormones to stress hormones
and becoming more maladapted--a vicious cycle.
A woman's hormonal problems can begin even before birth, during her fetal
development. If her mother is under chronic stress and adrenally
hyper-stimulated, the mother's body will draw on the developing fetus's
"survival chemistry" to supplement her own body's hormonal
needs. During the second trimester, the placenta
produces on average about 450 milligrams of progesterone a day, and
some of this progesterone will be routed to the stressed mother and
converted for stress purposes. In the third trimester, the developing
baby's adrenal glands begin to produce stress hormones, and these can also
be taken and used by the mother.
Definition - Endometriosis is
the buildup of endometrial (uterine lining) tissue outside the uterus,
most often in or on the fallopian tubes, ovaries and pelvic area. It is
thought to be caused by or exacerbated by estrogen dominance (too much
estrogen in relation to progesterone), and it can in turn cause organ
dysfunction or intestinal blockage. Symptoms include painful menstruation
and frequent and severe bleeding.
rarely cautioned about this kind of fetal stress before or during their
pregnancies. Nor are they told how the developing baby's adrenal glands
will enlarge to meet the mother's demand for additional stress hormones. A
baby born in this state of secondary hyper-stimulation produces too much
stress hormone. While the baby's adrenal glands can eventually decrease
their output, the glands will tend to reinflate more easily--like a
balloon--every time extreme demands are made upon them.If severe or
chronic stress persists, however, hyper-stimulation continues. As the baby
grows and matures into an adult, this maladaptive cycle will be
perpetuated, causing her sex hormones to be routed from her reproductive
system and used for her own stress purposes.
Once a maladaptive stress cycle has been established, it will continue
until appropriate intervention takes place to restore hormonal balance.
This can be done at any age, and functional hormonal testing is the first
step. The best type of stress and sex hormone testing is known as a
circadian test, which is performed over a 24-hour period.
easily accomplished at home, and the test results will determine the exact
levels of accumulated stress and sex hormones. Using a collection kit, a
woman can obtain a saliva sample every four hours for 24 hours by chewing
on a salivette (a small dacron roll). The results will show specific
hormonal changes that occur every four hours, demonstrating a 24-hour
graphic representation of the body's stress reactions.
testing is the best test method because saliva contains free fractions of
stress and sex hormones. Free fractions are the utilizable
hormones, those that the body actually has access to. Many studies have
been conducted showing the validity of assaying these steroid hormones in
saliva. The usual hormone tests,
conducted with blood samples, measure total hormone production, a value
that includes bound (not free) hormones that are unavailable for the
body's use. It is important to measure free fractions to get an
accurate picture of how sex and stress hormone levels are varying by body
function and activity.
Copyright © 2002
Restore Hormonal Health
support the endocrine system and allow it time to repair.
immune function, thereby reducing stress on the endocrine system.
- Make dietary
and nutritional changes according to genetic predisposition,
allergies, personal weight and exercise objectives.
proper digestive function; eliminate any malabsorption problems.
exercise, establishing your level of capacity and personal training
- To relieve
stress, try meditation, hypnotherapy, visualization, Hatha Yoga, Tai
Chi or QiGong.
individual counseling and group stress management workshops.
- Relax by
walking in nature, swimming, pursuing creative activities, changing
hormonal testing should be performed to establish a baseline before a
woman chooses any kind of hormonal treatment, and then should be repeated
periodically thereafter. Baseline test results are also needed to
order custom-made transdermal hormonal creams from compounding pharmacies
around the country. Women should also consider additional testing, such as
a comprehensive, 5-hour glucose tolerance test and a lipid panel
(cholesterol, triglycerides and HDL). An abnormal (especially high) level
of cholesterol, the basic building block of sex and stress hormones,
indicates that the body is attempting to provide more stress hormones. In
some cases, testing for gastrointestinal problems, allergies or even
parasites is advised.
however, that "normal" (negative) results from conventional
laboratory diagnostic tests do not always mean normal function.
Some tests do not reveal serious existing conditions, others are not able
to detect borderline conditions. One example is thyroid testing, which
cannot indicate how well thyroid hormone (T3) is able to bind to target
cells, a thyroid condition that can be caused by high levels of estrogen.
Woman suspecting hormonal imbalances or experiencing distressing symptoms
should discuss testing with a healthcare practitioner.
hormonal changes over a 24-hour period, a pattern can be determined and a
treatment protocol designed. An effective plan involving natural hormones,
nutritional support and various stress-relief therapies can be
successfully implemented to reestablish the proper menstrual dynamics,
hormonal balance and well-being.
It should be
mentioned that in many scientific circles, the 28-day menstrual cycle is
believed to be a result of the impact of the modern world. Up until the
last hundred years, the menstrual cycle is said to have reacted to
seasonal changes. Fertility was at its peak during the fall months, thus
helping guarantee the survival of the newborn during the much more
hospitable spring and summer environment. The menstrual/fertility cycle
could last as long as 90 days, and was absent during times of serious
the "modern" 28-day cycle and hormonal balance it is important
to understand that approximately the first 14 days of the cycle are
estrogen dominant and the second 14 days are progesterone dominant. This
is an over-simplification but it helps to establish an understanding of
the healthy dynamics of the menstrual cycle.
treatment consideration is that the maladaptive stress response must be
interrupted so that sex hormones will no longer be converted for stress
purposes. Women must know that, until these conversion pathways are
closed, supplementation with the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone is
of little value because they will easily be converted. First, therefore,
proper levels of the adrenal hormones cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone
(DHEA) need to be reestablished. DHEA is a much talked about hormone these
days because of its importance in maintaining youthfulness; a healthy DHEA
level is considered an indicator of longevity.
restoral with transdermal creams is accomplished using a dual-phase
approach, which uses estrogen-dominant supplementation during the first 14
days and progesterone supplementation during the second 14 days.
In addition to
individual needs, an important factor regarding the correct levels of any
kind of supplement is how quickly it is metabolized and eliminated from
the body. This is called metabolic clearance. A
supplement, especially a hormone, should not accumulate or remain in the
body too long, or it will interfere with the changes that must occur --in
this case, the necessary shift from estrogen to progesterone--for
supplementation to be effective.
hormonal cream supplement works best. It is easily applied and delivered,
bypassing the obstacle of breakdown in the digestive system or liver. Most
of the available hormonal creams claim to be transdermal, but are actually
topical. A big problem with topical creams is that most of them use an
inexpensive oil cosmetic base. They are absorbed into fat cells, and
months after discontinuance they can still be found in body tissues. Also,
a topical relies on the small size of the hormone molecule (progesterone
being very small, estrogen very large) to transverse the layers of the
skin and make its way into the bloodstream. A true transdermal does not
rely on the size of the molecule; instead it has a vehicle to carry it to
the target. This is called a liposomal
delivery system, which employs a molecular coating to control absorption.
cream delivery system is also pulsatile, meaning that only a small,
measurable quantity of hormone is released at one time. This not only
allows for easy calculation of the amount that will be in the blood but
also comes closest to matching the body's own cyclic hormone rhythm.
The key factor
in positively influencing estrogen and progesterone levels is to recreate
or enhance the healthy dynamics of the menstrual cycle by maintaining
estrogen dominance during the first 14 days of the cycle and allowing a
shift at mid-cycle to progesterone dominance. A one-phase treatment
involves supplementation throughout the entire cycle using only estrogen
or progesterone factors. If you use this approach, not only will you not
restore hormonal balance but also you will cause further imbalance,
negatively affecting sexual and reproductive health as well as the health
of the whole body.
Women have seen
amazing results after employing these creams, especially in combination
with other treatments, including nutritional supplements and therapies for
normalizing adrenal stress. Some women without a period for years,
clinically diagnosed as being post-menopausal, have begun to menstruate
again after using this system of hormonal supplementation. Most women find
that the healthy, youthful aspects of their skin, hair and nails are
reestablished, and they report greatly enhanced moods and feelings of
Again, it is
important to look at all aspects
of the reproductive system and its interplay with the endocrine system,
especially adrenal health. It is equally important that women
become observant and vigilant about what is happening in their own bodies.
This is what it takes to maintain optimum sexual and overall health and
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