There are two hormones that play a critical role at nearly every stage of a human being’s life, from birth, through childhood and adolescence to old age. These hormones are estrogen and testosterone and in this article we’re going to take a deep dive into what each does and why.
What is Estrogen and Testosterone?
Estrogen and testosterone are a class of hormones used by the body for a wide variety of functions.
Testosterone is the sex hormone that’s primarily found in males, although are also produced by females in small amounts. Studies show that males produce nearly 7 to 8 times more testosterone than women. In men, the testicles and adrenal gland produces testosterone, while in women, the ovaries are the ones that pump minute amounts of it into the body.
Estrogen is best known as the female sex hormone. However, there are actually 3 major endogenous types of estrogen: estriol, estradiol, and estrone. These hormones are produced by both the ovaries and fat tissue. Estrogen–primarily estradiol–also has a complex relationship with the male body. Estrogen receptors in men suggest that the female sex hormone also plays a role in sustaining libido and regulating sperm production, although the exact relationship remains unclear.
Effects of Estrogen on the Body
Estrone is the weakest and least understood hormone, present in higher amounts in postmenopausal women, and is thought to serve as “back-up” hormones that converts to more powerful types of estrogen.
Estriol is produced by a woman’s placenta in high amounts during pregnancy, but is otherwise undetectable in the body. Studies have been looking into the hormone for relieving pre-menopausal discomfort.
Estradiol is the main female hormone that’s responsible for a plethora of important functions such as triggering puberty and the development of secondary sex characteristics, regulating the reproductive cycle, and supporting bone health.
Effects of Testosterone on the Body
As the major male growth and development hormone for males, testosterone is responsible for a long list of bodily functions:
- The hormone dictates the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics. In the womb, it regulates the development of the penis and the testes. During puberty, it triggers an increase in facial and body hair; development of the Adam’s apple and subsequently, voice changes; an increase in height and muscle mass; and more production of sebum, which is why acne is quite prevalent during a young boy’s teenage years.
- Many studies have directly linked testosterone levels to libido and arousal, and not just for men. Women, particularly menopausal individuals, can also boost their sexual desires using testosterone.
- Beyond functions related to sexual development and libido, testosterone wears many more hats for wellness and health in general. The hormone plays a part in keeping your bones strong, protecting against cardiovascular diseases, and regulating red blood cell circulation.
- The hormone has also been linked to cognitive and emotional health. Testosterone may lead to healthier brain tissue, which in turn leads to better mental performance, suggests a report from Harvard Men’s Health Watch.
Low levels of estrogen are often caused by diseases that damage or impede the normal function of ovaries, such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Menopause also causes estrogen levels to rapidly decline, which is why many women find the experience as uncomfortable.
Infertility and irregular cycles
Estrogen is the principal hormone that regulates a woman’s menstruation. Dysfunctional levels of the hormone often lead to wildly irregular periods–with some women skipping months at a time.
Estradiol, in particular, is crucial for conception. The body uses high levels of the hormone to trigger the ovary to release an egg. Obviously, low estradiol means no ovulation, and no ovulation means no chance of getting pregnant.
A decrease in estrogen levels can make your vaginal tissues drier, which leads to pain, itching, and irritation during intercourse. Falling estrogen levels can also cause lower sexual desire.
Sex hormones play an important role in distributing fat and metabolism, especially in women. An imbalance in estrogen levels can lead to weight gain and obesity, studies suggest. Menopausal women have been shown to store more fat in the abdominal area, where it is less likely to be utilised effectively by the body. Fat in this area has been correlated with higher blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, and insulin resistance.
Poor cardiovascular health
Estrogen has been tied by research to many heart-related functions. The hormone has been observed to decrease levels of harmful LDL cholesterol and dilate blood vessels to increase blood flow. Menopausal women are at a higher risk for cardiovascular issues, although other age-related factors may play a role along with decreasing levels of estrogen.
Low Testosterone-Related Disorders
Testosterone is a hormone that has its fingers dipped in many bodily functions, from sexual to mental. That’s why significantly low levels of testosterone, known as hypogonadism, can trigger a domino effect of negative effects on the body.
Poorer cognitive health
Low levels of testosterone can impede mental processes, specifically memory and recall. Men with increased levels of testosterone have better working memory. In studies, the same improvement was not seen with women who were supplemented with estrogen.
The link between depression and testosterone is a bridge that’s been crossed and examined multiple times. While the specifics are still hazy, higher rates of depression or depressive symptoms are observed in men with lower than average levels of testosterone.
Conversely, supplementing with testosterone has also been found to effectively alleviate depressive symptoms such as lack of appetite and chronic fatigue.
Loss of bone density
Testosterone levels normally go down with age, albeit rather slowly. This is why men with normal levels of the hormone don’t usually feel the bone degrading effects of having low testosterone, even well past middle age. However, hypogonadal individuals appear to be at an increased risk for degenerative bone diseases like osteopenia and osteoporosis as early as 50 years old.
The relationship between testosterone and bone health seems to grind down to bone formation. Our bones go through a complicated cycle of getting broken down and reformed by special teams of cells. These cells are sensitive to hormones. Low testosterone levels can lead to bone breaking down faster than our bodies can build it, thus reducing bone density.
Sexual dysfunctions and low sperm count
Lower testosterone levels are linked to low sex drive and poor libido. The deficit can even translate to physical symptoms such as the inability to sustain or get an erection, also known as erectile dysfunction. It can also cause less sperm production–which doesn’t make conception impossible, but considerably more difficult.
Boosting Testosterone Levels
Testosterone boosting has become an industry in itself. One only need to search for “testosterone booster” to be bombarded by millions of results for testosterone capsules, powders, and supplements.
However, studies caution against just grabbing a bottle off the shelf. Possibly only as few as 25 percent of sellers have actual data to back up their hormone-boosting claims, found a study from the University of Southern California.
Currently there are only two verifiable ways to kick your testosterone production into higher gear: good food and testosterone replacement theory. A handful of foods and minerals have been directly linked to higher or deficit T-levels like ginger, zinc, and pomegranate.
Individuals with more acute testosterone deficiency may want a more direct approach. This usually means getting some form of Testosterone Replacement Treatment (TRT). TRT has been used to treat hypogonadism, help young boys properly develop secondary sex characteristics, and alleviate the symptoms of low testosterone levels.
Boosting Estrogen Levels
There are far fewer estrogen supplements on the market. Part of the reason is because estrogen, when taken by itself only, is linked to small increases in risk for certain cancers, heart disease, and blood clotting. Introducing estrogen into the body is a more delicate balancing act than taking unregulated testosterone.
Still, doctors haven’t dismissed the potential of estrogen therapy entirely. Menopausal women can still benefit from short-term treatment to alleviate hot flushes, vaginal dryness, and prevent bone loss from low estrogen levels. Younger women can also pair estrogen with progestin to reduce the risk of uterine cancer.