Evolution has two ultimate goals: survival and reproduction. We’ve covered the basic survival hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol, responsible for dealing with stress and initiating the “fight or flight” response. We’ve covered most of the hormones that serve as chemical messengers to tell your organs what to do. And we discussed the all-important thyroid and how to test its functions. In the final installment of our endocrine series, we’ll be delving into the reproductive aspect of hormones, how they regulate body functions and the latest technology for comprehensive hormone testing.
Most people are familiar with the three basic sex hormones- testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. What’s less well-known is that these hormones do so much more than regulate sexual functions. They’re a vital part of keeping the body working properly, just like the rest of the hormones involved in the endocrine system.
Nothing in the body exists in a vacuum. Hormones are part of a complex system consisting of chemical signals, cellular receptors, glands, and organs. Researchers are still in the process of discovering the ins and outs of the endocrine system, and therefore it can be difficult for medical practitioners to diagnose and treat hormonal imbalances.
Thankfully, today there is a wide base of knowledge regarding hormones and testing you can do to get an idea of how yours are behaving. Men and women have very different requirements for their sex hormones and understanding the difference can be helpful to take proactive steps to better endocrine health.
Testosterone is the sex hormone most people relate to manliness- muscles, beards, deep voices, and testicles. And though it does have an effect on all these things, the truth is women have testosterone too (though in less abundance).
Testosterone is produced in the testes in men and the ovaries in women. All testosterone production is stimulated by the master pituitary gland and has a variety of functions including bone development, muscle growth, and body hair. It is testosterone that tells a boy’s body to become a man’s and keeps them feeling energetic and vital throughout life.
Like all hormones, the body requires a balance to operate efficiently. As men age, they experience a decline in testosterone that can happen gradually or quickly depending on a number of factors. Decreased testosterone in men can cause weight gain, decreased sexual desire, type 2 diabetes, thyroid imbalances, bone loss, muscle loss, and even cancer. That’s why it’s important to take note of testosterone levels as you age and make sure you’re living a lifestyle that promotes healthy production.
When a man is stressed (either from lifestyle factors, eating too few calories, or constant extreme cardio exercise), he produces the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is known to decrease the amount of free testosterone in the body, meaning there is less that can be absorbed into cells to make things happen.
Measuring testosterone levels has been an ongoing challenge in medicine. Currently, blood serum is used to test hormone levels and is often used to diagnose endocrine disorders. It is known that in men, testosterone secretion follows a circadian rhythm, being highest in the morning and decreasing during the day. Therefore, it’s best to take samples for testing in the morning hours for the most accurate results.
Men, on average, have 7-8 times more testosterone than women. This makes testing for imbalances in women more challenging. There have also been varying measurements observed between laboratories, giving researchers a reason to begin looking for better methods of testing.
Estrogen is the “female hormone” but is also found in men. It’s produced mainly in the ovaries, but also in the adrenal glands and fat tissue.
Estrogen is not a single hormone, but a collective name we give to all three forms of it- estrone, estradiol, and estriol. Together they help tissues grow (namely, the breasts, ovaries, and prostate) and help regulate serotonin in the brain.
Estrone (E1) is a weak estrogen. It is mostly produced by women that are post-menopausal. The effects of low estrone or high estrone levels are not currently well known but it is commonly associated with breast and prostate cancer. Because it’s produced in adipose (fat) tissue, women who are obese will produce more estrone and be put at risk for these cancers.
Estradiol (E2) is the primary estrogen produced in women during their child-bearing years. Its main duty is to mature the reproductive system and maintain it. It is the strongest of the estrogens and protects bone density, growth hormone levels, and mood in both men and women (though women have higher levels).
Having too much estradiol has been associated with acne, loss of sex drive, constipation, and depression. Extremely high levels can put women at risk for uterine and breast cancer. As a woman ages, her estradiol levels drop, resulting in the cessation of the menstrual cycle and the symptoms of menopause- hot flashes, mood swings, and vaginal dryness.
Estriol (E3) is the weakest form of estrogen and is responsible for protecting breast tissue and vaginal health. By occupying the receptors for estrone, it blocks its cancerous effects and maintains a healthy reproductive system.
Progesterone is a precursor for testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol. In women, it works with estrogen to regulate the menstrual cycle and prepare the body for pregnancy. Most contraceptives are a mix of estrogen and progestin, a chemical created to bind to progesterone receptors and stimulate the same effects. (Progesterone is not well-absorbed orally.)
Because progesterone becomes cortisol (the stress hormone), people who are constantly stressed will often have low levels of progesterone. In men, this means less progesterone gets to become testosterone, which can lead to problems like depression, muscle loss, weight gain, decreased sexual desire, and bone loss.
Women with low progesterone levels may struggle to conceive because the body needs the hormone to create an environment for a fertilized egg to grow. These women may also have a higher risk of miscarriage.
The Dutch Test
At the Institute for Human Optimization, we take testing to the next level. While most physicians rely on blood serum testing for hormone levels, we prefer the Dutch test. Using five dried samples of urine over a 24 hour period, the Dutch test provides the most comprehensive assessment of sex and adrenal hormones and their metabolites. It also includes the daily, free cortisol pattern, organic acids, melatonin (6-OHMS), and 8-OHdG.
Hormone levels vary throughout the day. Additionally, there is a lack of extensive metabolite testing when using serum (especially for cortisol and estrogens). Our goal is to get the most accurate depiction of your health so we can guide you to the hacks and habits that will increase your healthspan. Some people metabolize and produce hormones in the balanced amounts, some don’t.
This is why we treat each patient as an individual, using the latest testing technology as it changes to meet the growing demand for personalized, integrative medicine.
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