What are Hormones?

Simply explained, hormones are substances produced by a specialized organ in one part of the body which then activate another part of the body entirely. Hormones travel from where they are made to their target organ mostly via the bloodstream.  In essence, they are the body's chemical messengers, taking messages from one part of the organ of the body to another.

The word 'hormone' itself comes from the Greek word 'hormn' meaning to stir up or get going. Hormones help to start up physical processes within their target organs. 

Some of the functions of hormones include: physical growth, maintenance of  correct tissue functioning and helping with the conversion of food to energy. In women, hormones are also responsible for the menstrual cycle that a woman experiences every 28 days or so. Hormones also play a key role in menopause or the cessation of a women's period.

Female Hormones Explained

There are several hormones that play a vital role in maintaining a woman's health and have an important role to play in early menopause, menopause and post menopause. These hormones are:

  • Estrogen
  • Progesterone
  • The Pituitary Hormones: The Follicle Stimulating Hormone & The Leutinizing Hormone.

Estrogen

Estrogen has a vital role in the female menstrual and reproductive cycle. Literally, the word estrogen means that which produces a frenzy, from the Latin  oestrus "frenzy, gadfly," in the sense of "frenzied passion" and “gen” producing.

The Functions of Estrogen

Much has been written about estrogen but some of its main actions in the female body are:

  • The development of female body characteristics such as the breasts, body shape and body hair.
  • Maintenance of the reproductive organs in their mature functional state.
  • Regulating the menstrual cycle & pregnancy.

Estrogen also ensures the healthy development of breasts during puberty and pregnancy; it helps eggs to develop in the ovaries and helps keep the bones strong. It also influences the shape of the female body; it assists with the female sex drive. Estrogen causes the ovaries to release a ripe egg every month. During menopause, the levels of estrogen start to decline rapidly.

Estrogen and Weight Gain in Menopause

Estrogen is responsible for ovulation and as estrogen levels decline, one's periods can become irregular. Estrogen is often linked to weight gain in menopause.  As the estrogen levels in the ovaries decrease,  the body starts to draw on other places in the body where estrogen is made: the fat cells. 

Female fat cells can produce estrogen, the body, sensing a decline in the estrogen levels, start to produce more fat to help increase the declining estrogen. Fat cells don't burn so your body works hard to convert calories into fat to increase estrogen levels. As fat cells don't burn energy the way muscle cells do, which causes additional weight to stay more easily.

Female Hormone: Progesterone

The word ‘progesterone’ itself helps to explain what progesterone does. 'Progesterone' is from the Latin ‘gestare’, lit. "to carry about." Progesterone prepares the lining of the uterus (also called the endometrium) to receive and sustain the fertilized egg and so permits pregnancy.

Progesterone is made by the ovaries and in smaller amounts by the adrenal glands also and when fertilization occurs,  in the placenta also.

What does Progesterone do?

Progesterone prepares the uterus for implantation of the fertilized ovum and promotes the healthy development of the mammary glands. In women, progesterone is produced just before ovulation in order to enhance the possibility of becoming pregnant.

Progesterone levels rise naturally in the body prior to ovulation. This is often accompanied by an increase in the body temperature & an increase in the level of vaginal mucus, making the sperm more likely to survive to reach and fertilize an egg. When a woman becomes pregnant, the main production of progesterone switches over to the developing placenta around the eighth week of pregnancy.

Progesterone and Menopause

During menopause, progesterone levels will also decrease. Progesterone helps to decrease water retention and bloating and so when the progesterone levels drop in menopause, it is likely there will be temporary bloating and retention. Most often water retention is temporary and will disappear within a few days or weeks. Your clothes may feel a little tighter at this time and you may feel heavier but this usually passes.

The Pituitary Hormones & Hot Flushes

During menopause, there are 2 female hormones produced in by the pituitary gland in the brain in much larger than normal amounts and it is these 2 hormones that are considered to be largely responsible for Hot Flushes.

Click here to find out more information about Hot Flushes and Hormones.