Female Hormones & Menopause
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | May 1, 2001

From the time a woman is born, her body is primed by her hormones for the ever-changing cycle of her life: her growth, maturation, fertility, and the aging process. Because a woman's hormonal system can have such a tremendous impact on the woman's body and spirit, women should know what those hormones are and understand how the hormones impact their lives—especially during peri-menopause and menopause.

The primary hormones are estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Estrogen is actually a group of hormones primarily produced in the ovaries. As a woman reaches menopause, the production of the estrogen hormones decreases and may result in skin changes, weight gain, vaginal dryness, and loss of bone-mineral content. Some women also experience flushing of the skin, commonly known as "hot flashes."

The most potent estrogen hormone is called estradiol. It plays a role in the development of the female reproductive organs and, together with the other estrogens, helps with the development of secondary sex characteristics and the skeletal system.

Progesterone is another important female hormone made in the ovaries. It is necessary for the implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterine wall. Progesterone and the estrogens work in harmony to help keep the cycle of life going, but the levels fluctuate during the month, causing some women more problems than others. As a woman approaches menopause, decreasing progesterone levels may result in periodic dysfunctional bleeding, commonly referred to as "spotting," as well as a loss of bone-mineral content.

Testosterone is sometimes referred to as the "male hormone," yet it's also very important to a woman and her health. Testosterone is the major steroid hormone associated with libido (sex drive), bone density, lean body mass, and skin elasticity. Decreasing testosterone levels can result in decreased libido and weight gain in peri-menopausal and menopausal women.

What can be done? The usual recommendation is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) to restore the balance of a woman's hormones. Many women have negative opinions about HRT. Years ago, when physicians began prescribing hormones for women going through menopause, they prescribed only estrogen. Then some research studies linked estrogen replacement alone with an increased risk of breast cancer and uterine cancer in some women. Physicians then began prescribing a combination of hormones more like the natural range of hormones found in a woman's body, rather than estrogen alone.

Today, the HRT many women use is a combination of estrogen and progesterone in very small amounts—just enough to relieve the negative symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. In addition, HRT appears to protect a woman from heart disease and osteoporosis (weakening of bones). Both of these diseases are very common in women who don't take HRT after menopause. Testosterone can also be prescribed if a woman is concerned about her libido.

If you are concerned about your hormone levels as you enter peri-menopause or menopause, discuss it with your healthcare professional. The worst thing you can do is to ignore your health as this phase of your life begins.
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