They are blamed for everything that goes wrong in a woman, from pimples to pigmentation to PMS. Whether we love them or loathe them, hormones are here to stay.
In celebration of International Women’s Day in March, we explore the explicit relationship between women and hormones with Dr Ho Choon Moy, consultant gynaecologist at the Pantai Hospital Cheras.
WHAT ARE HORMONES?
Like little despatch boys running around in the human body, hormones are chemical messengers that transfer information and instructions from one set of cells to another. Controlled by the endocrine system, hormones regulate every cell, organ and function of our bodies.
“The endocrine system controls our mood, growth and development, tissue function, metabolism and sexual function. In women, they help support the additional task of pregnancy and other reproductive processes,” explains Dr Ho.
Made up of major glands such as the hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid, parathyroids, adrenals, pineal body, and the reproductive glands (the ovaries and testes), the endocrine system releases more than 20 kinds of hormones into the bloodstream where they can exert their influence on the specific body part that they were designed for.
Organs such as the pancreas, brains, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, skin, thymus and placenta also secrete hormones.
Most of the time, the hormones work hand-in-hand with the nervous system, allowing the body to function like a well-oiled machine. However, there are particular stages in a woman’s life when the hormones appear to go into overdrive. Dr Ho lists these major milestones as:
This signals the start of reproductive life for a girl and usually happens at the age of 12 to 18. The body somehow knows that it is time for changes to happen, so it sends a message to the ovaries to start working.
The ovaries begin releasing the estrogen and progesterone hormones, which if unfertilised by the male sperm, will be discharged out of the body as menstruation.
In many societies, the first menses is of great significance as it symbolises that a girl is now a woman.
“As the body is still adjusting to the changes, normally the hormonal effects are minimal and the girl feels no real discomfort apart from having to tackle the monthly menses. Don’t worry if the menses are irregular at this point because the body is going through many physical changes, such as hair growth at the armpit, body curves appearing and acne,” she reassures.
Every expectant mom knows that this is one of the most volatile stages of her life and it does not quite end when the baby is born either. During pregnancy, the placenta starts producing a large amount of hormones, particularly progesterone, the same hormone that creates Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), in non-pregnant women.
Progesterone plays an important role in helping the pregnancy progress and a deficiency will result in birth defects of the fetus.
What bothers most women are the skin changes. Pigment cells known as Melanocyte Stimulating Hormones (MSH) caused spotting in some body areas. The face might be affected by facial chlosma (a darkish tinge) while the linear nigra, a thin dark line appears from the navel to the groin.
“Stretch marks on the abdomen, thighs, hips and arms, are also believed to be a result of hormonal changes. Although they are called striae gravidarum, meaning ‘markings of pregnancy’, they are also prevalent among obese women as the hormones are released by the fat cells beneath the skin,” says Dr Ho.
She adds that the hormone prolactin will also start secreting colustrum weeks before the baby is due, in preparation for breastfeeding. This sometimes results in sore and tender breasts particularly during the third trimester.
Although the common age for menopause is around 50, some women experience menopausal symptoms earlier, sometimes as early as the 20s.
Dr. Ho explains that this happens to women with dysfunctional ovaries. “The ovaries produce the estrogen hormone, the single most important hormone in a female. If the ovaries tend to produce more ‘bad eggs’, the woman will tend to age faster.”
Without sufficient estrogen, the body goes through ‘organ aging’, where the whole body system starts to deteriote- the skin loses its elasticity, the mind fails to function well, the uterus starts to collapse and there are increased risks of heart problems and osteoporosis.
She defines menopause as the end of fertility, where there are no menses for at least 12 months. “As the ovaries ‘retires’, the lack of estrogen will change a woman’s body image. She starts losing her curves and becomes more barrell-like. Wrinkles start appearing and the breasts start to sag.”
All these is accompanied by mood swings, vaginal dryness and hot flushes that might make menopausal women wake up sweating at night. As the vaginal wall becomes thinner, intercourse is often painful and there are higher chances of vaginal infections.
However, women need not suffer in silence. “There are many kinds of treatments for menopause nowadays and women can choose what they prefer based on their lifestyle and needs,” says Dr Ho.
What’s most important is knowing that hormones are not our foes as they perform important functions in the body that makes us unique as women. See a doctor if you suspect you are suffering from a hormonal imbalance because it can be easily treated with medications and lifestyle changes.
Top 5 causes of hormonal imbalance:
- Poor diet: high fat, low fibre, eating disorders
- Use of contraceptives or other hormonal products
- Changes in life cycles