Estrogen is a sex hormone that promotes the development and maintenance of female characteristics in a woman’s body. An imbalance of this hormone can cause problems.
This is where estrogen replacement therapy comes into the picture. It involves treatment with estrogen hormone to increase its levels in the body. The therapy can help relieve symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes and night sweats (1).
There are other ways estrogen replacement therapy (and estrogen, in general) can promote important functions. This post explores all of those and more.
Table Of Contents
What Is Estrogen?
As discussed, estrogen is the primary female sex hormone. It plays crucial roles in female reproductive and non-reproductive health (2).
Your body produces three different types of estrogen. These are estradiol, estrone, and estriol, with estradiol being the major estrogen hormone in your body.
Estrogen is mainly produced in the ovaries. Other non-reproductive organs involved in estrogen synthesis include the liver, heart, muscle, bone, and the brain.
Estrogen primarily influences the structural differences between male and female physiology. It has functions in both reproductive and non-reproductive women, which we will explore in the upcoming section (2).
What Are The Beneficial Roles Of Estrogen?
Estrogen acts on those parts of your body that contain estrogen-specific hormone receptors. The hormone promotes sexual development, improves bone strength, enhances heart health, and promotes mood.
1. Promotes Sexual Development
Estrogen is responsible for the development of a female’s reproductive anatomy. It helps develop the vagina, uterus, and breasts and also facilitates the growth of armpit and pubic hair during puberty. These signs also mark the onset of fertility (2).
2. May Improve Bone Health
Estrogen plays a role in the growth and maturation of bones. It also regulates bone turnover (the periodic formation of new bone tissue). Estrogen deficiency, which is common in women during menopause, enhances bone resorption. This can lead to decreased bone mass and reduced bone strength (3).
3. May Promote Heart Health
Estrogen deficiency could be a contributing factor to the increase in heart disease risk in postmenopausal women. The hormone is believed to benefit the inner arterial walls, thereby keeping the blood vessels flexible (4).
Clinical evidence accumulated over the years suggests that women undergoing estrogen replacement therapy have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (5). Long-term use of estrogen may have cumulative cardioprotective effects.
However, certain studies have been inconclusive. Hence, more research is warranted with respect to estrogen and its cardioprotective effects (6).
4. Can Help Ease Menopause Symptoms
The use of estrogen replacement therapy in disease prevention in menopausal women is well noted. This therapy was found to positively alter the symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, sleep disorders, and alterations in mood (7).
However, some studies have also challenged the beneficial effects of estrogen replacement therapy during menopause (8). Hence, more studies are needed to establish this fact. Never self start estrogen replacement therapy. Always consult your doctor who will assess and decide whether you are eligible for this therapy or not.
These are the major functions of the estrogen hormone. In the following section, we will explore estrogen therapy in detail.
What Is Estrogen Therapy?
The body produces less estrogen after menopause. Estrogen therapy is a way of replacing the absent estrogen in the body. Deficiency of estrogen can cause certain issues, which can be relieved with the therapy.
Estrogen imbalance can lead to irregular menstrual cycles, hot flashes, and night sweats. It can also cause hair loss and pelvic pain (9).
The therapy provides your body with the ideal estrogen levels. This way, you will be able to better cope with the post-menopausal issues.
What Are The Ideal Estrogen Levels?
In pre-menopausal women, estrogen levels vary between 30 to 400 picograms per milliliter (pg/mL). In post-menopausal women, these levels are between 0 to 30 mg/mL (10).
Estrogen levels can also go higher than usual. This is one common side effect of estrogen replacement therapy, where individuals who were initially estrogen-deficient tend to develop excess levels of estrogen. The symptoms include fatigue, cold hands and feet, headaches, hair loss, mood changes, memory issues, and tender breasts (11).
High estrogen can also be a result of certain medications, including hormonal contraceptives. Contraceptives (birth control pills) usually contain higher concentrations of estrogen, and these may elevate the body’s estrogen levels (12).
Certain natural or herbal remedies, some antibiotics, and phenothiazines (medications to treat mental or emotional problems) may also elevate estrogen levels.
Though estrogen replacement therapy can treat the symptoms of estrogen deficiency, it does come with certain risks.
What Are The Risks Of Estrogen Therapy?
In addition to the side effects (which, most often, reduce over time), estrogen replacement therapy may also pose some serious risks. Though research is limited, it is important we take note of these.
Studies highlight the possibility of the therapy increasing the risk of cancers of the breast and ovaries. It also may elevate the risk of stroke and pulmonary thromboembolism (obstruction of a blood vessel by a blood throat) (13).
Hence, it is important you talk to your doctor carefully before going for the therapy. Ensure your doctor knows everything pertaining to your health history.
More importantly, you must know if estrogen therapy (or hormone replacement therapy, in general) is totally safe for you.
Who Should Not Take Hormone Replacement Therapy?
Hormone therapy may not be suitable if you have a history of cancer (especially that of the breast, ovary, or womb), blood clots, and high blood pressure.
Unopposed estrogen therapy can increase the risk of cancer. Studies also speculate over the possibility of estrogen possibly stimulating ovarian cancer growth (14).
Estrogen administered orally may also increase the risk of blood clots (15).
Certain studies have also reported an increase in blood pressure in women using estrogen (16). Other studies have shown mixed results.
Estrogen replacement therapy may not be suitable for all. Hence, please consult with your doctor before taking a decision.
You can, however, reduce the risks associated with estrogen therapy by doing the following:
• Understand what product works best for you. Estrogen is available in the form of pills, gels, patches, vaginal creams, and slow-releasing suppositories.
• Do seek regular follow-up care. This will you ensure the benefits of the therapy outweigh the risks.
• Adopt a healthy lifestyle. Exercise regularly, eat healthy, reduce alcohol and smoking, and manage stress.
In addition to being used in estrogen therapy (and hormone replacement therapy), synthetic estrogen is also used in birth control pills.
It is also important to know about there is one specific class of compounds that you must know about.
A Note On Phytoestrogens
Phytoestrogens are a class of natural compounds found in plant-based foods. Most of these are already a part of a majority of our diet.
Phytoestrogens mimic estrogen. Their chemical structure is very similar to that of estrogen (17). When phytoestrogens enter the body, the body’s estrogen receptors treat them like they are estrogen.
This may be good for women approaching menopause, as phytoestrogens may help balance hormones (18). These compounds can serve as a natural alternative to estrogen therapy (which employs the use of synthetic estrogen).
Phytoestrogens were found to cut the risk of osteoporosis, treat heart disease, and help prevent breast cancer and other menopausal symptoms (18).
On the flip side, phytoestrogens are also considered to be endocrine disruptors. They also may carry similar risks as estrogen therapy (18).
Hence, it always is better to take your doctor’s advice. Foods high in phytoestrogens include the following:
- Nuts and seeds (walnuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds)
- Grains (wheat germ, oats, barley)
- Fruits (apples, pomegranates, grapes, cranberries, carrots)
- Vegetables (sprouts, mung beans, lentils)
- Soy products (soybeans, tofu, miso soup, tempeh)
- Liquids (coffee, beer, red wine, olive oil)
- Herbs (licorice root, red clover)
However, consuming these foods in moderation and as per dietary guidelines will not cause much harm.
Estrogen is a crucial hormone in the body, more so for females. Lowering of estrogen levels is a natural process that happens as women age. Estrogen replacement therapy can play an important role here.
But as we saw, the therapy comes with its share of risks. We suggest you speak to your doctor and discuss all the necessary details.
The right habits are always key. Regular physical exercise, a nutritious diet, proper sleep, and managing stress can help you achieve good health.
Did you undergo estrogen therapy before? What were your experiences? Do share with us by leaving a comment in the box below.
Expert’s Answers For Readers’ Questions
Does turmeric raise estrogen levels?
Research is unclear. A small study stated that curcumin in turmeric might reduce estrogen levels (19). However, more studies are warranted.
- Estrogen replacement therapy, National Cancer Institute.
- Estrogen synthesis and signaling pathways during ageing: from periphery to brain, Trends in Molecular Medicine, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Estrogen and bone metabolism, Maturitas, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Menopause and heart disease, American Heart Association.
- Hormone Therapy and Heart Disease, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
- About diabetes. (n.d.).
- Estrogen and the Female Heart, Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Quality of life and menopause: the role of estrogen, Journal of Women’s Health, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Understanding Estrogen Action during Menopause, Endocrinology, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- 11 unexpected signs of hormonal imbalance, Northwell Health.
- Estradiol, University of Rochester Medical Center.
- Hormonal Therapy: Managing Side Effects in Women, University of Rochester Medical Center.
- The Risks of Control: Assessing the Link Between Birth Control Pills and Breast Cancer, Harvard University, The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
- The Adverse Effects of Hormone Replacement Therapy, Drugs & Aging, Springer Link.
- Hormone replacement therapy and cancer, Gynecological Endocrinology, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Hormone Replacement Therapy, National Center for Biotechnology Information.
- Postmenopausal Hormone Replacement Therapy and Cardiovascular Disease, Systematic Evidence Review, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
- The potential health effects of dietary phytoestrogens, British Journal of Pharmacology, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- The pros and cons of phytoestrogens, Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Curcumin inhibits endometriosis endometrial cells by reducing estradiol production, Iranian Journal of Reproductive Medicine, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.