Women are difficult to understand, it is said. Thanks to the complex mechanisms that govern their body functions inclusing hormone function. Even the slightest of changes in hormone levels makes a huge difference to her health and moods. Thus, it is important to understand the role of hormones in the body.
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemical substances created and released in response to certain physiological changes in the body. They act as messengers that carry information between cells, instructing them to perform functions like metabolism, growth, reproduction and mood control.
Let’s understand the three main hormones that play a key role in a woman’s health and wellbeing.
The important ones
“Oestrogen and progesterone, along with the traditionally male hormone testosterone, are produced in the ovaries. And along with unisex follicle stimulating hormone [FSH] and luteinising hormone [LH], they play an important role in a woman’s fertility,” says Rohini Patankar, a Mumbai-based gynaecologist.
The levels of oestrogen and progesterone increase and decrease with ovulation [release of the egg], menstruation, and pregnancy and can cause mood changes, including the famous [or rather infamous] premenstrual syndrome [PMS].
The progesterone part
The primary function of progesterone [produced in the ovaries] is to prepare the body for conception, ovulation, and pregnancy. It also is said to play a role in a woman’s sexual drive. Progesterone is responsible for instructing the uterus to release certain chemicals during the menstrual cycle, which help the implantation of a fertilised egg.
It prevents the mother’s immune system from rejecting the foetus as foreign. The levels of progesterone drop right before labour to prepare for delivery.
Oestrogen is produced when the ovary is preparing to release the egg. During the menstrual cycle, oestrogen helps progesterone in preparing the uterus for implantation, after which, ovulation ceases. It is thus used in oral contraceptive products, as it works with progesterone to mimic pregnancy by preventing further ovulation. The main function of oestrogen is tissue growth and cell proliferation.
Predominantly considered a male hormone, testosterone is also present in women, though in much smaller quantities. Research suggests that it may play a role in muscle mass, strength and sex drive. In small doses, testosterone therapy can help women with a failing sex drive, particularly following menopause.
The hormone-contraceptives connection
Contraceptives help women control and plan their life better. If used properly, under the guidance of an expert, they are an effective method of preventing unwanted pregnancy.
Since hormones play a role in the natural reproductive cycle of women, they are an effective option in developing oral contraceptives [OC]. Currently, OC pills principally use oestrogen and progesterone to fool the body into thinking that it is pregnant or making it difficult for both the sperm and the egg to meet.
OC pills are available in various powers, ranging from strong to weak, which is determined by the amount of hormones they contain. While most women do not experience any side-effects, some women do experience nausea, vomiting, and breast tenderness. However, these effects subside by three months of using the pill. A good OC pill should be one with the lowest hormonal dose and minimal side-effects.
“Combined OC pill [contain oestrogen and progesterone] should not be taken by women who breast feed. They can opt for progesterone-only pills [POP] an alternative,” writes Mumbai-based infertility specialist Rajashree Mane in an article in Complete Wellbeing [Contraceptives: Be in control, January 2010 issue].
A common concern around the use of OC pills is that they cause weight gain. However, research does not support this. Since OC pills directly affect hormonal levels and fertility, it is best to consult a qualified gynaecologist before using these pills as their use is contraindicated in conditions like history of brain disease, migraine, epilepsy, heart disease, blood clotting problems, or pregnancy.
Facts about the pill
Recent research in the field of contraception has eased the safety concerns regarding the pill. It is a safe form of birth control and provides several additional health benefits. It:
- reduces the risk for ovarian and endometrial cancer
- reduces bone loss associated with ageing
- regulates the menstrual cycle
- relieves dysmenorrhoea [pain associated with menstruation]
- relieves perimenopausal [prior to the onset of menopause] symptoms
- manages acne.
These contain higher levels of hormones and hence should only be used in emergencies. Experts say that you can take two tablets with a gap of 12 hours, soon after unprotected intercourse, preferably before 72 hours. It may give rise to some side-effects like nausea and vomiting. Thus, the best way of avoiding unwanted pregnancy is proper use of a contraceptive method.