Women’s hormone health is a BIG topic. I’ll do my best to cover it as well as can be done in a single article, and this is a long article. Since 500 page plus books are written on the subject this can really only give you a glimpse of the complexity.
There will be three hormones discussed here, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. While the first two get a lot of press, many women do not even know they have testosterone or how important it is to their health. We’ll get to that soon enough.
What is not discussed here are the many other important hormones that can certainly affect what is going on. We have other articles available for these.
- For cortisol and the adrenals click here.
- For thyroid click here.
- For insulin and blood sugar click here.
Men’s hormones operate on a daily cycle. They basically follow the sun. Women’s hormones operate more on a monthly cycle. Think of it as a lunar or moon–thly cycle, which is the root of the word. Thus the symptoms or lack of symptoms, around your cycle are going to be the major sign of your hormonal health. (Like for men, we recommend looking at morning wood as a key indicator.)
We’ll dive into these three hormones and look at what can be done specifically for them with herbs and otherwise. Then we’ll look at some of the bigger picture things that affect all of them.
With men, it’s typically pretty simple. I’d say in 80% or more of cases we need more testosterone and less estrogen. With women, it’s not so easy. For at least two of these three hormones, different women may need more or less, for the numbers to go up or down.
For best results work with your doctor to get blood or saliva testing of these.
Yes, testosterone is critical for women. In fact, you might have more testosterone circulating in your body than you do estradiol, the primary estrogen. Its role may be far more important than you think. The ovaries and adrenal glands produce most of it, while more is made elsewhere in the body.
Dr. Kathy Maupin in her book, The Secret Female Hormone, says lack of testosterone is an issue in many women, leading to some of the other hormonal issues. Another thing to keep in mind is that testosterone is an estrogen precursor. It’s only one conversion step away from estradiol, the main good estrogen.
Too little testosterone may result in:
- Low Sex Drive and Inability to Orgasm
- Osteoporosis and Sarcopenia (weak bones and muscles)
- Vaginal Dryness
- Missed or Irregular Menses
- Changes in Breast Tissue
- Lack of Motivation
- Low Self-Esteem
- Low Immunity or Autoimmunity
- Joint Pain or Arthritis
- Higher Incidence of Cancer
But women can also have too much testosterone, which may result in:
- Loss of Hair
- Irregular Menses
- Facial Hair Growth
- Cycles Longer than 35 Days
Testosterone Reference Range for Women
This seems to be one area that the medical establishment hasn’t well established, though a recent study looked to find one. They came out with a total testosterone of 15-46 ng/dL and free testosterone of 1.2-6.4 pg/mL
Dr. Maupin seeks higher numbers. Her ideal numbers for total testosterone are 30-60 ng/dL with free testosterone above 10 pg/mL.
In either case, testing for testosterone at these levels is best taken in the first 7 days of your cycle as these levels will fluctuate, testosterone peaking at day 13 or 14.
Causes of High or Low Testosterone in Women
Note that these may not be causes, so much as correlations.
Too High Testosterone:
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Insulin Resistance
Too Low Testosterone:
- Over 40 Years of Age
- Many Medications including Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs, Antidepressants, and Antihypertensives
- Birth Control
- Lack of Resistance Training
While testosterone replacement therapy is being made available to women, a natural approach is recommended first. Several of our herbs have been great in restoring hormonal health in men, and they can do the same for women.
Pine pollen works great for many women. The powder is generally recommended for women, as it’s said the hormones won’t survive the digestive tract, yet it still exerts hormonal effects.
Initially, the Pine Pollen Tincture was not recommended for women, but some have used it anyway with great results. Start with a low dose, just a couple drops and then work up to maybe half a dropper two times a day. Pay attention to the symptoms of too much testosterone when doing this though, like acne or hair growth, usually being easy to spot.
Tongkat Ali is another option that works well for some women. Kacip Fatimah is regarded as the female equivalent, great for boosting the libido, and may work that way by supporting testosterone production.
For reducing testosterone in women upping your intake of fiber is one of the best ways as it can bind to hormones in the intestines to be removed from the body.
Zinc is an important mineral for regulating androgens, helping to increase them if needed, and lower them if needed.
Some women supplement with DHEA, which is available over the counter. As a precursor to testosterone, this likely will increase your levels.
Progesterone is the dominant hormone of pregnancy, hence it’s name which means pro-gestation. But it is not only at play during pregnancy. It is produced in the second half of a woman’s cycle where it is critical in balancing out estradiol. Dr. Dan Purser calls it the “Woman’s Feel-Good Hormone”.
Progesterone is not produced in the female body before puberty begins or after menopause.
Unlike the other hormones we’re looking at here, progesterone doesn’t get too high. Any problems will be when it is too low, and out of balance with other hormones. Sometimes this is called estrogen dominance or unopposed estrogen because the progesterone isn’t there to balance it out.
Too little progesterone may result in:
- PMS Symptoms
- Irregular Menses or Heavy Bleeding
- Breast Tenderness
- Bloating and Fluid Retention
- Night Sweats
- Poor Sleep including Restless Legs
- Mood Swings with Anxiety or Depression
- Poor Coordination
- Breast or Ovarian Cysts
The most common sign of progesterone dysregulation is any kind of PMS symptoms. As progesterone is naturally calming another good sign is anxiety.
Pay particular attention if you’re over 35 and especially in your 40’s.
Progesterone Reference Range for Women
The normal progesterone levels are measured during the second half of the cycle. At day 21 before the age of 40, they should be at 10-25 ng/mL. Optimal levels are at least 15 ng/dL for women.
Pre-ovulation during a cycle, the levels are typically less than 1 ng/mL. And after menopause, the levels will typically stay at this same level, less than 1 ng/mL.
Higher levels occur with pregnancy in the range of 50-400 ng/mL.
Causes of Low Progesterone
One of the main things you’ll have to look out for is what is called “Pregnenolone Steal”. Pregnenolone is the precursor to progesterone. Both of these can also be converted into cortisol.
If your body is overly stressed, all the hormonal cascade may move in this direction, thus leading to low progesterone, and possibly other low hormones too. It is important to note that even if you don’t mentally feel stress, that doesn’t necessarily mean your body isn’t under lots of stress.
Poor sleep leads to cortisol dysregulation and vice versa. There are tons of environmental stressors from poor food quality, EMF’s, toxic load, caffeine as well as work, relationship or financial troubles.
The other issue is not having enough cholesterol in your diet. I know you’ve probably been taught to be afraid…be very afraid…of cholesterol. But they were wrong. Cholesterol is the precursor to ALL the sex hormones. Although your body can create it itself, it’s much less energy intensive to just get it from your diet.
Sometimes progesterone supplements, or herbs that support it, are only taken in the second half of a cycle. Other people recommend taking them the full time.
These are even available over-the-counter. Make sure, if you’re taking progesterone, it is bio-identical and not a synthetic form like progestin. These progesterone supplements are usually taken topically or sublingually.
The bio-identical form is made typically derived from diosgenin as is found in wild yams, though it is also found in other foods too. It is important to note that it is derived from this molecule, and yams do not actually contain progesterone themselves.
That being said, it’s likely that this herb and others, Vitex or chaste tree berries, can help support your body’s own hormones, progesterone included. Seabuckthorn may be another option.
Some evidence also shows how supplementing with vitamin C can help support progesterone. Obviously, with any hormone, a full complement of micronutrients is going to be critical in optimal functioning health.
Estrogen is commonly thought of as the main female hormone, though as we’ve seen, there’s often more testosterone than estrogen. To complicate matters further there are three main different forms of estrogen: Estradiol (E2), Estrone (E1), and Estriol (E3).
And these have further metabolites including 2-hydroxy-estradiol, 2-hydroxy-estrone, 16-alpha-hydroxy-estrone and 4-hydroxy-estrone. The “2’s” are considered the healthier versions while “16” is linked to cancer.
Too little estradiol may result in:
- Vaginal Dryness or Infections
- Painful Intercourse
- Waking Up in Middle of Night
- Hot Flashes
- Recurring UTI’s
- Stopping of Menses
- Sagging Skin and Breasts
- Arthritis or Achy Joints
- Weak Bones and Muscle
Too high of estrogen (estradiol or otherwise) may result in:
- Excess Water Retention
- Weight Gain, especially Belly and Butt Fat
- Memory Problems
- Breast Cancer or Cysts
- Excessive Breakdowns and Crying
- Brain Fog
At menopause, women tend to start making less estradiol, sometimes called the “young woman’s hormone” and make more estrone, “the old lady hormone”. It is important to note that testosterone helps keep estrone in balance.
It is possible to have high estrogen while having low estradiol too.
Estrogen Reference Ranges for Women
When it comes to testing estradiol is the estrogen most commonly tested, though the others are available.
In adult women (over 18 years) estradiol changes with the cycle.
- Follicular Phase 30-120 pg/mL
- Ovulatory Phase 130-370 pg/mL
- Luteal Phase 70-250 pg/mL
- And for post-menopausal women: 10-60 pg/mL
The optimal ratio of estradiol to estrone is 2:1.
It’s important to note that xeno-estrogens may not show up in this test. The effects of them can be seen in the other hormone tests but they’re not measured directly. While many women do need more estrogen, xeno-estrogens, foreign to the human body, aren’t good for anyone!
Causes of High or Low Estrogen
High estrogen is correlated with:
- Perimenopause (after age 35)
- Alcohol Consumption
- Exposure to Xeno-estrogens (plastics, pesticides, skin care products, etc.)
- Magnesium Deficiency
Low Estrogen is correlated with:
- After Age 50
- Extreme Exercise
- Gluten Intolerance
Supplements for Estrogen
Estrogen can be replaced with drugs. If you talk to your doctor about this route, make sure once again that they are bio-identical and not synthetic. In the past women have been overprescribed estrogen causing more problems than it’s helped.
As much as avoiding xeno-estrogens is good, here you can turn to the natural world and get help from phyto-estrogens. Flax seeds are known for both being phyto-estrogenic and also helping to pull bad estrogens from the body. Soy is famous for its estrogenic effects. This is best eaten fermented as was traditionally done in Asia, rather than in overly processed forms common in the West.
Herbs like hops, black cohosh, damiana, shatavari and many others also contain phyto-estrogens. Others may not have them but can exhibit some estrogenic effects, like dong quai.
Other important supplements, or foods to eat, are those that help with methylation, as this is part of the process of removing bad estrogens from the body. B12, methyl-folate, the amino acid methionine, MSM, and others all help with this. Compounds in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, DIM, and I3C, can also help with this.
Combination of Hormonal Problems
If you looked at the lists of symptoms in these you probably saw there were a lot of commonalities. Hormones do not occur in isolation but interact with everything else. It is more common to have several hormones either high or low than just one of them.
Here we only talked about testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen. Cortisol and the thyroid hormones play big roles. So do the hormones insulin, leptin and others involved in eating food.
With a blood test, you can often narrow it down and identify the root of the problem. But even then it can be tough. Be prepared to experiment. What follows is a list of things that will help most everyone. The truth is, if you cover the foundations of health, then your hormones should largely take care of themselves. That’s 90% of the battle. The problem is, as a culture, we’re so far removed from having healthy basics. But if you get these down, then a little tweaking on top of them with something like herbs can lead to great energy, health, and hormones.
Athena Woman’s Formula
We made Athena Woman’s Formula to have wide-ranging action, including on the hormones. It contains Shatavari which does have phyto-estrogens. It contains a smaller amount of Pine Pollen which does contain phyto-androgens. And the other herbs inside all interact with the hormones in different ways.
It is meant to help balance the hormones of people of many ages. Instead of just increasing or decreasing one thing, as natural herbs and extracts, it can interact intelligently with your body to help optimize things as they’re needed.
Of course, nothing works for everyone, but it’s worth trying out for yourself.
Big Picture Things to Do
As always lifestyle is going to be the most important part of hormone health. While hormones tend to go down with age, I really think this is mostly an issue of accumulation of various toxins, from the outside and in, as well as a break down from overuse, that occurs over that time.
Hormones also tend to work in both directions. Thus with some of these issues, like sleep, for instance, supporting it will result in better hormones AND better hormones will allow for better sleep.
Quality and Quantity of Sleep
Sleep plays a big role in hormones. Growth hormone, which is needed for recovery and repair spikes during sleep. Then when you wake up cortisol raises. Although we tend to focus on cortisol as a bad hormone, typically because we are overstressed, without it you wouldn’t be able to get up. (And if you do have trouble getting up in the mornings, that can be a sign of cortisol being off balance.)
There are tons of ways to work on better sleep. In fact, I wrote a whole ebook about it called Upgrade Your Sleep.
The simplest way to help optimize your hormones in this regard is to pay attention to the sun and moon. We are heavily domesticated, living indoors almost all the time. Yet the sun and the moon play a big role in all of us. Simply going outside first thing in the morning to see and stand in the sunlight will help regulate your hormones. And then winding down, getting away from blue-light devices at night time, can aid in getting to sleep.
For women especially, affected more by the moon, seeing and standing in the moonlight may also help out. A woman’s cycle is a reflection of the moon. Without seeing the moon your cycle can begin to get disrupted.
Simply enough, nothing works right without sufficient quality and quantity of water. And most people are chronically dehydrated. Fix this issue, and many issues, hormonal or otherwise, will be much better off than before.
Water, it’s so simple that we often don’t think enough about it.
Importance of Fats & Cholesterol
Many people, women especially, are still under the false notion that fats and cholesterol are bad. While the body can make cholesterol it’s an intensive process and it’s better to get this from your diet, from foods that contain healthy saturated fat like in avocados and nuts. Cholesterol is the beginning molecule from which progesterone, testosterone, estrogen, cortisol and many others are created. Insufficient cholesterol makes it impossible to have good hormone levels.
The right amounts of carbohydrates and protein are also important but for different reasons.
Low-Toxin and Endocrine Disrupting Diet
Pesticides and various other chemicals that are sprayed on and added to foods tend to be very disruptive to the endocrine system. Although many of these are estrogenic, that doesn’t necessarily mean they help women out. Xeno-estrogens may act similarly to estrogens in the body, but since they’re not quite the same, they often lead to problems. More about endocrine disrupting chemicals here.
The simple answer is to eat organic and avoid things like plastic as much as possible.
Ditch the Endocrine Disrupting Skin Care Products
As harmful as what you eat can be, an even worse culprit is probably what you put on your skin. We tend to absorb more through our skin than even our gut. Thus the simple rule, which is way outside conventional standards, is that you should only put things on your skin that you would eat.
Yet we tend not to think like this. And thus the ingredients in most skin care products, even many organic ones are atrocious.
Birth Control and Synthetic Hormones
By its very nature, “the pill” in its many forms is meant to disrupt woman’s hormones. To think that this doesn’t cause damage is the height of hubris. Although there are many effects, the biggest one is probably the increased risk of cancer. Even the World Health Organization has classified the pill as carcinogenic. Not possibly carcinogenic, but definitely so.
Beyond the pill are many synthetic hormones that are given to older women especially around perimenopause and menopause. The synthetics can also lead to lots of problems.
And while natural or bioidentical forms of progesterone, estrogen and more can be given, my advice is always to see if you can do things even more naturally first. Work to restore your body’s own supply of hormones first, whether with herbs, foods, and lifestyle, even before going this route.
Especially these days, women are under more stress than before. And they handle it quite differently than men. While gender equality is a great thing, it’s almost forced women into a testosterone-driven world, which, biologically, they might not be as equipped to handle.
Women especially often need a sense of community or family in order to adequately handle stress.
Adaptogens like Ashwagandha and Eleuthero can be great for this.
This is a big topic in and of itself. The liver does so much for us that its support is necessary for anyone wishing to achieve radiant health. Of critical importance here is that the liver detoxifies pretty much everything in the body, most notably bad estrogens. If it is backed up or sluggish it can’t do this as well.
As much as everyone wants to keep drinking alcohol, the liver sees that as a priority to work on. Thus for every drink you have, that’s less work the liver is doing on other things. Wine may have some benefits, but if you drink just one glass daily, it’s going to slow down the liver’s other processes as it makes alcohol a high priority.
One of my favorite herbs for this is Schisandra. This berry does so many things. One of which is to support both phase 1 and phase 2 of liver detox, which is a rare combination for one thing to do. I’d say in this way, as well as others, it’s a great hormonal support herb. It’s also well regarded by the women of China as one of the top beauty herbs. (Makes sense, if the body can remove toxins better through the liver, it won’t have to through the skin.)
I told you this would be a big article. And really we’ve only scratched the surface, but if you’ve gotten this far you should have some ideas on what YOU can do to support your hormonal health.
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