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Menopause 101

How Female Hormones Work

©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Hormones like estrogen regulate and control many of the functions in the human body, including the menstrual cycle.

Hormones are chemicals that are made in small organs called glands. Hormones move about the body, usually through the bloodstream, and change or regulate the function of other organs and structures. In effect, the release of hormones is one of the ways that different parts of the body communicate with each other. The hormones we are most concerned about here are estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. These are made in a woman's ovaries, the small almond-shaped sex glands in the pelvis that also produce a woman's eggs.

The sex glands are active during fetal development, but they become relatively inactive throughout infancy and childhood. Then, at puberty, the sex glands kick in bigtime to produce adult sexual development and urges, as well as the mood swings we all associate with puberty. After that, most women then settle into a more or less regular pattern of ovulation.

The ovaries make estrogen and progesterone, as well as various other hormones, in a cyclic fashion, and the levels of these hormones rise and fall with ovulation. For most women, this will be a monthly cycle, interrupted now and then by pregnancy or disrupted by stressful events.

Thought of as the primary female hormone, estrogen builds up the uterine lining, stimulates breast tissue, and thickens the vaginal wall. It also affects almost every other organ in the body. Estrogen plays a critical role in bone building and is thought to have important protective effects on the cardiovascular system.

Progesterone, which is made only during the second half of the menstrual cycle, prepares the uterine lining for an egg to implant, but progesterone also has other important effects on many of the tissues sensitive to estrogen. Testosterone, also made in the ovaries, plays a role in stimulating sexual desire, generating energy, and developing muscle mass.

The balance of hormones in your body at any given point is affected by many factors. The pituitary gland, at the base of your brain, and your ovaries are constantly communicating via their respective hormones, dictating the changing hormone levels of your monthly cycle and the production of eggs. The pituitary produces follicle-stimulating hormone and other hormones. Stress, body weight, time of day, time of the month, and any medications you take can all cause temporary changes in your hormone levels.

Menopause brings major, permanent changes to the hormone levels and hormone balance of your body. The ovaries stop producing eggs, and they also quit producing their hormones. This does not happen all at once. By their late 30s, many women produce less progesterone, which can lead to heavier, more frequent periods early in the "perimenopause" process. Then the ovaries' estrogen production tapers off. It is the fluctuations in estrogen production and, later, the lack of estrogen that primarily brings on the discomforts and health concerns that are associated with menopause.

Fluctuating and falling estrogen levels disrupt your internal thermostat, causing vasomotor instability, the scientific name for the process that causes hot flashes. Your sleep cycles and some muscle tone, most notably in the pelvic area, are also affected by the drastic reduction in estrogen levels.

One of the possible treatments for menopause is hormone replacement therapy. In the next section, we will explore this controversial process.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.