Estrogen, Hormone Therapy and Menopause

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How Estrogen Impacts a Woman’s Body

Estrogen is a type of sex hormone produced primarily by a woman’s ovaries. It is responsible for female characteristics and a woman’s reproductive system, including her menstrual cycle, or period.

Throughout a woman’s life, estrogen levels will rise and fall. For example, estrogen levels are higher during puberty and pregnancy and lower following childbirth, during breastfeeding and after menopause.

Estrogen helps keep blood vessels open and flexible. That means they can relax and expand to accommodate blood flow. A buildup in the blood vessels leading to the heart or brain can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Although many studies indicate estrogen has positive effects on the circulatory system, more research is needed. It is clear that estrogen reduces atherosclerosis by reducing low-density lipoproteins (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) and inflammatory processes in the vascular system, and may also act as an antioxidant; however, these effects account for only a portion of the total cardiovascular benefit of estrogen.

After menopause, a woman’s body makes very little estrogen.

Hormone Therapy

Scientists have studied whether hormone therapy might help reduce cardiovascular risk, yet more research is needed.

For women in the beginning stages of menopause, research indicates certain combinations of hormone therapy may provide cardiovascular benefits when started in early menopause but not in late menopause. Some hormone therapy studies also show a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and protection from bone loss. These benefits seem to outweigh the risks for most women in early menopause.

For women later in menopause, the American Heart Association recommends against using postmenopausal hormone therapy to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease or stroke because some studies have shown it does not appear to reduce the risk.

Further research is needed to test other hormone therapies and their impact.

Talk to your health care team to learn more about the benefits and risks of hormone therapy based on your needs.