The female hormones are responsible for the proper functioning of a number of body processes including reproduction, bone health, mood balance and even weight management. These hormones are secreted mainly by the ovaries and partially from the adrenal glands, too. This blog will go through the major female hormones and their roles in the body – but first, let’s do a quick recap of the female reproductive system.
All of the unique organs of the female reproductive system are situated within the pelvic cavity. These organs work closely together and also with other body systems in order to support overall health and wellbeing:
- The uterus – a pear-shaped and sized organ found sitting deep within the pelvic cavity. The uterus has many functions including shedding of it’s lining every month (known as menstruation or a period bleed), it is the site of implantation of a fertilised egg and it is also the site of nourishment and growth of the foetus. The uterus is also a supportive structure for other organs in the body like the bladder and bowel
- The two ovaries – they sit on either side of the uterus, each about double the size of an almond. The ovaries are responsible for the secretion of the majority of the female reproductive hormones, especially oestrogen and progesterone
- The fallopian tubes – these tubes act as a transport system from the ovaries to the uterus. A woman’s eggs, fertilised or not, travel through the fallopian tubes and then into the uterus where they either become implanted to develop an embryo or passed through with the next menstrual bleed
Now, onto the hormones!
Oestrogen is probably the most well-known female hormone, it’s even known as the ‘feminising hormone.’ At puberty, it’s responsible for the growth of the reproductive organs, breasts and pubic hair. Oestrogen helps maintain a healthy libido and during conception it renders sperm competent so they are able to effectively fertilise an egg. During pregnancy, it stimulates the growth of the uterus and the breasts.
Alongside its roles in the reproductive system, oestrogen also promotes the growth and strength of long bones, stimulates the hydration of the skin, regulates cholesterol levels and is responsible for the pattern of fatty deposits in areas like the hips, buttocks and thighs. Oestrogen is also required for the production of serotonin, the ‘feel good’ hormone.
Did you know there are three different types of oestrogen? Oestrone (E1), oestradiol (E2) and oestriol (E3) are all made by the body at different life stages:
- Oestrone (E1): the only oestrogen the body makes after menopause, when all menstrual bleeding stops
- Oestradiol (E2): the most common type of oestrogen in women of childbearing age
- Oestriol (E3): the main oestrogen produced during pregnancy
Progesterone often cooperates with oestrogen as they both work together to stimulate the growth of the breasts and during pregnancy, they support the ability of the breasts to produce milk.
Progesterone is required for ovulation, the monthly release of an egg from the ovaries into the fallopian tube. It also plays important roles during conception – progesterone changes the consistency of the vaginal mucous to become sticky and egg white-like, plus it enhances the beating of cilia (small, hair-like structures) in the fallopian tube. Both of these processes help propel sperm up to the unfertilised egg sitting in the fallopian tube.
Luteinising Hormone and Follicle Stimulating Hormone
Luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) peak at ovulation which is typically in the middle of the 28 day menstrual cycle, around day 14.
- LH stimulates the ovulation process and it secretes progesterone from the ovaries
- FSH causes the development of egg cells and secretes oestrogen from the ovaries
Testosterone – Not Just for Men
Did you know that women naturally produce small amounts of testosterone? We know testosterone as the main male hormone, however in women it works with oestrogen to promote lean muscle mass, bone health and the growth of the reproductive organs.
Testosterone contributes to hair growth, especially on the genitals and armpits. It also contributes to sebum (oil) production particularly in areas like the face, chest, back and upper arms.
What About Menopause?
With age, a woman’s menstrual cycle becomes irregular and increasingly shorter. Perimenopause is the name given to this period of time. Eventually ovulation and menstruation cease entirely, which is known as menopause.
Women typically reach the peak of their reproductive abilities in their mid to late twenties and after this, ovarian function starts to decline gradually so the ovaries become less and less responsive to hormonal signals. At menopause, female hormones aren’t made by the ovaries any longer, the adrenal glands take over.
Female hormones are required for not only healthy reproductive function but also for bone health and strength, mood balance, skin health and weight management. Each monthly ‘dose’ of hormones keeps a woman feeling her best!
Hechtman, L. (2012), Clinical Naturopathic Medicine, Chapter: The Female Reproductive System, pp. 734-780, Churchill Livingstone, Elsevier
Marieb, E.N., Hoehn, K. (2013), Human Anatomy & Physiology, Chapter: The Reproductive System, pp. 1035-1051, Pearson Educatio