Female sex hormones are essential for puberty, periods and pregnancy. But they also work wonders outside of the reproductive system.
We look at how these fascinating hormones affect other parts of the body, from your mood to your heart. Plus, experts share their health tips for when hormonal changes throw things out of whack.
Before jumping in to the incredible work our hormones do, it’s worth understanding what they are. Hormones are a group of chemicals that affect the way we function, including our appetite, stress levels, ability to reproduce and more.
In females, the main sex hormones – also known as ‘reproductive hormones’ – are oestrogen and progesterone. (Testosterone is also present, but in smaller amounts.) Made mostly by the ovaries, these hormones are essential for fertility and sexual health. But they do more! Here’s how they affect other parts of your body and what you can do to protect your health.
Oestrogen plays a starring role in heart health and is one of the reasons younger women are somewhat protected from heart disease – they have relatively high levels of the hormone.
Professor Garry Jennings, Chief Medical Adviser at the Heart Foundation, explains that oestrogen helps keep our cholesterol levels in check. Come menopause, declining levels of oestrogen can lead to a rise in LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol and a drop in HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, he says. This, combined with other changes, “can lead to high blood pressure and sometimes high blood sugar (glucose) levels, which are important risk factors for heart disease”.
The good news is there are ways to protect your heart. Professor Jennings recommends heart health checks and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, such as eating well, keeping active, avoiding smoking and minimising alcohol intake.
Sex hormones can also affect the health of our urinary tract – in other words, our trips to the toilet to wee. According to Jean Hailes Urogynaecologist Dr Payam Nikpoor, oestrogen helps strengthen the tissues in the bladder and surrounding areas.
When levels of this hormone naturally drop around menopause, it can cause the tissues to shrink and become less elastic, he says. What this means is some women may be more prone to bladder infections and needing to wee more urgently and often.
For those struggling through menopausal symptoms such as these, Dr Nikpoor says vaginal oestrogen medication may be suitable. “Women should be encouraged to discuss all matters related to menopause and changes in their pelvic floor function with their doctors, physiotherapists or specialist.”
Declining oestrogen levels can also affect vulval and vaginal tissues, causing dryness. For more information, visit our Symptoms of menopause page.
Acne, dry skin, thinning hair or luscious locks – fluctuating hormone levels can cause welcome (and unwelcome) changes.
Dermatologist Dr Michael Freeman explains that “oestrogen acts directly on the skin and hair cells”, helping the hair to grow and the skin to stay plump and moisturised. It’s why hair is often fuller during pregnancy, when oestrogen levels rise, and why it tends to thin around menopause, when oestrogen levels fall, he says.
According to Dr Freeman, acne flare-ups are more common in older women before their period, when oestrogen is low, plus they are often seen in those taking oral contraceptives containing progesterone. “Menopause [also] causes the skin to thin from collagen and elastin loss, mostly from the loss of oestrogen”, he adds.
To manage bothersome menopausal symptoms that affect the skin, Dr Freeman suggests using warm (rather than hot) water when washing; applying a good-quality moisturiser that contains ceramides (oily substances); and trying a peptide serum (a special mix of ingredients usually applied to the face) at night. If you’re concerned about your skin or hair, chat to a dermatologist.
Sex hormones don’t just affect our physical health. According to Jayashri Kulkarni, Professor of Psychiatry at Monash University, they have a "big impact in the brain".
Some women might notice this before a period, when oestrogen is low and progesterone levels have started to decline. Professor Kulkarni describes progesterone as a “complex hormone” for the brain. In some women, it can have a calming effect, but in others it can lead to anxiety and lowered mood.
Meanwhile, oestrogen can contribute to better mood, and help with thinking, memory and planning, she says. Its levels are highest around ovulation (the time an ovary releases an egg). But when oestrogen levels drop, some women can experience mood changes.
In severe cases, these hormonal changes throughout the menstrual cycle can cause depression and other problems. Unsurprisingly, Professor Kulkarni says hormonal changes around menopause are also linked to depression, anxiety and brain fog. Of course, every woman responds to her fluctuating hormones differently.
To care for your mental health, Professor Kulkarni recommends being careful around drugs and alcohol, eating well, moving regularly and staying socially connected. “Also, be aware that some women feel depressed or angry when taking certain types of the contraceptive pill (‘the Pill’). If this happens to you, do not ignore it! Speak to your doctor about changing your pill or if you are struggling in general with your mental health.”
Oestrogen and progesterone play “a critical role” in bone health – “especially oestrogen”, according to Jean Hailes Endocrinologist Dr Sonia Davison. Think of this hormone as a bone-builder.
During puberty, rising levels of oestrogen and other hormones help build and strengthen our bones. Dr Davison says this process eventually reaches a peak at around age 30. “After this time, bone density [strength] gradually falls.”
In fact, one of the most critical times for bone health in women is around menopause, when oestrogen levels decrease dramatically, meaning bones tend to lose their strength, she says.
So, what can you do? According to Dr Davison, it’s important to seek treatment for medical conditions that can cause oestrogen deficiency, such as anorexia nervosa.
Also, “avoid other risk factors for bone loss, such as alcohol excess, smoking, vitamin D deficiency and a sedentary [inactive] lifestyle. Try to maintain a healthy weight, do regular weight-bearing exercise and consume enough calcium. And, try to find out if you have a family history of bone conditions or fractures and share this information with your doctor”.
The bottom line is that our sex hormones affect many parts of our body, and their fluctuating levels can bring on welcome and not-so-welcome changes. Knowing the various roles these hormones play and how to take action can help us protect our health. If you think you might be struggling with a hormone-related issue, check in with your doctor.