Hormones & You

Ever wondered why those chemical messengers are so important? Here’s our guide to what you need to know about hormones.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Ever wondered why those chemical messengers are so important? Here’s our guide to what you need to know about hormones
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Your hormones are responsible for so much more than mood swings and the monthly menstrual cycle – they’re an essential part of your overall health. Hormones are messengers that travel to various parts of the body to help us function normally. There are many types: Thyroid hormones, reproductive hormones, and those that keep our gastrointestinal tract working. Some hormones exist purely to control the production of other hormones.

We ask leading hormone and endocrine experts about the key things women should know about hormones.

“HRT or hormone replacement therapy appears to protect women against heart disease ”.

Women have a higher incidence of heart disease after menopause, when estrogen levels drop dramatically, says Dr Sonia Davison, an endocrinologist at Jean Hailes for Women’s Health. “Studies have shown hormone replacement therapy seems to protect against the development of heart disease, but only if it is used close to when menopause occurs – not when it is first used many years after menopause.” “Thyroid disorders are very common, and the risk increases with age” Thyroid hormones – having too much or too little – can have a significant impact on our health. If you have an overactive thyroid gland and produce too much of the thyroid hormone, you can feel anxious: Your heart goes faster, your metabolism works faster and you lose weight. “With an underactive thyroid, you don’t produce enough thyroid hormone and everything goes very slow,” says Professor Helena Teede, Professor of Women’s Health at Monash University.

“People put on weight, bowels are slower, memory and thought processes are slower.” The good news? These problems can be managed with anti-thyroid medication to reduce thyroid hormone production, or with medication that replaces the thyroid hormone your body is missing.

“A woman’s testosterone levels drop by about 50 per cent between the ages of 35 and 45”.

From her mid-30s, a woman’s testosterone levels start to fall, says Professor Sue Davis, Professor of Women’s Health at Monash University. The ovaries start to age, and though you may have a regular menstrual cycle, you may not ovulate every month.

“By the age of 40, a woman’s chance of getting pregnant in any monthly cycle has dropped to about 5 per cent,” says Professor Davis. “There will be changes in estrogen levels, and this drop may lead to mood swings or migraines. ”

“Asthma can become worse after hitting menopause”.

Some women find their asthma becomes worse after menopause, and that may be due to a reduction in estrogen. “Fluctuating levels of estrogen seem to activate proteins in the body that cause inflammation of the airways. If that’s the case, it’s important to talk to your doctor about what can be done and whether hormone replacement therapy is a good idea to replace the estrogen,” says Dr Jonathan Burdon, Chairman of the National Asthma Council Australia.

“You can contribute to having a healthy hormonal balance”.

“There are two things women can do – have a healthy diet without too much sugar, and maintain a healthy weight,” says Professor Davis. Excessive body fat can alter a woman’s hormone balance quite substantially, she adds. The Health Promotion Board recommends managing weight with energy balance: Burn more energy, or calories, than you consume, to bring about weight loss. The healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) range for Singaporean women is from 18.6 to 22.9.

“Don’t touch that receipt! It may be contaminated with BPA”.

Endocrine disruptors, like bisphenol A (BPA), are chemicals that interfere with the body’s endocrine system. They act like hormones and there’s a lot of controversy surrounding them; they are thought to be possibly associated with a higher risk of the development of cancer, developmental disorders and birth defects.

“A wide range of substances, both natural and man-made, are thought to be endocrine disruptors, such as plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, toys and cosmetics,” says Dr Davison. “Some till receipts printed on thermal paper have also been found to contain BPA.”

“Hormonal changes contribute to low libido”.

For women, a key hormonal change that lowers libido is the drop in estrogen and testosterone as they age, notes Dr Davison.

Some research studies have reported that testosterone treatment can help to improve libido, but this is controversial and requires expert advice. “Women should talk to their doctor about treatment for low libido if it’s distressing them or causing relationship stress,” she says.