Whether it’s lower energy, weight gain, irritability, decreased sex drive or other symptoms, as many women approach 40 years of age or older, they report feeling ‘different.’ While many women are quick to blame their hormones for the differences they begin experiencing, it’s important to know that hormones are not always the catalyst for these changes. In our experience, the majority of women who report these problems are actually suffering from stress and lifestyle-related choices, rather than hormonal shifts.
At Moreland OB-GYN, our team of obstetricians/gynecologists has the expertise to help you identify the true causes for why you may feel different, guide you through perimenopause and the stages of menopause, and make sure you are putting your best foot forward in terms of your overall health. But first, let’s take a look at the primary hormones at work in a woman’s body.
The How and Why of Women’s Hormones:
Of course, female sex hormones - estrogen and progesterone - have the most significant effect on a woman’s health, from menstruation to pregnancy to menopause and more. But, your body makes and utilizes a variety of other hormones that affect other aspects of your health - from your energy level, weight, mood and more.
Here’s a closer look at the main hormones within a woman’s body, how they work and what happens when you have either too little or too much of each.
According to the Hormone Health Network, estrogen is responsible for the physical changes that turn a girl into a woman during puberty, including breast development, growth of pubic and underarm hair and the start of menstrual cycles. Aside from estrogen’s obvious importance to childbearing, it helps to keep cholesterol in control, contributes to protecting bone health and affects your brain (including mood), heart, skin and other tissues throughout the body.
The primary source of estrogen in women is the ovaries, which produce a woman’s eggs. However, your adrenal glands, which are located at the top of each kidney, also make small amounts of estrogen, along with fatty tissues. Estrogen moves throughout your body in your bloodstream and acts everywhere throughout your body. Estrogen levels change throughout the month, and are highest in the middle of your menstrual cycle and lowest during your period. At menopause, estrogen levels drop.
Women with low estrogen, due to menopause or surgical removal of the ovaries may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Menstrual periods that are less frequent or stop altogether
- Hot flashes and/or night sweats
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Dryness and thinning of the vagina
- Decreased sexual desire
- Mood swings
- Dry skin
Women with too much estrogen may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Weight gain, particularly in the midsection (waist, hips and thighs)
- Menstrual problems, such as light or heavy bleeding
- Worsening of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Fibrocystic breasts (non-cancerous breast lumps)
- Uterine fibroids (non-cancerous tumors in the uterus)
- Loss of sex drive
- Feeling depressed or anxious
As a steroid hormone secreted by the corpus luteum, a temporary endocrine gland that women produce after ovulation, progesterone prepares the endometrium (the lining of the uterus) for the possibility of pregnancy after ovulation. Progesterone works to encourage the lining to accept a fertilized egg while prohibiting non-painful uterine muscle contractions that may cause the body to reject an egg. If a woman does not become pregnant, the corpus luteum breaks down and the progesterone levels decrease in the body, causing the woman to menstruate. In the event of pregnancy, progesterone continues to stimulate blood vessels in the endometrium that will nourish and support the growing baby.
Women who have low levels of progesterone often have abnormal menstrual cycles or struggle to conceive, because the lack of progesterone doesn’t provide the proper environment for a fertilized egg to grow. Women with low progesterone levels who do succeed in getting pregnant are at higher risk for miscarriage or preterm delivery, as progesterone helps maintain the pregnancy.
Women who suffer from low progesterone may experience abnormal uterine bleeding, irregular or missed periods, spotting and abdominal pain during pregnancy and frequent miscarriages. However, low progesterone levels can also create higher estrogen levels, which may contribute to the following symptoms:
- Decreased sex drive
- Additional weight gain
- Gallbladder problems
As the primary sex hormone found in men, testosterone plays an important role in a woman’s body, too. Relatively small amounts of testosterone are produced in the ovaries and adrenal glands and released into the bloodstream, where it contributes to a woman’s sex drive, bone density and muscle strength.
Women who produce too much testosterone may experience:
- Irregular or absent menstrual periods
- More body hair than the average woman
- Male-pattern or frontal balding
- Increased muscle mass
- Deeper voice
Women with high levels of testosterone may struggle with infertility and commonly suffer from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), an endocrine condition that is sometimes seen in women of childbearing age who have difficulty getting pregnant. Like their high-testosterone level counterparts, women with PCOS have similar symptoms, which include:
- An apple-shaped body
- Excessive or thinning hair
- Menstrual irregularity
- Insulin resistance
- Carbohydrate intolerance - a condition that makes you prone to gaining weight
- Low levels of “good” cholesterol, high levels of “bad” cholesterol
- Elevated triglycerides
- High blood pressure
When women go through menopause and the ovaries stop producing estrogen and progesterone, testosterone levels go down as well, though not as rapidly. For most women, the common side effect is a reduced libido, which can often be remedied through receiving supplemental testosterone.
The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland that sits low in the front of your neck, secretes several hormones. If your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), you may have a condition called hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid.
According to the Mayo Clinic, women, especially those over the age of 60, are more likely to have hypothyroidism, which upsets the normal balance of chemical reactions in the body. While it seldom causes symptoms in the early stages, untreated hypothyroidism can cause a number of health problems, such as obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease.
You may have hypothyroidism if you experience:
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Dry skin
- Weight gain
- Puffy face
- Muscle weakness
- Elevated blood cholesterol levels
- Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness
- Pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints
- Heavier than normal or irregular menstrual periods
- Thinning hair
- Slowed heart rate
- Impaired memory
The good news is that your doctor can conduct simple blood tests to evaluate the levels of these hormones in your system and prescribe supplements or therapies to treat and control the majority of hormonal imbalances.
My Hormone Levels Are Normal. Now What?
As you can see, hormonal imbalances are often the culprits for many of the symptoms that women at or over 40 claim make them feel ‘different,’ but if your doctor has conducted blood tests and you do not have a hormone imbalance, we recommend taking a look at the following factors in your overall health:
- Sleep - We all know how important sleep is to your health, so make sure that you are getting enough sleep. Studies suggest that most adults need approximately 7-9 hours of sleep each night, and not getting enough rest contributes to a myriad of emotional and physical problems, including mood regulation, memory, alertness, diabetes, obesity and more.
- Diet - Eating a balanced diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and drinking plenty of water is essential to give your body the fuel it needs to look and feel your best.
- Exercise - The benefits of regular physical activity are plentiful: lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing your risk of developing heart disease, preventing diabetes, controlling weight, improving your mood, boosting brain function, reducing anxiety and depression, and building and maintaining healthy bones, muscles and joints.
- See Your Doctor - Scheduling regular visits with your physician can help prevent health issues before they start, but they can also help detect any problems early, when your chances for treatment and cure are better. How often you should visit your doctor depends on your age, overall health, family history and lifestyle, so if you don’t currently have a doctor, or you haven’t seen one in some time, it’s time to call your doctor!
We understand how tempting and easy it can be for women to blame their hormones for not feeling like they did when they were in their 20’s and early 30’s. And, we also know that evaluating your overall health and making changes to your routine to get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise regularly, takes a great deal of time and effort. That’s why we’re here to help.
At Moreland OB-GYN, we specialize in women’s health care and prioritizing the needs of our patients at all ages and stages in their life. We hope you’ll connect with us to answer your questions and we hope you’ll turn to our experts as a trusted source for information.