The Basic Facts for Everyone
It probably won’t come as a surprise to those of you who follow our work at Letterlife that, in addition to ADHD, we’re quite interested in our female hormones and how they affect our brains, bodies and ADHD. But honestly, how much do you really know about the most important female sex hormones, estrogen, and progesterone? And does testosterone play any role for us women? We’ll have reason to come back to these three important players, but here’s a brief crash course to start building your knowledgebase.
Hormones are part of your body’s own intra messenger system, and different hormones have a multitude of vital functions throughout your development from the young girl to us grown and aging woman, as well as in reproduction, pregnancy, and our body’s metabolism throughout life. What’s typical about hormones is that they’re produced in glands (or in specialized hormone-producing cells) and are then released into the bloodstream to be transported to the places and organs where they are intended to have their effects. There are many different hormones that work in different ways. Some hormones are highly specialized and tailored for specific tasks, while others can affect numerous different cells and organs in the body.
The pituitary gland (or pineal gland), located in the middle of the brain, host a special type of overarching “control hormones”. They regulate and control hormones that are subordinate and produced in various organs of the body, such as the kidneys, thyroid, or reproductive organs (ovaries in women or testes in men).
In women, the ovaries produce both egg cells and the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Estrogen, the primary hormone for female sexual development, is primarily produced in a woman’s ovaries as the ovarian follicles gradually mature and grow during the menstrual cycle. However, men also produce estrogen, although they have much lower levels than women. Similarly, women also have testosterone, the primary hormone for male sexual development, but in lower amounts.
In addition to its role in sexual development and reproduction, estrogen has many different important functions in the body. It affects how your skeleton takes up calcium to strengthen your bones and prevent you breaking them in a fall. Your brain is also full of estrogen receptors, making estrogen a major player in everything from memory to our body temperature regulation. And the list of places in your body that are in some way affected by estrogen doesn’t stop there. In your heart, liver, skin, fat tissue, breasts, uterus, and vagina, estrogen plays a special role and will influence how you feel and how well you’re doing.
Here’s a brief summary of the most important sex hormones and when and the role they play our female bodies:
When we talk about estrogen, it’s important to know that we’re talking about a whole family of closely related hormones (E1-estrone, E2-estradiol, E3-estriol, and E4-estetrol). These four different variants of estrogen naturally exist in different amounts during different phases of our lives.
Estrone (E1) is produced in fat tissue and is the main estrogen in women after menopause.
Estradiol (E2) is produced in the ovaries (and in the placenta during pregnancy) and is the primary estrogen in fertile women. Estradiol levels fluctuate during the different phases of the menstrual cycle. It starts low but gradually rises in the beginning of the follicular phase, peaks at ovulation, and then decreases again during the luteal phase until the start of menstruation.
Estriol (E3) is produced in the placenta of pregnant women and is the primary estrogen during pregnancy. Estriol levels increase gradually as the pregnancy progresses and are at their highest just before delivery, around week 39 when the pregnancy is full-term.
Estetrol (E4) is produced only during pregnancy and solely in the growing fetus’s liver. However, the pregnant woman also has estetrol because it passes through the placenta and enters the mother’s bloodstream.
Progesterone is produced primarily in the rest of the egg after the egg has left the ovarian follicle following ovulation (corpus luteum). However, a smaller amount of progesterone is also produced in the adrenal glands, brain, and in the placenta during pregnancy. Progesterone prepares the uterine lining to receive and hold a fertilized egg during pregnancy. Besides this crucial role to protect a precious pregnancy, progesterone is also important for the growth and function of the breast glands. It also seems that progesterone affects women’s libido and have a role in nasty things like PMS and PMDD (although the mechanisms are not entirely clear). Like estrogen, progesterone has effects throughout the body and is also believed to have a protective function in the cardiovascular system by lowering blood pressure. Progesterone, like estrogen, is also important for the skeleton by increasing bone densety and is likely involved in the brain’s ability to learn new things, handle memory, and regulate emotions. Progesterone levels are low at the beginning of the menstrual cycle and gradually rise as the ovarian follicle produces progesterone after ovulation. The levels are highest in the days just before menstruation, which coincides with when many women may feel more bloated than during the rest of the menstrual cycle. Consequently, during pregnancy, progesterone levels are high to keep the fetus in the uterus and to keep the mother’s blood pressure down. Right after childbirth, progesterone levels dive very brutally back down to “normal” levels in the same way they do when a woman doesn’t become pregnant and has her period.
Testosterone belongs to the group of male sex hormones called androgens. However, even women produce androgenic hormones in their ovaries and adrenal glands. Although men have between 10- to 20-times higher testosterone levels than women, it’s also important for women due to its effect on libido, mood, blood lipids, the skeleton, and the ability to build muscles.
Obviously, the topic of hormones is huge and can be tricky. Even those of us who are doctors and work with them daily find it challenging. Given that the research on how female hormones affect how we feel, and function is still so limited there is still much we don’t understand. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or that we are imagining things and symptoms. The best thing we can do, while we wait for the research to catch up is to track and register how our mental and physical health varies across our own hormonal status. This is what we hope Letterlife will do for all of us, regardless of our age or hormonal status.
We hope that this has given you a somewhat better knowledge base to build from. We’ll be returning to the subject of hormones, the brain, the body, and ADHD often in this blog, so stay tuned! Also, don’t forget that you can email us and suggest topics for upcoming blogs at email@example.com