Estrogen is a hormone present in the body of both males and females. However, the levels of estrogen are much higher in the female body and where it play several important roles, mainly relating to fertility. When estrogen levels are low, it can have a wide range of effects in the female body beyond just impacting on fertility.
What does estrogen do in the body?
To understand the signs of low estrogen levels, it is important to look at which organs and systems in the female body are affected by estrogen. Disturbances in these organs and systems are responsible for the signs of low estrogen levels. Estrogen is a group of hormones that are mainly secreted by the ovaries. Of these hormones, estradiol is the most potent.
Small amounts of estrogen are also produced by the adrenal glands and fat tissue. Estrogen mainly affects the female reproductive organs. It is partly responsible for the secondary sexual characteristics like pubic hair, armpit hair and breast growth at puberty. Estrogen also affects the bones, heart and blood vessels, urinary tract, skin and hair, muscles and even the brain.
Read more on estrogen.
What Causes Low Estrogen?
The levels of estrogen fluctuate during the menstrual cycle and becomes elevated during pregnancy. However, the levels drop substantially during menopause. These changes in estrogen level during the menstrual cycle, with pregnancy, after childbirth and with menopause are considered normal.
However, various conditions can lead to low estrogen levels which can then affect fertility as well as a host of other organs and systems which are influenced by this hormone. These conditions may include:
- Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa
- Pituitary gland underactivity (hypopituitarism)
- Ovarian underactivity (hypogonadism)
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Underweight or very low body fat content
There are various other causes of the conditions below which also need to be considered. These conditions may be due to genetic defects or present from birth (congenital).
How To Spot Low Estrogen
It is important to consult with a medical professional if low estrogen levels is suspected. Diagnostic tests can confirm hypoestrogenism, which is the medical term for low estrogen levels. The signs and symptoms of estrogen levels are not always as obvious as menopause symptoms, which are due to a decline in the estrogen and progesterone levels.
Read more on signs of menopause.
The rise and the fall of estrogen during the menstrual cycle is in part responsible for menstruation (periods). Therefore when the estrogen levels are persistently low then periods may become irregular. It can also result in a complete cessation of periods (amenorrhea).
However, it is important that women in their reproductive years first confirm that they are not pregnant when a period is missed. Women who are approaching menopause may also find that the periods become irregular before stopping altogether but this is considered normal.
Hot flashes is one of the most common symptoms of menopause and can occur with other causes of low estrogen levels. The exact cause of these sudden waves of heat is unclear. It is believed that the superficial blood vessels (just under the skin) suddenly widen and this causes the sensation of heat that is typical of a hot flash.
Night sweats refers to profuse perspiration at night that is unrelated to environmental heat. It is another common symptom of menopause. Night sweats are linked to hot flashes and it is appears that the low hormone levels upsets the temperature-regulating function of the brain. However, other causes of night sweats, like certain infections and even autoimmune diseases, must also be excluded.
Vaginal dryness is another common problem in menopause. Hormones like estrogen help maintain the inner lining of the female reproductive tract. This lining normally produces mucus which keeps the vagina moist. When the estrogen levels drop, the vaginal lining thins and this results in vaginal dryness. Many women with low estrogen levels complain of pain during intercourse due to this dryness
With persistently low estrogen levels, the effects can extend to the bones. Estrogen plays a significant role in bone density. This ensures that the bones are strong. However, when estrogen levels decline then the bones become weak which is known as osteoporosis. It is a common concern for menopausal women. Osteoporosis can increase the likelihood of bone fractures with even minor falls or other injuries.
Many women experience a decrease in libido as a result of the low estrogen levels. The exact mechanism responsible for libido is complex. This low libido seen in hypoestrogenism may not only be due to the vaginal dryness and painful intercourse. It may also be due to the effects that estrogen normally has on the brain which are disrupted once the estrogen levels decline.
Sleeping problems are another complaint in menopause. Some women may experience a difficulty with falling asleep while others may experience problems staying asleep for a sufficient period of time to feel refreshed. The hot flashes and night sweats are a contributing factor to sleep problems but even with long hours of sleep, many women with low estrogen levels find that the sleep is of a poor quality.
Hair and Skin Problems
Estrogen also affects the skin and hair growth. With low estrogen levels, the skin tends to be dry and this can predispose it to irritation and infections. In addition, thinning hair is another common complaint. However, it is important to note whether other conditions may also be responsible for these symptoms like hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland).
Mood swings are also common with menopause and other causes of low estrogen levels. The severity of the mood swings may vary among women with these conditions. Mood swings do not only refer to sudden outbursts of anger. The opposite can occur where a woman may suddenly become sad and weepy for no clearly identifiable reason. It is also accompanied by a host of other mental symptoms like difficulty concentrating and emotional disturbances like depression.
Other Signs and Symptoms
- Headaches and worsening of pre-existing migraines.
- Unexplained weight gain, moderate.
- Breast tenderness.
- Loss of breast firmness.
- Repeated urinary tract infections (UTIs)