Let’s take a second to admire your body… You eat, breathe, and think without even having to think about it! How about the amazing trick where our brain remembers every word from a song of our childhood? These types of innate learning happen so frequently. Our brain has an enormous capacity to perform these automatic functions for us.
In one sense, our bodies are repetitive learning feedback machines (think muscle memory and daily habits). In another sense, the body is an adaptive being that adjusts internally from outside stimulus unconsciously (think fight or flight response and adaption to stress). A human’s reproductive system is a magnificent combination including both types of feedback!
Estrogen and progesterone work synchronously to help women become and stay fertile every month. Testosterone and its metabolites work to help men build muscle and produce millions of half copies of DNA daily. (Fun fact- both women and women have these 3 hormones & need them!). It’s important to understand the basic functions of your amazing hormones to both understand your own body and health, and ensure you are aware of the signs of when hormones can become out of whack and fall out of natural hormone balance!
Table of Contents
Female Sex Hormones
Our hormones need to be in a beautiful balance in order to maintain a thriving, healthy body! The primary hormones in a woman’s system are estrogen and progesterone. These two hormones interplay with one another in such a way that progesterone balances out some of the negative effects that estrogen can have on the body.
Estrogen vs Progesterone
Every month a woman’s body uses these hormones to prepare for conception. Women on average begin menstruation around age 12 and end around 52, in state called menopause. On average an adult woman’s cycle lasts from 21-35 days. It’s important to note that the average teenage girl cycle can last anywhere between 20-45 days. This means that normal teenage cycles can be a month and a half long and this timing can last for a few years. It’s also common for women in perimenopause (the period before menopause), to have irregular cycles, as estrogen and progesterone swing up and down.
The menstrual cycle is broken into 2 phases, the follicular phase and the luteal phase. Below are is a chart on the rise and fall of these hormones on an IDEALIZED cycle. Note that day 14 marks ovulation, however not all women ovulate on day 14. Ovulation marks the change from the follicular to the luteal phase of your menstrual cycle. It also marks the implantation and growth of a baby if you are pregnant!
Tracking your cycle is a very useful and important tool you can use to monitor your reproductive health! Learning the signs of hormones can help you determine whether you’ve fallen out of natural hormone balance and whether your cycle is normal or not.
Estrogen is the most well-known female sex hormone. It’s made primarily in the ovaries. It is also made in smaller quantities by the adrenal glands, the brain, and in fat cells too.
Estrogen is responsible for the development of female features during puberty such as:
- Growth of breasts
- Pubic hair
- Start of menstrual cycles
Purpose of estrogen in your monthly cycle:
- Thickens your uterine lining
- Creates vaginal mucus (used for fertility tracking)
What about no estrogen or low estrogen? Cue vaginal dryness, low sex drive, no ovulation, no period!
Did you know men produce estrogen too? Men produce estrogen but in far lower quantities simply because they don’t have ovaries. This amazing hormone acts on the body outside of the reproductive system to do a few of the following things.
- Estrogen counteracts bone loss as you age by preserving bone density
- It reduces plaque build up in your arteries by regulating cholesterol synthesis
- Helps regulate body temperature
Estrogen Dominance vs High Estrogen vs Low Estrogen
Estrogen dominance is when a woman has a normal level of estrogen, but low progesterone. This also causes symptoms of high estrogen, especially since there is not enough progesterone to balance out the negative effects of estrogen.
High estrogen is simply a problematic and excessive level of estrogen, regardless of any other hormone levels.
Some signs of excess estrogen:
- Extreme PMS
- Weight Gain
- Cold hands and/or feet
- Trouble Sleeping
- Decreased sex drive
Low estrogen symptoms include:
- Vaginal dryness
- Hot flashes
- Mood swings
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Here’s the thing. These symptoms can be CATASTROPHIC. This is your body crying out that something is wrong, and you need help!
Some women live with these symptoms for YEARS – but please know, you can get better!
Here’s another thing… estrogen doesn’t act alone. As I said before- it is not the only reproductive hormone. It’s important to keep in perspective that these issues can also be caused by progesterone issues.
In women, progesterone is made in the ovaries after ovulation has occurred. That means if you don’t ovulate, you don’t produce progesterone! The follicle that the egg was released from in your ovaries becomes a gland called the corpus luteum once it is implanted in your uterus. The corpus luteum produces progesterone while it waits for pregnancy to occur.
Meanwhile, progesterone makes women’s breasts feels fuller and acts on the endometrium to thicken the uterine lining. Perfect preparation for a developing fetus! If pregnancy doesn’t occur… the corpus luteum breaks down, causing progesterone to fall, and bleeding (aka your period!) starts. If pregnancy does occur, the levels of progesterone continues to rise until the placenta takes over to produce all necessary pregnancy hormones. Then, you don’t get your period!
Progesterone also prevents ovulation from occurring during pregnancy. Here’s the thing– you either ovulate and get pregnant, or you ovulate and have your period. There is no cycle with ovulation but no period. However, you can have what is called an anovulatory cycle. In this case, ovulation never occurs, which also includes no production or rise in progesterone! (Cue low progesterone symptoms and no period)
Men make progesterone too! It’s mostly made in the adrenals. It plays many different roles in the body outside of just assisting in reproductive function.
Non-reproductive Functions of Progesterone:
- Relaxes blood vessels
- Helps muscles contract correctly
- Raises the core temperature
- Assists in using fat stores for energy
- Helps regulate nerve function
Progesterone levels can be considered high when there isn’t the right amount of estrogen to balance it out. It is unlikely women will have extremely high progesterone levels (unless you’re pregnant). Although, low progesterone will cause estrogen to spike or give high estrogen symptoms. Your hormones can also impact your mood!
Menstrual Cycle Moods
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AGAIN- Ladies… your menstrual cycle can impact your mood, energy levels, fuel utilization, and your behaviors! Your cycle can even impact what kind of men you’re attracted to!
Depending on the changes in progesterone, estrogen, & testosterone during your cycle… when it comes to MOOD & BEHAVIOR- Estrogen & Progesterone are what play the major roles!
Estrogen is highest during the follicular phase, from the first day of bleeding on your period to right before ovulation (aka the end of week 2). Estrogen plays a key role in boosting your strength and energy, along with your willingness and desire for adventure and socialization. It makes you feel more confident and motivated!
Progesterone is highest during the luteal phase, from week 3 starting right after ovulation until the start of your menstrual cycle. This hormone calms (or even “sedates” you), may increase anxiety & depressive symptoms, slows digestion, and makes you more “inward,” quieter, and moody. Progesterone also puts you at more risk for blood sugar drops, so it is important to not skip meals and have snacks ready.
Hormone Balancing Foods – How to Eat for Healthy Hormones
Eating for healthy hormone balance includes adequate amounts of:
- Colorful fruits and vegetables
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Whole grains and complex carbs
- Lean proteins
- Omega 3’s from nuts, seeds, avocados, salmon
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables allows you to get plenty of antioxidants and polyphenols to combat inflammation. When in doubt, eat the rainbow! Incorporating cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, or cauliflower can assist with natural liver detoxification that can help detoxify your body of environmental toxins and excess estrogen.
Whole grains minimize blood sugar swings. Keeping refined carbohydrates and added sugars to a minimum is important, especially if you have insulin-resistant polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Lean proteins provide iron, zinc, and B12 (if vegetarian, supplementation may be needed!). Omega 3 fatty acids are essential and help combat inflammation.
Get adequate fiber to help with digestion, feed a healthy gut flora, and aid in estrogen metabolism. Many people do not consume enough fiber – and getting your fiber through foods is better than supplementation. Eat plenty of legumes, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and you are more likely to hit your daily fiber intake!
You can also eat depending on where you are at in your menstrual cycle!
What to eat during each phase of the menstrual cycle:
How to eat during the Follicular Phase (from the start of your period to end of week 2):
- Increase iron rich foods (lean animal proteins, legumes)
- Increase vitamin C to assist with iron absorption
- Anti-inflammatory foods to decrease period cramps
- Avoid salty and spicy foods to prevent bloating
- Increase foods with B-vitamins to improve energy levels
How to eat during the Luteal Phase (from week 3 until the beginning of your next period):
- Keep snacks ready, you’re more prone to blood sugar swings!
- Limit high sodium to avoid bloating
- Increase magnesium (nuts, seeds, spinach, dark chocolate or supplement) to decrease headaches, muscle aches, cravings, and fatigue
- Add in a sweet treat to curb cravings!
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Male Sex Hormones
Ladies – you also have testosterone in your body that is required for healthy hormone balance, your metabolism, and providing sufficient energy levels. We will list below the functions and side effects for you as they can cause the same symptoms in women as they do in men.
We have already mentioned that men actually make both estrogen and progesterone, however, men make testosterone in the greatest quantity. Testosterone is made primarily in the testes in men.
Roles of Testosterone:
- Increased muscle mass
- Increased bone mass
- Normal libido/sex drive
- Growth of body hair
Low testosterone is a highly marketed male issue. This can be induced by many different reasons, including estrogen excess, injury to the testes, certain medications, liver issues, or complications from diabetes.
Symptoms of Low Testosterone:
- Bone density loss
- Muscle mass loss
- Erectile dysfunction
- Thinning skin
- Low libido
On the other hand… high testosterone can also occur. Anabolic steroid usage and excessive testosterone supplementation can cause some of the following symptoms of high testosterone. In addition, poor liver health, environmental toxins, and insulin resistance can cause high estrogen. Even gut infections can cause high estrogen! (high levels of what are called beta glucuronidase can unravel estrogen in the gut- causing it to recirculate and unable to be excreted).
Symptoms of high testosterone:
- Loss of scalp hair
- Increased body hair
- Oily skin
- Aggressive behavior
Women with high levels of testosterone can also see the above symptoms plus infertility. A woman with low testosterone will also see the same symptoms along with vaginal dryness and may also notice muscle loss or weakness. There is is an optimum level of testosterone for men and women that is needed to keep our bodies in check- just like estrogen and progesterone, both the levels and the proportions matter!
The consequences for having a hormone imbalance can be devastating. You can work with us at Uplift Fit Nutrition for personalized guidance to get those hormones back in balance! This can help you live a longer, fuller life.
The human body is a miraculous creation. Our sex hormones carve deep canyons of neural pathways through our brain- leaving a hot trail for other hormones to follow. On the other hand, external factors like stress can change those pathways immediately. It is of vital importance that you understand your body and the hormones you produce. Your hormones and your natural hormone balance are extremely IMPORTANT ! They aren’t just another bodily function to accommodate. Hormones play an essential role in your overall health!
Recommended Podcasts about Period Health
Recommended Books about Period Health
Chelsea Macias, Dietetic Intern (Lacey’s Dietetic Intern- www.ladybirdhealth.org)
Lacey Dunn, MS, RD, LD, CPT
Progesterone: The Forgotten Hormone in Men? The aging male : the official journal of the International Society for the Study of the Aging Male. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15669543/.
Cruickshank K. Hand H. Signs and Symptoms of High Estrogen: Diagnosis, Treatment, and More. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/high-estrogen. Published April 19, 2018.
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Estrogen Hormone Biology. Current topics in developmental biology. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28527569-estrogen-hormone-biology/.
Low Testosterone (Male Hypogonadism). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15603-low-testosterone-male-hypogonadism. Published April 10, 2018.
Male Reproductive System Information. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9117-male-reproductive-system. Published November 7, 2016..
Ray L. Progesterone 101. Progesterone: Definition, Levels, Symptoms of Low Progesterone and More. https://helloclue.com/articles/cycle-a-z/progesterone-101. Published November 28, 2019.
What Does Estrogen Do? OUP Academic. https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/99/4/31A/2537122. Published April 1, 2014.