From the way we feel about the people we love to the way we react in high-stress situations, hormones are a big part of who we are. These chemicals actually have a big impact on our behaviour and personality and what we do and think can change dramatically when our hormone levels change. We may not think about what goes on under our skin all that much, but understanding how hormones work, how they change over time, and how what we do affects them can answer a few questions about our health and wellbeing.
While everyone goes through changes to their hormone levels throughout their lifetime, women deal with significant hormonal changes at a few stages in life – not just during puberty. Pregnancy, hormonal birth control, and menopause can all lead to big changes to your body, but what exactly happens? We took a deeper look at women’s health and hormones, breaking down the science to understand things clearer. Keep reading to find out – thankfully, it’s not as complicated as you may think!
Highs and Lows
At just eight years old, girls can begin to get changes in their hormone levels. Even though the average age for starting puberty is 11, younger girls can begin developing breasts, growing pubic hair, and having menstrual cycles.
At the start of puberty, hormonal levels can take time to build up, which can cause girls to have irregular periods. Other hormone-related conditions can crop up as well, including endometriosis (womb lining growing outside the womb) and hormonal acne.
The hormone changes in puberty also lead to changes in sexual behaviour, which go through many stages as children mature. As sex becomes a more central part of life for women towards the end of puberty, many start to look towards contraception to make sex safer and reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. Hormonal contraception can lead to extra changes to hormone levels, which can be a double-edged sword - improving some hormonal conditions but also sometimes causing hormone-related side effects.
Later in life, once women reach the ages of 45 to 55 years old, they begin to experience the onset of menopause.
When oestrogen levels start to decline, symptoms like hot flushes, mood swings, and vaginal dryness begin to appear.
Menopause eventually causes the ovaries to stop releasing eggs. While menstrual cycles begin to stop, and pregnancy becomes no longer possible, the drop in hormone levels can increase the risk of certain health problems in women. Many women choose to avoid these risks and bothersome symptoms of menopause, by turning to hormone replacement therapy, which brings their hormone levels back to normal.
Birth Control on the Body
There are a few types of birth control. Which contraceptives are most popular varies around the world, but in Western Europe, the pill remains the most common. So what exactly is inside these contraceptive pills, and how does it affect a woman’s body?
The pill usually contains two hormones: progesterone and oestrogen. Some pills only have progesterone, the hormone responsible for thickening the lining of the womb each month. Taking progesterone can thin the lining of the uterus. Without a proper uterine lining, a fertilised egg is far less likely to implant and cause pregnancy.
The combination of progesterone and oestrogen in combined contraceptive pills reduces the amount of 3 other hormones in a woman’s body; gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and luteinising hormone (LH). This prevents an egg from growing and releasing from the ovary, thickens the lining of the womb (like the progesterone-only pill), and also makes the entrance of the womb harder for sperm to get through.
When used perfectly, the pill is over 99 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, but there are some health risks involved. The hormones in the pill can cause mood swings and depression, irregular bleeding, breast pain and enlargement, and even hair loss.
Also, the pill can’t stop pregnancy 100% of the time. Since the pill doesn’t stop all hormonal activity, some women can still ovulate and become pregnant. Although it doesn’t happen very often, when an unwanted pregnancy does happen on the pill, it’s usually because the pill isn’t being taken at the same time every day or doses are being missed.
Why the Pill?
The hormonal changes caused by the pill can also improve a few other hormonal health issues women face, like endometriosis and acne. There are also contraceptives pills that are more useful in certain situations – some pills are better to take while breastfeeding and others are more useful if you usually get migraines. While 86 percent of women take the pill to prevent pregnancy, 31 percent of women take it to manage period pain and another 28 percent use it to improve irregular or heavy periods.
Fourteen percent of women using the pill are only interested in the non-contraceptive benefits, and one of these reasons includes managing hormonal acne. Androgens (male hormones) in a woman’s body can increase the production of sebum - the oily substances produced by your skin that clogs pores. Taking the combined pill can stop pores from clogging by cutting down the amount of androgens in your body.
Symptom Relief Through HRT
As women reach their 40s or 50s, they usually go through some big physical and hormonal changes, known as the menopause. As the number of ‘ovarian follicles’ drops in older women, the ovaries stop responding to two hormones involved in periods – the luteinising hormone (LH) and the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).
When these two hormones can’t perform their usual functions, oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels become unstable. Hormone replacement therapy helps stabilise these hormones and treat the unwanted symptoms of menopause that can happen. A combined HRT is the safest and most common type of replacement therapy. Taking oestrogen alone for menopause can cause health risks in women who still have their wombs.
Helping Gender Reassignment
Hormone replacement therapy isn’t just a treatment for women going through menopause, though. It’s also important for many transgender women as a way of lowering the level of male hormones in their bodies and increasing oestrogen levels. Feminising hormone therapy normally begins with anti-androgens first, which work by blocking receptors for the male sex hormones, like testosterone. Increasing feminine features can also be sped up by using lab-made oestrogen, which works directly on the body.
Taking Control of Your Health
We may not always spend too much time thinking about what goes on inside our bodies – especially when it comes to smaller changes to our hormone levels we’re not aware of – but the big changes in hormone levels that happen at different points throughout a woman’s life deserve some attention. Sometimes, women choose to make changes to their hormone levels to help treat hormonal health conditions, or avoid pregnancy. And at other times, hormone levels change on their own and extra hormones can be used to treat the symptoms this causes.
Getting information about contraceptive pills or hormone replacement therapy doesn’t have to be difficult, though. At Superdrug Online Doctor, we have lots of the information you need. You can even order menopause tests and hormonal treatments from wherever you are and have them delivered directly to your door. Take charge of your hormones and overall health by visiting us online today.
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