For women, estrogen is produced primarily in their ovaries and is crucial in supporting the three P’s – puberty, periods, and pregnancy. Estrogen does more than this though, it helps: keep your bones strong; your skin hydrated; your mood balanced; your heart and blood vessels pumping blood; your immune system functioning; your brain firing; and your vulva and vagina happy!

Different health conditions or medical treatments can affect your levels of estrogen. If estrogen levels are too high, or too low, it can cause you to experience symptoms. The amount of estrogen you produce also changes throughout your lifetime. There is a significant drop in this hormone during perimenopause and menopause. The shift in your hormone levels can have a significant physical and psychological impact, and many women find these changes debilitating.

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There are two ‘types’ of estrogen that are important to mention. These are:
Estradiol – the strongest type of estrogen that is primarily produced in the ovaries
Estrone and estriol – weaker types of estrogen that are made in other areas of the body like fatty tissue, bones and adrenal glands. Estriol is also produced in much higher amounts by the placenta during pregnancy.

Men make significantly less of all of the different types of estrogen. In terms of understanding their role in male physiology the focus tends to be on estrone and estriol.

When it comes to getting the job done, estradiol is the most active type of estrogen and is usually the one we mean when we refer to ‘estrogen’.

What does estrogen do?

First off, estrogen is the hormone responsible for triggering puberty in young women and young people with ovaries. It’s responsible for starting your periods and it plays an important role in your menstrual cycle each month, particularly in prompting ovulation (when an egg is released).

Estrogen also helps to:

  • Keep your bones strong and healthy
  • Regulate your cholesterol levels and ensure your blood vessels remain healthy
  • Ensure your skin remains hydrated
  • Balance your mood
  • Maintain your vulvovaginal health
  • Sustain your cognitive function
  • Support your immunity and immune response

What affects your estrogen levels?

Estrogen levels naturally fluctuate over the course of each month and this is related to your menstrual cycle. Your levels also begin to vary a lot when you enter perimenopause. There are other factors that can affect your estrogen levels too.

Some of these are:

  • Certain medications or undergoing medical interventions such as treatment for cancer
  • Strenuous exercise, physical activity, or athletic training
  • Restrictive eating or having an eating disorder
  • Your body weight
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Having diabetes
  • Having an underactive pituitary gland
  • A condition such as PCOS or POI 
  • A tumor that affects your ovaries or adrenal glands
  • Being born with a congenital condition

Changes to estrogen over your lifetime

Between birth and puberty, estrogen levels tend to remain low. Estrogen starts to increase and become active at around 8-10 years old, when physical changes start occurring (like the development of breasts). Levels increase further over the coming years when periods begin. After your periods start, you enter what is called the ‘reproductive phase’ of your life and this continues through your 20s, 30s and 40s.

We recognize this term might feel a bit strange for you, particularly if you’re not interested in having children. It’s called the reproductive phase however, because it’s the only time in your life when your body is physically capable of becoming pregnant and sustaining a pregnancy – no matter how theoretical that pregnancy may be for you!

During this phase of life, estrogen builds up every month until you release an egg (ovulation). This usually happens around day 14 of a 28 day cycle. After this, levels will drop again before you start bleeding.

For most women, higher levels of estrogen has a good effect on their wellbeing as this hormone can boost energy levels and mood. When estrogen falls in the second half of the month during your luteal phase, we can start to feel a drop in our mood as a result. This might cause us to become more irritable, tired or lethargic. Some physical changes can happen too, such as bloating and pimples on our faces.

If you become pregnant, estrogen levels will rise – particularly during the second half of your pregnancy, with estrogen falling sharply after birth. Estrogen can then often remain low (especially if you’re breastfeeding) until your periods start again a few weeks or months later.

Once you’re in your mid to late 40s (though it can be earlier) your estrogen levels will start to change again, rising and falling less predictably. This will cause your periods to change and signal the start of perimenopause.

For some women, the effects of shifting and falling estrogen can make them feel lousy and they decide to top up their estrogen levels with Hormone Therapy (HT) to help them cope with their perimenopausal symptoms.

After a few years of your estrogen levels changing (going up and down) during perimenopause, your estrogen levels will drop more steadily and at menopause (when your periods have completely stopped), estradiol will remain at a lower level, for the remainder of your life.

If you’re struggling with symptoms of low estrogen, talk to your doctor about increasing your estrogen levels by using HT. Due to misinformation, many people think HT is not safe to use, but for the majority of women it is not only perfectly safe, but ensures they age well, as HT can have a positive effect on your heart and bone health.

Equally, if you find yourself struggling with severe PMS symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider about what birth control options may be available to you.

Birth control can be taken for non-contraceptive reasons. Many women opt to use birth control to keep their hormone levels steady throughout the month, which can have a positive impact on mood if you’re sensitive to changes in your hormone levels. Equally, birth control that contains estrogen can help to improve physical concerns you may have related to your hormones, such as problems with your skin.

If you suffer from migraine headaches, the types of synthetic estrogens found in birth control will not be suitable for you. However, this is not the case for most HT treatments given in perimenopause and menopause. Some women are wary to use HT because they have been told in the past they shouldn’t use estrogen because of their migraines. The type of estrogens used in menopausal treatments are safe to use among those that suffer with migraines however, and migraines should not get in the way of accessing these treatments.

Always talk to a healthcare professional before starting any form of hormonal treatment. Your doctor will want to ensure that you complete a thorough medical assessment before prescribing you any medication. Equally, ensure you read the guidance included with any new medication you use and if you present any concerning symptoms report these to your healthcare provider immediately!

So, given all of these factors, it stands to reason that estrogen holds the top spot in our hormone hub! Have any thoughts on estrogen? Head over to our Hormone Allies section and let us know. Whether you’ve tried a form of contraception you hated, or have a humdinger of a hormone story, we’re all ears.