Here are ten things to know about oestrogen, including its impact on collagen levels, why too much could lead to injury and why drinking wine could be giving you sore boobs…
Oestrogen: it’s integral to womanhood, yet many of us know little about it apart from the fact that it apparently falls off a cliff postmenopause and can be the catalyst for some pretty savage cases of PMS . Otherwise, the ins and outs of oestrogen, and its wide ranging functions and impact, can be shrouded in confusion and mystery, which isn’t greatly surprising seeing as scientists at the forefront of medical research still don’t fully understand the intricate workings of oestrogen, and why its fluctuations affect women in such different and diverse ways.
For starters, oestrogen isn’t just one element: it’s a group of hormones including oestriol, oestradiol and oestrone. Quite the girl band. Oestrone lingers in various degrees after the menopause, oestriol only rises to prominence during pregnancy and oestradiol is the big hitter: it’s the female sex hormone implicated in bodily and emotional changes during puberty, and its significance reaches far and wide. Here are ten oestrogen talking points, with a foreword by GP and bio-identical hormone specialist Dr Sohère Roked to big up oestrogen’s role over the course of our lives:
“Women are often scared of oestrogen but it’s an important hormone - not just for egg production and getting pregnant but for general health and wellbeing. Good levels of oestrogen can make you feel energetic and vibrant, help to maintain healthy hair and skin and enable you to feel clear-headed and focused.”
Onto the nitty gritty…
There’s no “normal” oestrogen level
Our ovaries first release oestrogen at the beginning of puberty, and from then on oestrogen levels rise and fall during our monthly cycle until we reach the perimenopause , when oestrogen levels can be very unstable, and finally the menopause , when oestrogen reaches a very low level (the average age to reach the menopause in the UK is 51). Apart from this rough oestrogen roadmap, our oestrogen levels fluctuate by the minute, hour and day, with sporadic secretion of hormones during the day or night. On top of this apparently rather random peaking and troughing, each woman’s baseline “norm” can be very distinct from the next. For example, you may technically be on the same day of your cycle as your best mate, but that doesn't mean that your oestrogen levels are in sync. Basically, life is a rollercoaster, you just gotta ride it (unless you feel like rubbish, in which case visit your GP and seek out a hormone test).
Oestrogen dominance is a thing
And it’s unsurprisingly most common in young women, according to Dr Roked:
“In your 20s and 30s, the most common oestrogen issue is oestrogen dominance, which means that you don’t have enough of the hormone progesterone to balance out your oestrogen levels. This can lead to flushes and a foggy headed feeling, as well as heavy periods. It can also make conditions like fibroids and endometriosis worse.”
Visit your doctor if you suspect that your oestrogen levels are on the high side, and Dr Roked reports that for some of her patients, evening primrose oil or agnus castus supplements taken towards the end of the cycle have been helpful. When back in balance, oestrogen can help with all manner of bodily functions…
It keeps your heart healthy
Dr Roked explains why oestrogen is awesome for your ticker:
“The incidence of heart disease is lower in women before the menopause, and this is partly due to higher oestrogen levels. As an example, a study carried out in Denmark published in the British Medical Journal in 2012 looked at 1,006 women. The group put on hormone replacement therapy had lower incidences of heart failure and heart attacks compared to the group not taking hormones.”
According to the British Dietetic Association, HRT, while being one of the most effective treatments currently available to treat menopausal symptoms, may not be your only option for upping your oestrogen levels, and therefore boosting your heart health, post menopause:
“A loss of oestrogen raises the risk of heart disease with cholesterol levels increasing by as much as 25 per cent. Having two servings of soya foods daily can help with both cholesterol-lowering and reductions in the severity of hot flushes commonly experienced during the menopause.”
Pass the edamame.
It bolsters your bones
The dream team of vitamin D , calcium and oestrogen can help you to maintain strong bones for life. Oestrogen helps the body to repair damage and rebuild bone, a process which slows as oestrogen levels naturally decline with age, as Dr Roked underlines:
“After menopause women are at risk of osteoporosis due to low hormone levels- low oestrogen can contribute to brittle bones.”
Fortifying your bones from puberty onwards is particularly vital for women in particular, but while low oestrogen levels can increase your risk of fractures, high oestrogen can also make you more liable to injury…
It can trip you up in the gym
According to a study published in the Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise journal last year, sky high oestrogen levels can increase your risk of damaging a ligament during workouts. Tread carefully during oestrogen peaks in your cycle, and if you're particularly worried, hormonal contraceptives can help to address the balance and lessen the potential damage to your limbs, although as always, it’s a topic to be discussed with your GP, not your PT.
Athletes often have low levels
Continuing on the fitness theme, athletes with a low body fat percentage often also have low levels of oestrogen, as fat helps the body to regulate oestrogen (overweight and obese women typically have very high levels of oestrogen, which in turn poses health issues such as increased risk of breast cancer). Keeping an eye on oestrogen levels is particularly important in this instance as the risk of early onset osteoporosis and bone breakage is elevated. The same is true of eating disorder patients with low body weights.
Alcohol can alter your oestrogen balance
Booze can heighten oestrogen levels, which can be why some women report aching boobs post-pub trip. Drinking too much, too often, can cause oestrogen levels to soar unusually high, with Cancer Research UK warning that this can increase your risk of breast cancer, as breast cancer tumours are oestrogen sensitive. Always drink within government guidelines, and if you’re aiming to go sober, we’ve got just the thing to help you out with that .
It affects your mind in all manner of ways
So much so that researchers still don’t fully understand the implication of oestrogen on your mood- we know that it can cause the neurotransmitter serotonin to surge, which decreases depression and increases buzzy feel good endorphins, hence why when oestrogen levels plummet after ovulation and pre-period, you can feel so crappy. This likely also plays a part in the fact that one in seven women experience some degree of postpartum depression , as levels of oestrogen drop dramatically from their elevated state during pregnancy. All of the above considered, it would follow that postmenopausal women would experience low mood across the board, however, a large number of women report that their mental and emotional wellbeing actually improves after menopause, despite the fact that oestrogen has left the building (well, almost). More investigation needed.
It keeps your skin supple
That pregnancy ‘glow’ doesn’t happen for everyone, but the science makes sense given that oestrogen interacts with collagen . Dr Roked highlights the link between skin and the female sex hormone:
“A decline in oestrogen reduces collagen production, which means that skin can look thinner and lines are more visible.”
You may also notice that skin on your face and body becomes drier overall if you’re peri or postmenopausal. Load up on lots of lush barrier boosting humectants, and bear in mind that that this is also the situ in terms of vaginal dryness. It doesn’t happen for every woman, but lube is our friend. Use descending oestrogen levels as an excuse for more facials, more at-home spa time and a jar of bloody nice moisturiser, or of course just go with the flow if it’s not a bother for you.
It can be the cause of a spare tyre
Or rather, a lack of it can increase the likelihood of fat gathering around your middle in particular, as abdominal fat cells are adept at producing oestrogen when the the body detects a lack of it. Thanks a lot flaky oestrogen. Many PCOS sufferers, peri and postmenopausal women will relate. Maintaining a regular exercise regime, with a particular emphasis on bone strengthening exercises , and eating a healthy, balanced diet will help, and dodging the likes of crash diets is also essential. For starters, optimum nutrition will offer you the best chance of keeping hormone levels in balance naturally, and if you diet to the extreme, oestrogen levels could dip even further, increasing the likelihood of bone thinning. Moderation in diet and drinking, regular movement for mind as well as body benefits and medical support where needed should all play their part in the great oestrogen adventure of life.