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March Newsletter

The ABC's of Estrogen

Estrogen is the primary sex hormone for women. If your ovaries were removed or are not functioning properly, the loss of this hormone will cause you to begin menopause. This is the hormone most physicians will prescribe for a woman in sudden (surgical) menopause, but some women cannot take it because of they have a type of cancer that is encouraged to grow by estrogen or because of other medical conditions, such as endometriosis, that may still exist in other organs even after the uterus is removed.

Where do Hormones Come From?

Hormones can be produced by your body (endogenous sources) or taken into your body (exogenous sources).

Endogenous Sources

  • Ovaries ­ Two small glands that are responsible for the vast majority of a woman's hormone need.
  • Omentum ­ The omentum is a fat layer that lies over your belly.
    These special fat cells produce a weak version of estrogen called estrone.
  • Adrenal glands ­ located atop the kidneys, these glands can turn cholesterol into ovarian hormones when signaled by the pituitary gland (the "master gland") that your body is in need. The complication is that adrenal hormones also affect many other rhythms in your body, such as sleep cycle, the stress reaction (production of adrenaline), your metabolism (feeling tired, hot or cold, processing sugar), your immune system and psychological balance.
  • Miscellaneous ­ there is evidence that other cells of your body can manufacture small amounts of hormones. Though this is not enough hormone to meet your needs or avoid the symptoms of menopause, it may be one reason why each women need different amounts of prescribed hormones and why it can be difficult to find the right balance.

Exogenous Sources

  • Xenoestrogens ­ These are estrogens or estrogen-like substances that are found in chemicals, such as pesticides, packing materials and foods (phytoestogens in plants or hormones given to the animals in their feed that are retained in the meat we ear).
  • Hormone Replacements ­ These are the products ­ pills, patches, creams, gels, injections, etc.- that are manufactured for the purpose of replacing hormones.

In addition to giving a woman her "female" sexual characteristics, estrogen plays vital roles throughout the body (this is why men produce some estrogen as well). Several types of estrogen are made, some stronger than others, and your body has the ability to convert one form to another, when needed.

Effects of low estrogen on tissue elasticity and strength

  • Skin - declining estrogen contributes to your skin thinning and wrinkling
  • Vagina - dryness and constriction that may make sex difficult or painful and make you more susceptible to infections
  • Urinary tract ­ more susceptible to infection and the loss of muscle tone can cause incontinence. (The muscles that support the bladder may eventually be weakened by estrogen deficiency)
  • Gums ­ more inflammation and a higher risk of tooth loss

Heart and Blood Vessels

Estrogen lowers your cholesterol, relaxes the walls of your arteries, lowers blood pressure, improves cardiac output (how much blood your heart pumps out) and decreases fribrinogen (a protein involved in the formation of a blood clot).

Mind and Mood

Estrogen shares some of the same receptors as serotonin (a neurotransmitter) and when there is a lack of estrogen, there may not be enough serotonin to fill these receptors, causing the symptoms of depression. This may help explain why taking a SSRI (serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressant drug helps ease some menopausal symptoms. Estrogen also appears linked to memory. Many women with low estrogen report that they have trouble finding the right word (or they know it and cannot verbalize it), losing track during a conversation, or forget how to get to a location they had no previous problem finding.

Nervous System

Estrogen raises the levels of the neurotransmitters, which affects mood and energy level. The risk of stroke greatly increases after menopause and for reasons not yet understood, women who take estrogen supplements after (natural) menopause have a lower incidence of Alzheimer¹s disease. Research also indicates that estrogen may ease the symptoms of Parkinson¹s disease.


Estrogen maintains bone. Low estrogen levels cause the osteoblasts' function (the cells that break down bone) to overpower the function of the osteoclasts (the cells that build bone). Weakening of the bone tissue makes you more susceptible to fractures and tooth loss.


Low estrogen can cause dry eyes and the shape of your eyes changes with hormone levels (so you may need a new prescription for your contacts after menopause). The risk of macular degeneration and cataracts are lower when estrogen levels are maintained.


Estrogen plays a role in the growth and health of your hair. A sudden drop in estrogen can cause changes in the texture of your hair and increase hair loss. Usually this hair thinning is temporary once hormone levels have stabilized.


In addition to providing the female characteristics, estrogen maintains the health of the vagina, playing a key role in its response mechanism (lubrication) and elasticity. When estrogen/testosterone levels are out of balance, you may start showing some typically male characteristics such as facial hair, deepened voice or male pattern baldness

Immune System

Estrogen plays a role in maintaining the health of your immune system. Low estrogen levels increase your susceptibility to infection and impair your ability to fight off the illness once you are infected.

Estrogen can be taken in bioidentical, synthetic, or alternative forms but it can be difficult to determine the correct dose when it is given alone. Sometimes the therapeutic dose, the lowest amount that relieves the menopausal symptoms that are bothering you, can have side effects of its own, such as migraines or bloating.

Even if you cannot take estrogen, there are other products, diets, and exercise programs available that can help relieve symptoms and prevent or lessen the more detrimental effects of low estrogen.

Source: Breast Cancer Newsletter

Contact Sue Richards at [email protected]

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