March 10, 2016

Hormones, From Puberty to Post-Menopause

If you’re a woman, you probably know that our bodies go through myriad changes during the course of our lives. Hormones play an integral role in those changes at each stage of development, from puberty to post-menopause. This is the first in a four-part series the Society For Women’s Health Research (SWHR®)will be publishing about hormones across the lifespan — read on to learn more!

What exactly are hormones? The Virginia Women’s Center offers a good definition: A hormone is a “chemical communicator or connector” that carries messages to and from all the organs in the body. A hormone acts like a key that fits into a specific lock or receptor site at each organ. This inter-organ communication helps the body to remain balanced and function optimally.

At birth, levels of these hormones are high, but they decrease within a few months and remain low until puberty]. During puberty, physical changes in the body are regulated by changes in the levels of hormones that are being produced. In early puberty, hormone levels increase and stimulate production of sex hormones (the hormones in the body that control puberty and reproduction), including estrogen. This increase in estrogen causes the physical changes associated with puberty in girls, including maturation of the breasts, ovaries, uterus, and vagina, as well as a girl’s first period.

The average age of puberty onset in girls is 10-and-a-half years old, but it can range from seven to 13 years old, with menarche (a girl’s first menstrual cycle) occurring at about 12-and-a-half to 13 years of age. African-American and Hispanic girls tend to start puberty slightly earlier than Caucasian girls. The entire process of puberty in girls takes approximately three to four years.

Monthly periods continue until perimenopause, the stage in life which is typically described as when a women’s body begins transitioning to menopause. Perimenopause, which can last for several years, typically begins when a woman is in her late forties, though it can start earlier or later. During perimenopause, the period becomes less regular and a woman can experience night sweats, trouble sleeping, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and mood problems.

Menopause is, of course, a normal part of aging that every woman will go through, usually by her early fifties. The hormones estrogen and progesterone, which control menstruation, will decrease during this time, resulting in less regular periods. Additionally, a woman’s ovaries will cease to release eggs into the fallopian tubes.

Menopause officially begins 12 months after a woman’s last period. After that, a woman is considered to be in “postmenopause” phase of her life.

Often, the hormonal changes associated with menopause can impact a woman’s quality of life or even lead to chronic health issues. The lack of estrogen and progesterone hormones being produced can take a toll on the body: postmenopausal women lose an average of 25 percent of their bone mass by age 60, largely due to the loss of estrogen. The loss of estrogen can also result in a higher risk for coronary artery disease.

A low progesterone level also has its own host of effects on the body, most commonly psychological and emotional issues: irritability, rage, depression, tension, anxiety, confusion, fatigue, memory lapses and loss, inability to concentrate, and decreased stress tolerance.

Studies have shown that women lower their risk of osteoporosis and heart disease, for example, by quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet low in fat and cholesterol, getting enough calcium and vitamin D, and participating in weight-bearing exercise like hiking, dancing, or jogging at least three times a week.

You can talk to your healthcare provider about other methods for treating or mitigating these and other issues associated with menopause. When talking to your healthcare provider, consider asking the following questions:

  1. If my symptoms interfere with my ability to get a good night’s sleep or impair my quality of life, are they severe enough to warrant treatment?
  2. How will menopause affect my health long-term?
  3. Does menopause put me at a higher risk for heart disease, osteoporosis, or other complications? Should I get screened for such complications? What can I do to protect my heart and bones?

In the next installment of this series, the Society for Women’s Health Research will delve into myths and facts about hormones, including treatment options like hormone therapy. For more information about menopause and hormones across the lifespan, visit here.