Sex hormones 101


Hormones are powerful chemical messengers that circulate through your bloodstream to specific target cells where they generate a wide range of biological responses. Think of hormones as the “prime movers” of your physical and emotional well being.
Every time you get angry, become tired, laugh, cry, have sex, wake up, feel hungry, or fall asleep your body is responding to hormones. That’s because hormone levels can impact virtually every major system and organ in your body.

Lets start with DHEADHEA is the acronym for DEHYDROEPIANDROSTERONE, a human hormone synthesized from pregnenolone and is easily converted into other hormones, especially estrogen and testosterone. DHEA is a steroid hormone, and is considered a ‘chemical cousin’ of testosterone and estrogen.

Where does DHEA come from?

DHEA is made from cholesterol by the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. In the first few years of life, the adrenals make very little DHEA. Around age 6-7, they begin producing more of it. The DHEA levels peak between ages 20-25 when DHEA is the most abundant hormone in circulation, and then decrease approximately 10% per decade. From the early 30s on, there is a steady decline in DHEA production, so the average 75-year-old has only 20% of the DHEA in circulation that he or she had 50 years earlier. At all ages, men tend to have higher DHEA levels than women do. Studies have also shown that DHEA creates an increase in sexual aggressiveness, which is a sign that DHEA is indeed converted into testosterone.

Is DHEA important?

Studies have shown that DHEA can prevent or delay the onset of cancer, “hardening” of the arteries, lethal viral infections, lowered immunity, obesity, and diabetes.

DHEA increases lean muscle mass while decreasing body fat, stimulates bone growth, helps prevent osteoporosis and lowers both total and LDL cholesterol, thereby decreasing the chances of heart attack. DHEA regulates the unwanted effects of excessive cortisol levels, which in turn improves energy and vitality, sleep, premenstrual symptoms (PMS), mental clarity, recovery from acute stress, and enhances the immune system.

Is low DHEA dangerous?

Not really dangerous, no. You aren’t going to drop dead if you have low DHEA however, many diseases associated with aging have been attributed to a decrease in DHEA. Exercise, proper diet, stress management, and nutrient supplementation can increase the circulation of DHEA throughout the body, which in turn improves conditions associated with the aging process.
Should I take DHEA supplements?

A word of caution when taking DHEA supplements: DHEA converts into estrogen and testosterone, so taking DHEA in supplement form (any hormone for that matter) can be dangerous if not monitored closely — since estrogen and testosterone both can speed-up the development of cancer. (Progesterone and Estrogens should be BALANCED, especially if you still have your uterus in tact!

What is testosterone?

A product of DHEA and progesterone, testosterone takes credit for the human sex drive – or lack of, as the case may be. Testosterone is the most critical hormone involved in the human sex drive – in both men and women. Testosterone also supports bones and muscle, as well as the cardiovascular system.

Can men have hormone imbalances?

In men, the amount of testosterone usually does not allow Estradiol to have any significant physiological effects on the body. If the amount of Estradiol compared to testosterone increases, physiological changes can take place such as broadening of the the mid section, enlarged breasts, decreased sex drive, and many other symptoms associated with low testosterone.

At all ages, men tend to have higher DHEA levels than women do. Studies have also shown that DHEA creates an increase in sexual aggressiveness, which is a sign that DHEA is indeed converted into testosterone.

Does testosterone decrease with age?

Testosterone decreases with age in both men and women, and supplementation has been used successfully for the treatment of some post-menopausal symptoms such as:

  • Lack of libido
  • Anemia
  • Muscle weakness

Testosterone and women

Testosterone is the most important hormone for maintaining a sex drive in women, and a deficiency can cause impaired sexual function.

In females, testosterone is required for:

  • Proper musculo-skeletal development
  • General anabolic activity
  • Libido

Testosterone peak in men

  • Testosterone levels reach their peak in twenty to thirty year old males and decline with each passing decade. In men, low testosterone levels have been linked to:
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Impotency
  • Infertility
  • Abnormal breast enlargement
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Lowered motivation
  • Irritability
  • Weight gain
  • Decreased body hair
  • Shrinking of the testes
  • Anemia
  • Thinning of the skin with increased wrinkle development
  • Decreased muscle size and strength
  • Increased risk for osteoporosis and prostate cancer

What is Estrogen?

Estrogen in our body actually is not a single hormone but a trio of hormones working together. The three components of estrogen are: estrone (E1), estradiol (E2), and estriol (E3). In addition, there are at least 24 other identified types of estrogen produced in the woman’s body, and more will be discovered. In healthy young women, the typical mix approximates 15/15/70 percent respectively. This is the combination worked out by Mother Nature as optimum for human females. Today, we use the word estrogen loosely to include also a family of hormones, including animal estrogens, synthetic estrogens, phytoestrogens (plant estrogens), and xenoestrogens (environmental estrogens, usually from toxins such as pesticides).

Estrogen is a pro-growth hormone. Since too much of anything is generally not good, the body has another hormone to offset and counterbalance the effects of estrogen. It is called progesterone. When these hormones are NOT working the way they should, issues such as Estrogen Dominance can occur.

What is estradiol?

Estradiol is the most active form of estrogen in the human body and helps maintain the size and density of breast tissue, though excessive amounts may increase the risk of some forms of breast cancer. Estradiol has a positive effect on skin thickness, skin collagen, water content, skin softness, and blood flow to the skin. Estradiol lowers LDL (the bad cholesterol) and total cholesterol while increasing HDL levels (the good cholesterol) and also significantly reduces the risk of developing heart disease.

Estradiol is the primary estrogen produced by the ovaries and is the principal female sex hormone responsible for secondary sex characteristics. Estradiol modulates the course of both the menstrual cycle and menopause, and proper levels, support well being during menstruation.

What is estrone? Estrone, formed from Estradiol, is a weak estrogen and the most abundant found in the body AFTER menopause in women.

What is progesterone?

Progesterone is a hormone produced in the body which helps to regulate the menstrual cycle of women. Men also produce a small amount of this hormone, but it is less important to sexual maturity in men than is testosterone. Chemical forms of progesterone are widely used by women as part of birth control. The hormone’s unique aspects tend to explain its effectiveness as a birth control method.

In women, progesterone is produced just before ovulation in order to enhance the possibility of becoming pregnant. The rise in levels prior to ovulation increases the body temperature slightly; creates more vaginal mucus, which makes sperm more likely to survive to reach and fertilize an egg; and makes the uterus muscles less likely to contract. If a woman does become pregnant, main production of progesterone switches over to the developing placenta around the eighth week of pregnancy.

If a woman does not become pregnant, hormone levels begin to decline after ovulation, enough so that the uterine lining is shed. Along with estrogen, progesterone maintains the balance of the women’s menstrual cycle, producing monthly periods or menstruation. Progesterone offsets and counterbalances the effects of estrogen.When these hormones are NOT working the way they should, issues such as Estrogen Dominance can occur. For a plethora of information on progesterone, please visit Dr. Lee’s site here.

Estrogen Effect vs. Progesterone Effect

  • Estrogen Causes endometrium to proliferate
  • Estrogen Causes breast stimulation that can lead to breast cancer
  • Estrogen Increases body fat
  • Estrogen Increase endometrial cancer risk
  • Estrogen Increase gallbladder disease risk
  • Estrogen Restrains osteoclast function slightly
  • Estrogen Reduces vascular tone
  • Estrogen Increase blood clot risk


  • Maintains secretory endometrium
  • Protects against fibrocystic breast and prevents breast cancer
  • Helps use fat for energy
  • Prevents endometrial cancer
  • Promote osteoblast function, leading to bone growth
  • Restores vascular tone
  • Normalize blood clot

What is pregnenolone?

Pregnenolone is converted directly from cholesterol into DHEA, progesterone, the estrogens, testosterone, and cortisol. Many consider pregnenolone to be the most important hormone in the human body, as it is able to regulate the levels of all the steroid hormones. Pregnenolone is concentrated in the brain ten times higher than the other stress-related hormones and appears to be a memory enhancer.

Does pregnenolone decrease with age?

By age 75, the human body produces less than 60% pregnenolone than when in our mid-30s. This is one of the body’s biomarkers of aging. And since pregnenolone is the raw material used for the production of the other steroid hormones, they too, decline with age.

Studies show that pregnenolone increases motivation, long-term memory, and the ability to acquire knowledge while reducing stress-related fatigue.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone made in the adrenal glands, which are small glands adjacent to the kidneys. The hormone is released in the body during stress; hence is called the “stress hormone.” But cortisol is more than a simple marker of stress levels – it is necessary for the function of almost every part of the body.

Cortisol is synthesized from cholesterol and acts through specific intracellular receptors to affect numerous physiologic systems including immune function, glucose counter regulation, vascular tone, and bone metabolism.

Do we need cortisol?

Among its important functions in the body include roles in the regulation of blood pressure and cardiovascular function as well as regulation of the body’s use of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Cortisol secretion increases in response to any stress to the body, whether physical such as illness, trauma, surgery, or temperature extremes, or psychological. Cortisol levels in normal individuals are highest in the early morning at around 6-8 am and are lowest around midnight. In addition to early morning, cortisol levels may be somewhat higher after meals.

Is cortisol good for me?

When cortisol is secreted, it creates the following:

  • A breakdown of muscle protein, leading to the release of amino acids (which are the “building blocks” of protein) into the bloodstream.
  • These amino acids are then used by the liver to synthesize glucose for energy, in a process called gluconeogenesis.
  • This process raises the blood sugar level so the brain will have more glucose for energy.
  • At the same time, the other tissues of the body decrease their use of glucose as fuel.
  • Cortisol also leads to the release of so-called fatty acids, an energy source from fat cells, for use by the muscles.
  • Taken together, these energy-directing processes prepare the individual to deal with stresses and ensure that the brain receives adequate energy sources.

What is the best way to test my cortisol levels?

While the most common test is measurement of cortisol in the blood, most modern practitioners measure cortisol through saliva, as salivary cortisol levels have been shown to be a more accurate hormonal index. 24 hour urine is not very accurate.

Vitamin D 

vitamin or hormone? Also what makes vitamin D unique compared to other vitamins, is that when  your body gets its vitamin D, it turns vitamin D into a hormone. This hormone is sometimes called “activated vitamin D” or “calcitriol.”Vitamin D isn’t like most other vitamins. Your body can make its own vitamin D when you expose your skin to sunlight. But your body can’t make other vitamins. You need to get other vitamins from the foods you eat. For example, you need to get vitamin C from fruits and vegetables. Getting the right amount of vitamin D doesn’t depend on the foods you eat. To get enough vitamin D you need to expose your skin to sunlight regularly and you may also need to take supplements. This makes getting the right amount a little more complex compared to other vitamins and minerals.

Some of the functions of the body that vitamin D helps with include:

  • Immune system, which helps you to fight infection
  • Muscle function
  • Cardiovascular function, for a healthy heart and circulation
  • Respiratory system –for healthy lungs and airways
  • Brain development
  • Anti-cancer effects

Your body gets vitamin D mainly from sunlight, though very small amounts can also be found in a few foods. You can also get vitamin D by taking supplements.

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