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Facts About Estrogen

Three women of varying ages

The human body is a complex organism managed by a microscopic universe of chemical interactions—with as many billion individual variations as there are people who exist. Hormones are just part of that system, but they're a vital communication tool and need to be balanced for our best health.

What Estrogen Does in the Body

Everybody's body needs estrogen, but as we focus on healthy levels in the female body, we first need to know what it does. Sonja Van Hala, MD, MPH, FAAFP, a family practioner with University of Utah Health, says, "Estrogen is traditionally considered a 'female' hormone that helps the woman have female sexual characteristics, support menstruation, and conceive and carry a baby. Where we see hormones really having an impact is in puberty, when the hormone levels rise and we see the menstrual cycle begin, and in menopause or perimenopause, when the hormones stop their natural cyclical patterns."

A Lifelong Influence

It's a team effort and a lifelong journey. "Estrogen and progesterone—the other 'female' hormone—have a lifelong cycle they follow as well," Van Hala continues. "They decline as a woman enters the transition to menopause, then significantly drop to low levels once a woman has gone through menopause." She explains that this hormonal drop can cause some women to experience "estrogen withdrawal" in the form of hot flashes, disrupted sleep, genitourinary symptoms such as burning with urination, discomfort during intercourse, and other symptoms.

Keeping the Balance

As hormones rise and fall throughout a monthly cycle and throughout life, there's still a healthy range to be in—though of course that's a bit of an individual matter as well. It's most important to pay attention to any disruptions to the patterns.

"Our bodies are incredible organisms with many things interplaying—how well we sleep, the level of stress we have, our diets, level of exercise—including hormones," says Van Hala. "Minor daily fluctuations in hormones may occur, but they aren't concerning. If you don't feel well, you may initially question what's going on hormonally. But by and large, if women are menstruating regularly and don't have other telltale symptoms that the hormones are really off, usually the estrogen and progesterone aren't an explanation for the symptoms."

When to Worry

Some women will be more sensitive to hormonal changes than others during the menstrual cycle, responding with emotional sensitivity or moodiness and experiencing cramping, discomfort, or changes in energy levels or appetite. This is all considered normal, to a degree. However, if your symptoms are affecting your quality of life, consult your doctor. And this goes for the menopause phase. If any reaction to the reduction of hormones causes symptoms that interfere with your quality of life, seek professional advice.

Taking Charge of Your Health

Whether your levels of estrogen are "high" or "low" can be detected by your health care professional, and your clue for when to get help is if your cycle is experiencing continued abnormalities. When your doctor assesses your symptoms, they will want to know your overall habits, the daily environment your body experiences, and any changes to your usual patterns so they can help you feel better.